By Jason Hill
“Well, isn’t she
immoral for bringing that Down Syndrome baby into the world?” my friend
barked angrily at me. “You’re the ethicist,” she smirked, suddenly
making me feel as if I’d gotten Sarah Palin pregnant with her fifth
“This is an issue of choice and that’s the only issue covered in the moral realm here,” I said
countered. “She knew she was at an at-risk age and she brought someone
in the world who is at risk for all kinds of biological and medical
problems. That child is not going to have a normal life. It’s going to
be painful and it’s her fault.”
I said I needed to
think the issue through some more. Moral reasoning that yielded moral
judgments was a serious affair because it involved, among other things,
the assignment of blame and responsibility.
My friend wouldn’t
give me any more reasons for her position. So I took up the threads she
had left me with and went from there. It is possible that my friend
feels deep empathy for Down Syndrome children and that this empathy
informs her judgment about whether a woman who knows she’s at an “at
risk” age ought to get pregnant. You don’t do anything actively to
bring a sick child into the world where he will still suffer some
modicum of stigma and disadvantage, she probably reasons. To engage in
the process of putting your “at-risk” status into action is to
narcissistically put your own needs, values and beliefs before the
welfare of a child.
The second concern
my friend might have has to do with autonomy. Most of us go on to lead
autonomous, self-governing lives. We are weaned from our parents and we
cull independent lives of our own with our values and principles.
Independence, therefore, is an organic consequence of maturity and it
is one that we value very much. Our capacity for happiness and for
leading the good life depends on autonomy and independence. A Down
Syndrome child would never enjoy this luxury. He would be dependent on
his parents for life. He would never know the thrill of enjoying the
fruits of his own mind.
But, I reasoned to
myself, this argument presupposes that autonomy is an overriding value
that supersedes all others, including privacy for women. It overlooks
the fact that dignity and the intrinsic moral value that all life has
is still left intact even when autonomy is compromised. I thought
immediately of my late grandmother who was paralyzed from the neck down
as the result of a stroke. She was completely dependent on my mother
and other family members for the fulfillment of her basic needs. Yet
she watched television and laughed, communicated with her eyes and
enjoyed a life of meaning for the five years she was in such a state.
I called my friend a few days later and laid out my arguments. The rejoinder was instantaneous.
“You didn’t do
anything to deliberately compromise your grandmother’s life. Sarah
Palin did just that,” she said. “She deliberately willed harm by acting
“Acting irresponsibly towards whom”, I asked.
“Towards the baby,” she responded.
“ Listen,” I said,
“Your position implies that her immoral action was directed at an
entity, a person. But it wasn’t. You can’t will an immoral or evil
intention towards a non-entitity. At the time she made the decision—if
she actually made a decision—the infant did not exist.”
deteriorated and I knew I would not make any reasoned progress. So,
here’s what I think. I am a liberal Democrat, therefore, I do not
endorse Palin or her politics. But that’s irrelevant because this is an
issue that concerns all women who decide to get pregnant at—in my
friend’s words—an “at-risk” age. It is an issue that concerns the
fathers also. Why is it that men get absolved from moral culpability?
Or am I wrong in assuming that as players in the reproductive process
men are immune from the ethical slaps women are given?
Judging that a
Down Syndrome child cannot lead a meaningful life, or will lead a
deeply compromised life is problematic. That view overlooks empirical
evidence to the contrary. It also displays a paucity of imagination. We
discount the magic, the wonder of life itself, and the myriad
capabilities that inform the human condition in general. We overlook
the creativity exercised by mentally handicapped people in creating a
life that is theirs and that is meaningful.
It is a form of
immense hubris to speak on behalf of Down Syndrome children when we
assume their lives will be like living hell here on earth. We cheapen
the life of a Down Syndrome child by turning him or her into a mindless
automaton. If their condition puts them so far outside the range of
normality, then we have placed them apart from the human condition.
This means, tragically, that we have expelled them from the human
community while we continue to act as their ethical custodians.
The choice to get
pregnant at forty-four or at any age is a woman’s choice. In this
issue, the sacred value that is enshrined is: choice. I suppose what
angered my friend was the knowledge that choice is never a given and is
never morally neutral. It presupposes that some choices are exercised
more responsibly than others, and that there are ethical criteria for
making sound choices. This I know to be true; but when it comes to the
exercise of reproductive rights, when the personal is inseparable from
the political, we have to tread carefully. Too much is at stake, and
too much is subject to exploitation by those who would tamper with
women’s reproductive rights. The knowledge it takes to make an informed
ethical judgment is often gargantuan. In this case it is even riskier
because we are tempted to forsake principle for political expediency.