For some people, freedom isn’t worth having if it means being constrained by circumstances beyond their control. In general, American culture embraces the notion that being truly free is to be liberated from the frailties of our bodies and family circumstances. Almost no one disputes that the liberation that came through the achievements of modern medicine — liberation from early death and many debilitating diseases — is a good thing.
At some point, the quest for freedom became absolute. We can argue about who deserves the blame or when it happened. But now generous and humane countries in Europe allow their citizens to choose physician-assisted suicide at age twelve and parents can choose euthanasia for their children.
The triumph of “quality of life” over human dignity in arguments about abortion and euthanasia didn’t happen all at once. Euthanasia begins with an emphasis on the right to avoid horrible pain, slowly expands to include more conditions as acceptable reasons for suicide, and ends with anyone being allowed to terminate their life to escape depression. In the case of abortion, the presumption that the procedure should be safe, legal, and rare morphs into the view that it is an essential right, on-demand.
Ruth Marcus is the most recent in a long line of distinguished columnists to defend abortion, but she is one of the most forthright in her reasoning and most emphatic in her conclusion: She would have aborted her own baby if it had been diagnosed with Down syndrome. These are arguments that novelist and physician Walker Percy anticipated, and we ignore his warnings about where the logic of abortion and euthanasia leads at our peril.
Percy argued that American society has been the target of an unusually successful long con on abortion. According to his view, there should not be any confusion about when life begins, because in fact there is no scientific disagreement on the subject:
Such vexed subjects as the soul, God, and the nature of man are not at issue. What we are talking about and what nobody I know would deny is the clear continuum that exists in the life of every individual from the moment of fertilization in a single cell.
The late scholar Peter Augustine Lawler once observed that, despite the clear logic of Percy’s position, most Americans aren’t willing to change their views on the subject. Maybe this is a matter of people needing to see in order to believe: Polls do seem to demonstrate public support for restrictions on abortion after the first trimester, the point at which an ultrasound can clearly show a baby.
In purely rhetorical terms, Marcus does well: She opens with a practical admonition that state laws that require doctors to determine a patient’s reasons for aborting are likely unworkable. (Of course, she ignores here the idea that laws have a teaching function.) She concludes with the argument that abortion should not be subject to constraint, because the U.S. Constitution “mandates — and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores — that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best” — an argument that hits critics of big government exactly where it hurts.
For Percy, the broader problem is that as a society, we have embarked on a devaluation of human life as a whole, a devaluation that Marcus endorses without too many reservations. She offers her admiration for “families that knowingly welcome a baby with Down syndrome into their lives,” but suggests rather strongly that mothers should be able to abort any child whose life prospects are limited.
Marcus appeals to public opinion, the sanctity of personal belief, and a kind of utilitarian “quality-of-life” metric to support her stance. What holds these varied points together is a commitment to allowing women to make choices about their lives in a completely unencumbered manner. Consider her assessment of the moral stakes involved in this issue:
If you believe that abortion is equivalent to murder, the taking of a human life, then of course you would make a different choice. But that is not my belief, and the Supreme Court has affirmed my freedom to have that belief and act accordingly.
She offers the fact that two-thirds of American women choose to abort children diagnosed with Down syndrome as a supporting claim, as if a majority of support automatically confers a kind of moral legitimacy upon any particular view.
While Marcus recognizes that to be a parent is to accept certain risks, she rejects the idea that anyone should be forced to carry a child with limited life prospects, diminished intellectual capacity, and an inability to live independently. She says bluntly: “That was not the child I wanted. That was not the choice I would have made.”
It’s clear from the tone of the article that Marcus believes this to be a moderate position that naturally carries internal limitations. After all, this is about choice. Consider the chain of logic: Poor prospects for quality of life mean that a child should not be born. Such a life has no intrinsic value. Percy, though, thought this a dangerous line of reasoning. “Once the line is crossed,” he wrote,
once the principle gains acceptance — juridically, medically, socially — innocent human life can be destroyed for whatever reason, for the most admirable socioeconomic, medical, or social reasons — then it does not take a prophet to predict what will happen next, or if not next, then sooner or later.
Put simply: Marcus’s principle of free choice actually turns on itself. It places rights entirely in the realm of progressive legislation and jurisprudence. But where is the grounding for Marcus’s conception of rights?
Logically, once you discard the idea that there are laws of nature and a corresponding set of rights and duties that flow from them, all that’s left are those rights we legislate for ourselves. Rights are inventions we bestow upon ourselves — and that can be taken away just as easily. Percy observed:
Depending on the disposition of the majority and the opinion polls — now in favor of allowing women to get rid of unborn and unwanted babies — it is not difficult to imagine an electorate or a court ten years, fifty years from now, who would favor getting rid of useless old people, retarded children. . . . Why not? — if that is what is wanted by the majority, the polled opinion, the polity of the time.
This is where policy and culture are headed in the Netherlands, and the U.S. isn’t that far behind. But it is good news that Marcus felt compelled to write a defense of aborting children diagnosed with Down syndrome. It shows there is still a fight to be won.