Applying Abortion Rights in Cases of Fetal Abnormality

Abortion rights tend to be somewhat less hotly contested in the case of fetal abnormality; what does this attitude reveal about our cultural perspective on disability, and is it always ethical to abort a fetus with a known disability?

| November 2014

  • Girl with blocks
    Some argue that the decision to raise a disabled child is better informed by prenatal screening results; others believe that exercising abortion rights because of these results reflects societal discrimination against disabled persons.
    Photo by Fotolia/Vitalinka
  • Pro-Life, Pro-Choice
    Bertha Alvarez Manninen defends a pro-choice perspective in the abortion rights debate while recognizing the moral value of the fetus and the complex ethics involved in "Pro-Life, Pro-Choice."
    Cover courtesy Vanderbilt University Press

  • Girl with blocks
  • Pro-Life, Pro-Choice

Bertha Alvarez Manninen approaches the abortion rights controversy through a variety of perspectives and ethical frameworks in Pro-Life, Pro-Choice (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014). She addresses the social circumstances that influence many women’s decision to abort and considers whether we believe that there are good and bad reasons to abort, and also looks at the call for post-abortion grieving rituals for those who desire them and the attempt to make room in the pro-choice position for the views of prospective fathers. The following excerpt from chapter 5, “A Pro-Choice Moral Framework,” considers the ethicality of abortion due to a known fetal abnormality.

In 2010 a very dear friend of mine became pregnant with her second baby, whom I will call Jane. During the pregnancy, the quad screen test revealed that Jane had an increased risk of being born with Down syndrome, and my friend, not surprisingly, began to panic. She sought my advice concerning what to do about the pregnancy, and my response was that the only people who had the ability to make this decision were her and her family. At the time, my friend was the sole breadwinner for her family, had an older daughter, and was helping to raise her step-daughter. The prospect of raising a disabled child with such limited means was daunting. I impressed upon her the fact that if she chose to continue the pregnancy, I would do everything within my power to help her with the child. She then burst into tears, for other than her own mother, I was the only one who had reassured her that I would have supported her decision to keep the baby.

Other members of her family proposed abortion as the obvious route to take: “You’re going to abort it right?” “It’s not worth having it.” “You can just abort it and try again.” “It’s not really a baby anyway.” This is the same being that, just days prior, had been embraced by her family with a small baby shower. Gifts had been bought. A name had been picked. Engraved blankets and plaques for the bedroom had been created. The fetus had, socially at least, become a person to them. But now just the possibility of disability was deemed sufficient reason for them to retract the moral status and personhood that already had been ascribed.

The reactions to Jane’s possible disability prompted me to think about the ethical dimensions of aborting due to disability. Many individuals who are otherwise anti-choice make exceptions for rape, incest, endangerment to the life of the pregnant woman, and fetal disability. But does this mean that aborting because of fetal disability is always permissible?

The Ethical Dilemmas of Fetal Abnormality

Philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse includes in her essay “Virtue Theory and Abortion” a brief discussion of the social pressures that lead so many women to abort:

“In communities in which life is a great deal tougher for everyone than it is in ours, having the right attitude to human life and death, parenthood, and family relationships might well manifest itself in ways that are unlike ours. When it is essential to survival that most members of the community fend for themselves at a very young age or work during most of their waking hours, selective abortion or infanticide might be practices either as a form of genuine euthanasia or for the sake of the community and not, I think, be thought callous or light-minded. . . . What it does show is that something is terribly amiss in the conditions of their lives, which make it so hard to recognize pregnancy and childbearing as the good that they can be.”

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