Bench Memos

The Moral Contradictions of Heroic Choice

In today’s Washington Post, Tierney Temple Fairchild writes of her and her husband’s choice, ten years ago, to have their daughter Naia rather than abort her upon discovering she had Down syndrome.  There is much in what she writes that is moving, and I can only applaud the choice she made, which many similarly situated couples do not.  But as a moral reasoner, Fairchild comes up terribly short.  For in the end she is fully committed to “reproductive rights”–the right of another mother, with her own Naia, to kill that child.

Fairchild’s article is riddled with moral contradictions.  She and her husband, she says, pondered the implications ten years ago of the “new life God planned for us.”  Knowing their daughter would suffer a disability, they nonetheless did the right thing in a legal and cultural environment in which doing the wrong thing was not only possible but positively approved of.  Fairchild seems passionately convinced they did do the right thing.  But she seems equally convinced that it was only the right thing for them.  It might not have been the right thing for others, and it might not have been the right thing for the Fairchilds if their circumstances had been different–or even if their minds had settled in a different place.  But that means that Naia–this “new life God planned”–had no right to live, independent of the Fairchilds’ choice. 

Does Naia have a right to life now?  If she does, where did it come from?  From her mother’s choice?  Can her mother still choose differently and deprive Naia of that right?  Or did the right become irrevocable at some point? at what point? why?  If Naia had no unalienable right to life in the womb, and has no right even now that is unalienable, is she not vulnerable to being killed with impunity by anyone–not just her mother?  And surely it is not her Down syndrome that is the cause of her vulnerability: the law that Fairchild seeks to preserve permits the abortion of any child, disabled or not.  And so it is all of us who lack an unalienable right to life, by Fairchild’s reasoning.  Fairchild herself.  Her daughter Naia.  Me.  You.  We are all properly subject to destruction by one another.  I see no avoidance of this conclusion from her arguments.

Fairchild is glad that Todd and Sarah Palin made the same choice she and her husband did, when their son Trig’s Down syndrome was discovered.  So am I.  Fairchild would like to see abortions of Down syndrome children, currently at about 90% of them, reduced in number.  So would I.  But unlike me, Fairchild cannot really say why.

In one of her most tortuously illogical moves, Fairchild brings up the Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell (1927) as an example of how badly wrong things go “when government legislates reproductive rights.”  But the Buck case, in which the Court upheld a Virginia law permitting state-institutional sterilization of the “feeble-minded,” permitted an injustice to be perpetrated by government that is analogous to the very injustice Fairchild wishes to see perpetuated at the hands of individual “choosers” of abortion.  Roe v. Wade is far worse than Buck, both in the sheer enormity of its effects and in its disregard for the most fundamental of natural rights.  In Buck, the Court permitted a state to violate a woman’s right to have children.  In Roe, the Court permitted mothers and their doctors to violate children’s rights to live.  Which was the greater evil?

Fairchild resolutely refuses to “see choice as condoning abortion,” presumably because she did not choose one.  But she does condone abortion, just as the “pro-choicer” of 1850 who refuses to buy a slave but would permit another to do so is condoning slavery.

Hard truths are unpleasant to utter, but they are nonetheless true for all that.  And it is hard to avoid the rather cringe-making conclusion that Fairchild applauds “choice” because it gives her and her husband high marks for heroism in bearing and raising Naia.  Far be it from me to begrudge her the fact that they made a difficult decision.  And I freely acknowledge that I would like to take this decision out of the hands of the next Naia’s parents, and forbid abortion by law.  But that is because I believe that our nation ought to be as heroic in its choice for life as Tierney Temple Fairchild and her husband were ten years ago.  If our nation were that resolute in its commitment to life–if doing the right thing in so fundamental a matter were the command of the law, as it should be–then welcoming every “new life God planned” would be a whole lot easier for everyone.

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