Is Abortion Permissible for Fetal Deformity?
[Today’s post is the first in a three-part series on “hard cases” by SPL member Clinton Wilcox. For the second post, on the rape exception, click here. For the third post, on life-threatening pregnancies, click here.]
Now we get to the really tough questions about abortion. Can we justify abortion in the really hard cases? Some might say that certain situations are so bad that even if we grant that the preborn are full human persons, we should still allow abortions to be legal (either for the sake of the woman, or because it is assumed that a child would not want to grow up in one of these situations).
Each of these situations are powerful emotionally. These are all very tragic situations in which we really feel for the woman and/or the child in this situation. However, the preborn are full human beings. Therefore, what the question really boils down to is can we justify killing a human being in this situation?
A couple of things need to be said. From a philosophical point of view, these arguments all fail because they commit a very specific logical fallacy, the appeal to pity. An appeal to pity is made when someone tries to win support for an argument or idea by exploiting your feelings of pity or guilt. An appeal to pity does not address a legitimate argument made. Despite this, I don’t recommend shouting out “appeal to pity!” whenever you encounter someone who asks one of these questions. First, if you’re out on the street it’s not really a formal debate setting, but second, the person bringing this up may be asking due to some painful event that occurred in their past or in the past of a loved one. Winning the person should always be more important than winning the argument, so we must use tact whenever we discuss these issues.
Additionally, if any of these hard cases justifies abortion, then we should note that abortion would only be justified in that case alone. None of these cases justifies abortion on demand being legal, which is what we currently have in the United States.  In this article I’ll respond to the case of fetal deformity. In a future article, I’ll respond to rape/incest and life of the mother cases.
I. Fetal Deformity
If we were to justify abortion for cases of fetal deformity, that would only justify it for cases of fetal deformity. So this argument does not justify the general right to abortion.
Even given that, this argument does not work to justify abortion. As I have written previously, the preborn from fertilization are living human organisms (even those who have some kind of deformity). So if we can’t justify killing a human outside of the womb due to having a handicap, then we can’t justify abortion for that reason, either. The issue is not whether the preborn entity in question is handicapped or how severe the handicap, but whether the preborn entity is fully human or not.
As Frank Beckwith writes, “…it is not clear that we can make sense of the notion that certain human beings are better off not existing…how can one compare non-existence with existence when they do not have anything in common? How can one be better off not existing if one is not there to appreciate the joy of such a ‘state’ (whatever that means)?”  Beckwith further notes that Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who worked for years with severely deformed infants as a pediatric surgeon at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital, observed that ‘it has been my constant experience that disability and unhappiness do not necessarily go together.’” 
The simple fact of the matter is we don’t know what constitutes happiness for others. We have no right to kill a preborn child because we assume that they would rather die than live with that deformity, even if we, ourselves, would rather die in that case (though it’s really impossible to accurately make that claim, not actually being in that situation). Indeed, as Randy Alcorn notes, doctors’ diagnoses are even sometimes wrong: “Many parents have aborted their babies because doctors told them that their children would be severely handicapped. Others I have met were told the same thing, but chose to let their babies live. These parents were then amazed to give birth to normal children.” 
Of course raising a handicapped child is difficult. They require special care and attention. But we cannot morally justify killing someone just because they are a burden. It is better to suffer evil rather than inflict it.  If this moral precept were not true, then in our world the antidote would be worse than the poison, for people would have the right to harm another if it relieved them of a burden. All moral dilemmas could be solved by appealing to one’s own relief from suffering. 
But what about a preborn child with a very serious handicap, like anencephaly? According to the American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine, anencephaly is the “absence at birth of the brain, cranial vault (top of the skull), and spinal cord. Most affected infants are stillborn or survive only a few hours.” It is important to remember that even in tragic cases like these, the preborn anencephalic human is still a fully integrated human organism (albeit a severely damaged one). Stephen Krason compares an anencephalic fetus to someone who has had their head blown off by a gunshot (a gruesome analogy but an apt one). This person is human and remains one until he dies.  As such, we are not morally justified in aborting this unfortunate child. The ethical thing to do is to allow nature to take its course.
As Edwin C. Hui notes, “In the event that such an unfortunate one is born alive, she is born a human person, and her short life as a person must be respected and treated with dignity as we would treat any irreversibly dying person. No heroic or futile treatments need to be provided, but neither should her organs be harvested for transplant. She dies and rests in peace as a person.” 
Christopher Kaczor would add that the expected lifespan of a human does not justify our killing them. We are not justified in killing death row inmates before their scheduled date of execution (be it for harvesting organs or other reasons). “The fact that a person at the end of life may have only a short time to live does not imply the permissibility of killing that person.” 
The solution to a serious medical problem is not to kill the patient, but to study the problem and come up with a solution. The problem should be eliminated, not the human (born or preborn) who suffers from it.
In my next article I will address the circumstances of rape and incest.
 Due to Roe v. Wade and its sister case Doe v. Bolton, abortion is legal during all nine months of pregnancy for essentially any reason.
 Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against
Abortion Rights, (Cambridge: Universtiy Press: Cambridge, New York, 2007), p. 101.
 C. Everett Koop as quoted in Bernard Nathanson (with Richard Ostling), Aborting America, (New York: Doubleday, 1979), p. 235, as quoted in Beckwith, p. 101.
 Randy Alcorn, Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Questions: Expanded & Updated, Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2000, p. 223.
 Peter Kreeft, The Unaborted Socrates, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982), p. 40.
 Beckwith, p. 102.
 Stephen Krason, Abortion, p.387, as cited in Beckwith, pp. 103-104.
 Edwin C. Hui, At the Beginning of Life: Dilemmas in Theological Bioethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), pp. 366.
 Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, (Routledge: New York, New York, 2011), p. 181.
As a person with multiple disabilities, I appreciate your defense of the right to live of children with disabilities. But I take issue on some points with your language and argumentation, like many others in the disability rights movement would. First of all, people with disabilities are not "deformed"–we are disabled. Disability is not some biological deficit, but so often the product of a disabling physical and social environment. If we are experienced as "burdens" the problem is not in people with disabilities, it is in our social environments which treat us as if we were not normal parts of the spectrum of human diversity whose needs deserve accommodation like anyone else's. Finally, the issue of disability related abortion has another side to it than neither prolife or prochoice recognizes very much. Not all people with disabilities are children; some of us are adolescents and adults who face intense pressures to not make our own decisions about sex and parenthood. If we become pregnant, we face pressure to abort. Thank you.
Thank you for your input. I'll be more careful of my speech in the future. Just please understand I meant no offense, when I say "deformed" I'm not saying that anyone with a disability is deformed. I'm trying to cover all the bases (from the light cases to the more extreme).
I really appreciate your input and will take greater care in the future.
Thank you for your insightful analysis. I think it is worth mentioning that in the UK, it has been documented that babies are being aborted for cleft palates and clubbed feet, which are relatively straightforward to correct, especially in first world countries. If this is occurring in the UK, it is likely occurring here as well.
Those who support having abortion be legal for unborn children with disabilities are no better than the mindset of the Nazis where the disabled were killed off.
Thank you for your response, Kelly! It is heartbreaking when any unborn child is killed because of some sort of disability, but especially so when the child is killed for an easily correctable issue.
I understand what you're saying. I think the important thing to realize is that since pro-choice advocates often don't see the unborn as valuable human beings, they don't see it as the same as killing a child that's been born with a disability. They see abortion as preventing a child with a disability from coming into existence rather than taking one out of existence. In their view, better to kill it before it's conscious or feels pain rather than let it come into the world in a bad situation.
Of course this is wrong-headed thinking, but I think it's much more effective to show them how they're in error rather than comparing them to Nazis. 🙂
Abortion is generally only legal for 6 months of pregnancy, not 9.
I consider myself 90% pro-life. I was born with severe cleft lip/cleft palate in 1961. The doctors did what they could to repair my face, but I was still left hard of hearing and speech defected. I speak for myself when I say that the pain, cruelty and indignity I’ve suffered as direct consequences of birth defects are involuntary burdens imposed in a life sentence.
I would not choose to inflict what I’ve endured on another human being. Normally birth defects such as mine occur 1.42 per 1000. However, for someone who was born with this condition, the risk of his or her offspring having the same or similar condition rises to 1 in 14. I see nothing wrong with being in favor of negative eugenics.by not wedding and having children. Most of the opposite sex find me found me unappealing anyway, so the instinct to have normal, healthy, and happy kids seems pretty-well hard-wired.
I am not an expert in reproductive science, but it seems to me that if it is certain that a child will be born with gross defects, then the parents need to decide what kind of life they are willing to impose on that child?
When I look at the photos of babies born in Iraq who are so unbelievably screwed due to exposure to depleted uranium oxide and other toxins deposited by the United States I become terribly depressed. Babies born inside out, freakish abnormalities which might be classified as a “tumor with a pulse.” The genes of the people were damaged and those genes will be passed on the next generation and the next. The only way to prevent it is for the victims to not have children.
In my view, it is not just about right to life, but the right to be well-born. This means holding criminals who poison the world liable. We need a Quality of Life party.