A reader sent this to me. I thought I should edit it down at first because of the length… but on second thought, I’m leaving it as is. The context provided throughout the email is as important to read as the questions the reader raised (I’ve put the questions in bold just to emphasize them):
I don’t know if this is necessarily an atheist question, but I recently had an experience that posed a huge ethical question for me. I’m pregnant and had a slight scare, after some prenatal testing, that the baby might have Down’s Syndrome. As it turns out, we are most likely out of danger for this problem. But while I was furiously researching on the internet to just find information, I came across what I thought was a curious cultural contradiction.
The statistic that popped up, over and over, was that 90% of women who get the prenatal diagnosis terminate their pregnancies. I would be one of these women, if I had to make that choice. However, if you look for emotional support or testimonials on the internet, you will not find them. I only found one, from a woman who terminated and felt she had made the right choice. She said she had dealt with a lot of accusations about her choice. Yet she is not alone. It seems that most people would choose not to have a child with Down’s Syndrome. But anyone who vocalizes this sentiment gets put down as a selfish murderer.
The statistic that 90% of women terminate does not take into account women who don’t even get the prenatal testing, because they truly would accept any child born to them. But it seems that most people who want information want it so they can end their pregnancies if the news is bad.
The argument from the vocal minority who do test and go on to have the child seems to be that having a “perfect” child so parents can look good to their friends is a selfish motivation. But I think having a healthy child is already pretty UNselfish. One could just as easily argue that bringing a very ill child into the world, so that one can seem to have the moral high ground and therefore look good to friends, is the truly selfish act.
For me, the choice is clear. Down’s Syndrome is most often a fatal genetic flaw. I think something like 75% of embryos with an extra 21st chromosome don’t even make it to birth. Some do, but having a child that will always be your baby and a dependent is what seems selfish. Very few people with Down’s Syndrome can live independently, although there are much better therapies and programs to help these people achieve more than they used to. There is improved healthcare for them these days as well, but is having a baby who might require painful heart surgery unselfish? Is having a baby who might never be able to get married selfish? The quality of life seems impaired, no matter how you look at it. I understand that people with Down’s Syndrome are happy, and there is something to be said for that. They may not become doctors, but they are loving, happy people. Still, it seems to me that they are living half a life, even if they don’t know it.
It almost feels as though there is more sympathy for a teenage mother who decides to abort than for a grown woman who decides not to bring a severely handicapped child into the world.
Obviously, religion is part of this decision. But there is more to it than that. There seems to be a special revulsion, on some basic moral level, to terminating a pregnancy based on a disability. Yet this particular disability, because it’s such a serious genetic flaw, seems to be an exception for most women, although they will not speak openly about it. I would certainly not terminate for other physical disabilities, but for Down’s Syndrome, there would be no debate. I’m sure the experience of ending the pregnancy would be simply awful, but I would never question my decision.
And women who make the decision to have a child with Down’s seem to have no problem hurling accusations against the silent majority who decide not to have the child. I believe the silent majority is in the right. I am so grateful for the prenatal tests which allow mothers to avoid having a baby who is mentally retarded and potentially physically disabled as well.
Anyway, I will most likely not have to make this decision, as my odds turned out to be very much in favor of having a child with only 46 chromosomes. But I am floored by my day of Googling and what I read online. How do you think most atheists feel about this issue? I think in the absence of believing in a soul, the ethical implications are still complicated for many people.
One more thing about that 90% statistic….it strikes me that since so many people in the US are Christian, that statistic probably takes many religious people into account. So are Christians terminating these pregnancies and just feeling awful about themselves?
[tags]atheist, atheism, abortion, pregnancy[/tags]