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Washington Post Columnist Doubles Down on Defense of Down-Syndrome Abortion

Children with Down syndrome perform during a humanitarian concert for children with Down’s syndrome. (Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters)

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus has doubled down on her argument that it can be a good thing to abort a child prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome.

After her March 9 column saying she would’ve aborted her child if he or she received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, Marcus received well-deserved pushback, including from me. Apparently troubled by the criticism, Marcus wrote a second column on the topic last Friday, ignoring the most substantive pushback against her argument and instead compiling responses of readers who agreed with her. Here’s the conclusion of her second piece:

These emails reflect a silenced majority — silenced because, as I discovered, saying that you would terminate a pregnancy for this reason unleashes fury and invective. That these readers reflect the majority view is not proof that their attitude is correct; morality is not determined by popular vote.

But their voices do illustrate the agonizing complexity of the matter and reinforce my fundamental point: This is a choice that must remain with the individual who will live with the consequences, not with a government imposing its will on her.

Though she acknowledges that “morality is not determined by popular vote,” Marcus attempts to wield a few supportive emails as proof positive that aborting a child diagnosed with Down syndrome is morally defensible — for the second time demurring on the serious questions such a stance raises.

Marcus appears to believe that mothers are the ultimate arbiters of whether unborn human lives deserve to be exterminated, and she defends the particular devaluation of the lives of children with Down syndrome. To justify this, she argues that personal choice on abortion always trumps government interference, and gestures vaguely to Roe v. Wade as some kind of moral imprimatur.

But the scientific reality is that every unborn child — with Down syndrome or not — is always a living, unique human being. His or her humanity does not, as Marcus implies, ebb and flow based on the mother’s opinion of whether or not he or she is worthy of life. It is an intellectual failure on her part to argue that we can dispense with inconvenient human lives without also addressing what she herself calls the “creepy, eugenic aspects” of such a position.

Though she has now written two columns on this topic within one week, Marcus has yet to explain why her rationale doesn’t permit any and all abortions targeting fetuses with unwanted genetic characteristics. Perhaps that’s because it is impossible to draw coherent lines on selective abortion when one’s defining principle is that personal choice always trumps government intervention.

What if that choice is to abort a baby girl, or a child with unwanted eye or hair color, or a child with inadequate athletic or musical potential? Her logic could very easily defend infanticide and euthanasia, as well. But Marcus doesn’t bother to offer any consistent way to oppose these types of selective killing.

She has done an immense disservice to this incredibly grave conversation by twice glossing over these obvious questions raised by her argument. The personal choice she promotes is in fact a determination, based on arbitrary characteristics, about whether another human being is valuable and deserving of respect. For the fetus, this choice is a matter of life and death.

Marcus explicitly affirms the right to kill fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome, and her logic justifies the arbitrary extermination of entire classes of human beings — and yet she all but ignores the eugenic impulse undergirding her claims. The choice to “otherize” entire classes of human beings has historically been used by the most powerful to exploit the weak, leading to immense evil. Abortion is just one example.

She is correct, of course, that the abortion debate can be “agonizingly complex.” But there’s nothing complex about the intrinsic dignity of every human person, and their right to life. If Marcus insists upon denying unborn children with Down syndrome that right, she simply must defend her position with more than a nod to individual autonomy — and a handful of reader emails.

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