Here’s a lovely op-ed that speaks clearly to my experience, and with whose basic premise I have some disagreement.
The writer, Patricia Bauer, is the mother of a daughter with special needs. She argues against abortion for reason of disability. (Reading this op-ed actually comes on the heels of hearing about someone who had an abortion because her unborn was diagnosed with my son’s syndrome. I found that pretty upsetting.) Much of Bauer’s description of life with her daughter relates to moments I’ve had with my son. There was the moment when my husband and I looked at him, looked at each other, and each said, “He’s a person!” There are the people who ask, in various tones of voice and for various reasons, “Did you get any prenatal testing?” And the people who have the temerity to suggest that an abortion of the unborn with a genetic disorder is better for that unborn.
I don’t come by it naturally, but I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. Part of being a philosopher is giving papers and having people tell you to your face that your ideas are entirely wrong-headed and unworkable. People have said some pretty unpleasant things about me in response to blog posts I’ve made. None of them bothered me a whit – except one. I wrote a post saying that even though I support the right for prenatal testing, I am so glad I didn’t have it and that I ended up having my disabled child. A pro-choice commenter on another site said I was obviously selfish because I never considered whether it was better for my child never to have been born (I had addressed it, but in another post). Seriously, I was so pissed off, I swore off blogging forever (which lasted 48 hours or so). The idea that I committed a wrong against my son by having him is infuriating beyond measure. Those of you with kids, try imagine someone saying this to you about one of your kids. There may be exceptions, but the only people I ever hear say that a person would be better off never living are people who no intimate experience with someone with disability. (That is, of course, except if they say it for a person who is 1) someone with a terminal condition or 2) someone who irreversibly lacks consciousness or 3) someone who has the autonomy to decide her own death.) Or maybe an angry teenager. I didn’t write about whether I had harmed my son by having him because it so completely obvious to me that my son’s life is worth living for him. He’s a happy, socially engaged, loving, playful little guy who has made me interrupt writing this post about 16 times so I could sing him “Twinkle, Twinkle.” He’s developing. His life will be undoubtedly harder, but not worth living?
But as I suggested in that post, I wish to keep the issue of disability separate from abortion. Because it’s actually not relevant. Unless you are one of the very few people who think it’s okay to euthanize a born child with a genetic disorder (and I imagine most people would not be okey-dokey with me exposing my child on a mountaintop), the issue of abortion and the issue of disability are separate. Let’s say the fetus is a person at the time of diagnosis. In that case, if you would not euthanize the born child, you should not abort the unborn. Or let’s say the fetus is not a person at the time of diagnosis. In that case, an abortion for any reason whatever is permissible. Let’s assume a parent gets a diagnosis like my kid’s – more severe than Down syndrome, but not terminal and without unremitting pain. If you think it’s okay to abort this disabled unborn after the point at which you think it’s okay to abort any fetus, you’re basically endorsing eugenic infanticide. Some ethicists do (see the section titled Justifying infanticide and non-voluntary euthanasia). But if you 1) don’t endorse euthanasia of disabled infants, but 2) do support later-term abortion than you otherwise would of disabled fetuses, you’ve got some re-jiggering of your views to do.
I’m not sure when personhood starts, and I have thought and read a lot about this. I’m pretty damn sure it’s after conception, and feel tentatively that it is significantly earlier than viability (which is a point that makes little sense to me as a personhood cut-off). The reason I support a right to prenatal testing is out of respect for the perfectly plausible view (even though I don’t share it) that personhood starts much later than I suspect. I agree with Bauer that the world is better with disabled people in it. But if abortion is morally okay at the point of diagnosis, then you are not aborting a disabled person at all – because the unborn is not yet a person. If abortion is not morally okay at the point of diagnosis, then disability — except in extreme circumstances — does not suddenly make it permissible.