Abortion Arguments and Disability: Why People Get It Wrong

Photo by Fer Neri

I grew up in a comprehensively Catholic environment. It was not until I went to college that I first heard arguments in favor of abortion rights from supporters of such rights.

It’s unsettling to face arguments that seem just as sound as those that underpin your strong convictions but lead to opposite conclusions.

The subject of abortion has challenged me ever since my college years, when I became familiar with the “pro-choice” side and also heard new “pro-life” rationales. I have questioned and pondered abortion as a policy and a personal issue, yet the topic is confusing and emotional for me still.

One thing is clear: society portrays both sides as more divergent than they really are, and too many people consider the extreme “other” view as the view of the majority who call themselves pro this or pro that. I write “pro-choice” and “pro-life” in quotation marks, then, because the terms don’t capture the complexity and continuity of views.

The “pro-choice” argument:

In an article in The Atlantic (Three Children, Two Abortions, July 31, 2018), author Deborah Copaken argues for a woman’s right to choose and chronicles her personal experience with childbirth and abortion. After discovering that her fetus could have a disability, Copaken notes:

“That seals it for you. You would never knowingly bring a baby into the world who had possible deformations and disabilities from the start, never mind everything else going on at home.”

I know most people would not think twice about this assertion, and that many empathize with it. I, on the contrary, felt a little wounded by, of all things, the wording of her thinking.

My negative reaction is intensely personal because I’m the mother of one son with and another without a disability. For me, the tone is disapproving and hurtful when she writes “knowingly bringing a baby into the world who had possible deformations and disabilities” [italics added]. What about women who knowingly have a baby who will certainly have disabilities? Is this decision unfair or wrong?

A couple of years ago, I was telling my family about a woman, whom I’ll call Liz, that I’d recently met at my (disabled) son’s school reunion. Her story moved me. Her first child, a daughter, had microcephaly. In Liz’s case, based on genetic testing, doctors said there was no increased risk of her having other children with microcephaly. Yet, her second child -a son- also had microcephaly. They found out while she was pregnant.

After this, Liz and her husband wanted more children and they tried to adopt. Some years passed and, for reasons she did not reveal, they couldn’t adopt. Liz and her husband decided they would have a third child, even if he or she ended up having microcephaly.

At this point in the story, my niece, then 18, gasped and said, “But that’s not fair to the child!” Ok, she was 18, an age where acts are often judged simplistically as either fair or unfair. But the view still is prevalent. A woman who decides to knowingly have a child with microcephaly or autism or Down syndrome or fill-in-the-blank is being unfair to her own child. She is, by this definition, engaged in a win-lose situation, although it’s not clear who wins and who loses.

This came from my own niece, who has grown up close to my son and who loves him for who he is. She said this, perhaps, because microcephaly is unknown to her. Had I told the same story but replaced microcephaly with Diego’s disability, she would likely not have had this reaction. In some measure, disability is scary because it’s unfamiliar.

The “pro-life” argument:

I am disturbed when people, in defense of the “pro-life” view, highlight celebrities or distinguished personalities who wouldn’t have been born had their mothers gone ahead with an abortion.

If the basis of the moral argument is that the embryo is, from conception, a life with the same rights and humanity as anyone beyond the womb, why would we highlight the life of Justin Bieber, Andrea Bocelli or Steve Jobs and not that of the homeless person who was nearly aborted as well?

Also, how about intensely cruel people who may not have existed had their mothers had an abortion? I don’t know any specific names, but just as there are those we admire and were born because their mothers didn’t have an abortion, there are just as surely evil people (including famous evil people) who exist or existed for the very same reason. Could the “pro-choice” side not use the very same argument turned upside down? Of course they could!

Then there’s the related “pro-life” rationale applied to individuals with disabilities. Recently, I saw a video whose purpose was to discourage the abortion of fetuses known to have Down Syndrome. It featured a piano virtuoso with Down Syndrome whose mother had almost ended her pregnancy. How tragic it would have been had she done so, was the message of the video. The world would not have known this talented man!

Because of my son’s developmental disability (autism and intellectual disability), this type of video and argument strikes an even deeper chord than when the lives of “normal” celebrities are highlighted. It tells me: it would have been hugely regrettable had the virtuoso been aborted, but less so if an “average” person with Down Syndrome had.

My son, for instance, does not have a special talent that can be showcased and that would impress upon society the worthiness of his life. Is his life less important?

The virtuoso is obviously the exception, one in a thousand, or ten thousand. Is abortion morally wrong, then, because we want the exception? Does this not imply, even if subtly, that we will live with the average so that we can have the exceptional?

Final thoughts:

This article’s intent is not to promote “pro-life” or “pro-choice” views. It’s more about how our experiences color what we read and hear, and force us to see things we didn’t before. Sometimes, our experiences reinforce our views. Other times, they cause us to change them.

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How Much Is My Son’s Life Worth?

The price we put on any life is never its real value

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Many years after 9/11, I read an article in The New York Times (Putting a Price of the Priceless: One Life, September 9, 2007) about how families of 9/11 victims were compensated. As I was reading it, it soon became clear that, given my son Diego’s autism and intellectual disability, his life would have been cheap.

The way the compensation fund was structured, all male victims got the same amount of money for “pain and suffering,” but different amounts based on: a) whether the person was married and had children, b) income and occupation, and, c) life insurance payments. Diego would have gotten nothing for a, and the minimum for b (“no income” victims got $788,022 while the highest earners received $6,379,288).

It was distressing at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the information shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, the case of the 9/11 fund is just one example of the myriad parameters, formulas and charts that society has come up with, through the ages, to assign a monetary value to a person’s life. 

The practice of putting a “price” on human life is an old one. About 3,800 years ago, the Code of Hammurabi assigned the free-born woman’s fetus a value of 10 shekels and the slave woman’s 2 shekels. We can’t know how the Babylonians came up with these numbers, but they clearly valued the free-born fetus five times more than the slave-born. 

Today, juries, actuaries, economists and the military routinely put a price on life when calculating compensation for relatives of victims of wrongful deaths. So do life insurance companies and their clients when deciding on life insurance premiums or how much insurance to take out. My husband and I are great examples of this!

Even kidnappers make a monetary calculation when deciding what ransom to ask for. And the calculus is not always about how much money the victim has, but on how valuable he or she might be to those who would pay. The case of John Paul Getty’s grandson comes to mind.

Yet ask people, “Are some lives worth more than others?” and most will quickly look at you like you’re crazy or insensitive to think the answer could be anything other than “Of course not!” 

We don’t easily see that this answer contradicts what we say and do. 

For instance, I once overheard my aunt comment about a good friend who had recently passed away: “He was worth more dead than alive.” My aunt (who has since passed away also) was the sweetest woman ever. She was just being sarcastic about the huge insurance payouts the family was getting. Still, the comment shows that -consciously or not- we assess the value of a life in terms of money.

When my sister-in-law’s grandmother, Rose, was in her nineties, there were frequent kidnappings in Caracas, where she lived. Rose used to say that, were she ever taken, she’d tell the kidnappers her family had strict orders not to pay more than $500. 

Still, it is oddly disquieting to ponder or discuss the death of a loved one, let alone what the person’s death could mean, financially, for you. I’ve experienced this distress when talking with my siblings about our parents, who are healthy but will presumably go before us, or when discussing life insurance with my husband.

And I experience it now as I write about the payouts given to relatives of 9/11 victims and how they would have applied to Diego, given his disability. 

Emotions aside, the conclusion is clear: from an economic perspective, Diego’s life is not very valuable. Moreover, because he gets money from the state and federal governments through various programs, because he doesn’t pay income taxes and likely never will, some might find that his life has negative value. 

Is Diego a drain on society? Is his life worth less than the lives of his non-disabled, wage-earning peers? 

In the realm of actuarial calculations informing insurance and other types of compensation, his life is undeniably worth less. In other ways that matter, really matter, it is not.

Diego adds immensely to many people’s human experience and even productivity in ways that aren’t accounted for in dollar terms. Diego motivates people to be and to do better, starting with those at the core of his existence and radiating outward to his community and beyond. 

Moreover, his life is infinitely valuable to at least two people: his parents. And, it’s enough for a life to be infinitely valuable to just one person for it’s value to be, well, infinite.


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