Anonymous, Pregnant Mary (detail) (1505)
When birth was the result of passion and bad luck, some people could sympathize with a young woman who was going to need help with her baby, though the stigma of bastardry was genuine. If money or a larger place to live were going to be necessary for her to stay in school, a sense of solidarity would likely lead friends and family to offer assistance. The father would feel strong pressure as well, for he was as responsible as she for the child. He might offer to get a second job or otherwise shoulder some of the burdens of parenting.But once continuing a pregnancy to birth is the result neither of passion nor of luck but only of her deliberate choice, sympathy weakens. After all, the pregnant woman can avoid all her problems by choosing abortion. So if she decides to take those difficulties on, she must think she can handle them.Birth itself may be followed by blame rather than support. Since only the mother has the right to decide whether to let the child be born, the father may easily conclude that she bears sole responsibility for caring for the child. The baby is her fault.
It was the French author Anatole France who once ironically quipped, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Likewise, legalized abortion sounds like more “freedom” for women (or, at least, those who are already born). But in reality, by taking away the entire safety net, from welfare to public compassion to a father willing to take responsibility for her pregnancy, abortion has greatly diminished freedom for middle- and lower-class women.
And this danger of paternal and societal abandonment is particularly acute for mothers of disabled children:
The mother is even worse off if, during pregnancy, tests show that the child will have a disability: Doctors often press for abortion, in order to be sure that she does not later blame and sue them for the costs of raising her child. Some have suggested that health-care plans should provide no postbirth coverage for a handicapped child whose mother refuses a paid abortion. If she does not abort, after all, she will be causally responsible for the costs and the alleged burdens that the child brings. Even her friends and neighbors may make her feel ashamed for not choosing to abort her child.
With this in mind, consider Ross Douthat’s New York Times editorial on “Eugenics, Past and Future.” In it, he describes Irving Fisher, the late Yale economics professor who was an outspoken racist and advocate of eugenics. As Yale Alumni Magazine recalls, Fisher’s ideas included that birth control be “‘extended from the white race to the colored’ and to other ‘undesirable’ ethnic and economic groups, ideally under the control of a eugenics committee established to ‘breed out the unfit and breed in the fit.’”
Occasionally, we still see this disgusting impulse rear its ugly head, like the February 2012 Detroit News editorial that advocated putting contraception in Michigan’s public drinking water to prevent children from being born to “immature parents,” families made up of mothers who are “poor women who can’t afford [children]” and fathers who are “sorry layabouts who spread their seed like dandelions.” But Douthat rightly acknowledges that such state-run eugenics is no longer in vogue. He is also right that it has been replaced with something equally dire, in the form of eugenic abortion:
That scenario is all but unimaginable in today’s political climate. But given our society’s track record with prenatal testing for Down syndrome, we also have a pretty good idea of what individuals and couples will do with comprehensive information about their unborn child’s potential prospects. In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion. It is hard to imagine that more expansive knowledge won’t lead to similar forms of prenatal selection on an ever-more-significant scale.
Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women?
The user comments are eye-opening, showing both the depth to which the “liberal eugenics” impulse has taken root amongst Times readers, and also proving Stith’s point about the manner in which legalized abortion takes the social net away from disadvantaged mothers, and the mothers of the disabled. For example, the most recent user to post (whose comment has, as of this writing, been “liked” 78 times), wrote:
I have no problem with someone choosing to have a severely disabled child, but I am adamantly opposed to society then being forced to pay for the care. Our choices in life have consequences, and when the economic consequences are externalized, as is commonly the case now, the individual choice then becomes a forced societal choice.
Several other comments sound a similar tone. Obviously, the women in question didn’t intentionally conceive children that were severely disabled, so the “choosing” that the woman is to be punished for is her refusal to have an abortion. There you have it. Her choice, her problem.