When the topic of disability and abortion comes up, people often argue for all kinds of “What ifs”. What if a child has no mental capacity, what if a child will suffer horribly, and so on. What I would ask those people to consider is whether those reasons would justify terminating the life of someone who had been born. If not, why is the unborn child sufficiently different to the newborn that one can be killed without censure and the other cannot?
Few people advocate that parents should be free to “terminate” disabled newborns. Even fewer people argue that disabled children or adults should be open to such treatment. Yet it is very common to argue for the freedom to terminate disabled foetuses. Unborn children are commonly discriminated against on the basis of their size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency. Are any of these factors morally sufficient reasons to treat an unborn child differently?
Let’s consider them one by one . . .
Size: If size is sufficient reason to make killing acceptable, a tiny baby should be just as open to termination. How small do you have to be before you are considered dispensable? Does a toddler have less of a right to continue to live than a six year old?
Level of development: A toddler is more developed than a newborn. Does that mean that he or she is more valuable? A foetus is less developed than a newborn. However, he or she has all of the anatomical features of a human being. The baby mainly just needs to grow, just as a toddler needs to grow if it is to become a six year old.
Environment: Moving house does not make you any more or less human. Moving from one room to another does not make you less human. Similarly, an unborn child is not made more human when it moves down the birth canal and outside its mother’s body.
Degree of dependency: An unborn child is completely dependent upon its mother. Yet newborns are also very dependent. They cannot live without the sustenance that older human beings offer.
These four points make a handy acronym: SLED.
It is inconsistent to argue that a disabled unborn child can be terminated, if you are unwilling to apply the same logic to those who are outside of the womb. Controversial ethicist Peter Singer is more consistent. Singer advocates infanticide for some disabled children. If the reason for the person’s life being ended is the disability, why should age make a difference? If a Down syndrome child is diagnosed before birth, the parents are encouraged to consider termination. If the same child is undiagnosed, the parents do not have that option following birth. The child is the same and the condition is the same. The effect of “termination” would also be the same: no disabled child to burden the parents and the government. Yet growing slightly older and bigger and moving down the birth canal makes all the difference.