Friday, July 23, 2004

Freedom of Choice -- But Only On Certain Terms

Abortion seems to be the topic of the month at The New York Times. There was the June 20th article about aborting fetuses with disabilities, the July 18th article about Amy Richard's selective abortion, the article about the "abortion taboo" on television (also from July 18), and then there was the most recent one (July 22), by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich's article is, IMO, a good follow up to the (now infamous) Amy Richards article (although, interestingly, that is the one article Ehrenreich does not make mention of). In the aftermath of the Richards article, we've seen both anti-choicers and pro-choicers alike condemning her choice. The anti-choicers' condemnations come as no surprise -- but the pro-choicers' condemnation stings. Many seem to approve of "choice" -- but only on their terms.

As Ehrenreich says:
You can blame a lot of folks, from media bigwigs to bishops, if we lose our reproductive rights, but it's the women who shrink from acknowledging their own abortions who really irk me. Increasingly, for example, the possibility of abortion is built right into the process of prenatal care. Testing for fetal defects can now detect over 450 conditions, many potentially fatal or debilitating. Doctors may advise the screening tests, insurance companies often pay for them, and many couples (no hard numbers exist) are deciding to abort their imperfect fetuses.

The trouble is, not all of the women who are exercising their right to choose in these cases are willing to admit that that's what they are doing. Kate Hoffman, for example, who aborted a fetus with Down syndrome, was quoted in The Times on June 20 as saying: "I don't look at it as though I had an abortion, even though that is technically what it is. There's a difference. I wanted this baby."

Or go to the Web site for A Heartbreaking Choice, a group that provides support for women whose fetuses are deemed defective, and you find "Mom" complaining of having to have her abortion in an ordinary abortion clinic: "I resented the fact that I had to be there with all these girls that did not want their babies."

Kate and Mom: You've been through a hellish experience, but unless I'm missing something, you didn't want your babies either. A baby, yes, but not the particular baby you happened to be carrying.

The prejudice is widespread that a termination for medical reasons is somehow on a higher moral plane than a run-of-the-mill abortion. In a 1999 survey of Floridians, for example, 82 percent supported legal abortion in the case of birth defects, compared with about 40 percent in situations where the woman simply could not afford to raise another child.

But what makes it morally more congenial to kill a particular "defective" fetus than to kill whatever fetus happens to come along, on an equal opportunity basis? Medically informed "terminations" are already catching heat from disability rights groups, and, indeed, some of the conditions for which people are currently choosing abortion, like deafness or dwarfism, seem a little sketchy to me. I'll still defend the right to choose abortion in these cases, even if it isn't the choice I'd make for myself.

It would be unfair, though, to pick on the women who are in denial about aborting "defective" fetuses. At least 30 million American women have had abortions since the procedure was legalized, mostly for the kind of reasons that anti-abortion people dismiss as "convenience" - a number that amounts to about 40 percent of American women. Yet in a 2003 survey conducted by a pro-choice group, only 30 percent of women were unambivalently pro-choice, suggesting that there may be an appalling number of women who are willing to deny others the right that they once freely exercised themselves.
Personally, I'm exactly the opposite of those that Ehrenreich describes. I have far more problems, morally and ethically, with someone who aborts a previously wanted fetus simply because it is "defective" then with someone who aborts because they do not want a baby period (regardless of the reasons for not wanting said child).

But regardless of my moral and ethical views, I still value choice far too much to even attempt to regulate or legislate who can have an abortion and why.
Choice can be easy, as it was in my case, or truly agonizing. But assuming the fetal position is not an appropriate response. Sartre called this "bad faith," meaning something worse than duplicity: a fundamental denial of freedom and the responsibility that it entails. Time to take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights. The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.

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Anonymous said...

I have far more problems, morally and ethically, with someone who aborts a previously wanted fetus simply because it is "defective" then with someone who aborts because they do not want a baby period (regardless of the reasons for not wanting said child).
I suppose my response to that would be that, as someone who terminated a pregnancy for medical reasons, there's something to be said for the kindness of not permitting a pregnancy to continue when it's doomed. "Medical reasons" cover a whole spectrum of problems, but the vast majority of women I've met who have aborted for "medical reasons" don't do it because the child is imperfect in some way. They do it because the baby is going to have a brief and painful life, and they want to spare both the child and themselves that experience.
My abortion took place at 13.5 weeks. Most of the fetuses with the genetic abnormality that mine had will die in utero. The ones that survive birth die within six months. They're born without parts of their brain and most of them have malformed hearts.
I wanted that baby very much. I was thrilled when I found out that I was pregnant. Should I have continued with the pregnancy another six, seven months, risked fetal deal and uterine infection, given birth to a dead child, or a child so damaged that it lives it's short life in a a neonatal ICU and dies in pain, just because that baby was wanted? I must admit that your attitude doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.
Best wishes,
Absentia