The first time I read the ‘Any/Particular Distinction’ argument in defense of unborn children with disabilities, I knew it had to have its origins in a university or research institution. It sounded academic, but it is built on a house of cards that cannot stand.
I don’t know if I’ve found the origins of that argument, but I have found a lengthy articulation. While I have 116 notes on the book, Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights, there is really only one thought that needs to be addressed. And rather than break it up into several posts, I’ll deal with it here and get back to happier things.
First, one positive aspect of this book that deserves attention. Nearly all the contributors to this book recognize that the deck is stacked against parents making a truly informed decision about their child identified as having a disability before he or she is born. The authors recognized that medical systems encourage abortion. Many noted that we should spend more time and effort understanding several areas: the circumstances in our culture that encourage discrimination against people with disabilities; the wrong assumptions about the perceived quality of their lives; and the positive aspects of parenting a child with a disability.
That is helpful. But they didn’t go nearly far enough.
And the core problem in their logic is that they granted a right to abortion even as they found selective abortions due to disability a problem worth addressing.
Adrienne Asch, Henry R. Luce Professor in Biology, Ethics, and the Politics of Human Reproduction at Wellesley College, wants to address the problem of selective abortion due to disability through the ‘Any/Particular Distinction.’ Here is how she describes it:
(T)his one characteristic of the embryo or fetus (disability) is the basis for the decision not to continue the pregnancy or to implant the embryo. That decision still concludes that one piece of information about a potential child suffices to predict whether the experience of raising that child will meet parental expectations. In most cases of preimplantation genetic diagnosis or prenatal diagnosis, the woman or couple desires to be pregnant at this time; the termination of the process only occurs because of something learned about this child. Adrienne Asch, Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights, p. 236
I completely agree with this aspect of Dr. Asch’s argument: many people do make the decision to abort simply on the basis of one piece of genetic information.
Unfortunately, the ‘Any/Particular Distinction’ is built on this foundation: abortion is acceptable when a woman chooses to abort for reasons unrelated to disability. Only if disability is known does abortion become problematic.
And that is a terrible foundation. If abortion is generally acceptable, the burden of creating exceptions is incredibly high. And in this case, the exception that is desired simply doesn’t have any qualitative difference from the other reasons people choose to abort their babies. For example:
- Economics – relative financial security or ability, or perceived economic cost of the child, determines the acceptability of the child.
- Number of Children – relative desire for family size (three children are acceptable and four are not; unless, of course, four are acceptable, or two, or six).
- Timing – relative predictions about the future being a better time than now to have a child.
- Parentage – having a child with this man’s genetics is unacceptable.
- Sex – a desire for a girl after three boys; this unborn boy is unacceptable.
- Disability – having a child with this physical genetic characteristic is unacceptable.
The list could go on. And not one of them is based on principles, but in attempts to control an unknowable future.
One thing that isn’t relative about the list above – in every case, the child is dead.
Dr. Asch attempts to make the argument that because of how disability is perceived in this culture, there should be particular concerns for unborn children with disabilities to avoid selective abortions based exclusively on disability:
The property of ‘fourth-bornness’ (arguing against an assertion that a family who does not want a fourth child is similar to a family that does not want a child with disabilities) does not inhere in the fetus/child in the same way that disability does; the fourth-born child could just as easily have been the first or only child if adopted into another family. Moreover, being a fourth child, or even a family with four children, does not subject the child or the family to the invidious treatment that has marked the lives of people with disabilities. Asch, p. 237.
Invidious treatment is a definite problem. Living in a culture that hates disability is a definite problem as well.
But aborting a child simply because he is the fourth-born is also a problem!
Trying to carve out space where abortion is both acceptable (for ‘any’ child) and not acceptable (for this ‘particular’ child) will not address that societal issue about disability. In fact, it won’t even save any babies with disabilities. Parents will be offered other reasons, and the availability of abortion for THAT reason will result in the child being terminated.
After all, parents could choose an economic argument instead. There are real expenses related to most disabilities that typically-developing children do not incur. So, the family has nothing against the child with the disability, but doesn’t want to bear the financial cost. (To be fair, Dr. Asch would say this demonstrates the problem she is trying to address; she argues that society should not expect families to bear all that cost, and this is further evidence that discrimination exists against people with disabilities.) Or, parents could conclude, on further thought, having a third child really isn’t in their interests. Or the timing of this pregnancy isn’t convenient, etc. etc.
The desire to protect unborn children with disabilities is laudable. But leaving abortion as an acceptable option for other reasons simply moves the problem around and ultimately won’t protect these children.
Unfortunately, abortion is settled for most of the contributors of that book. Another contributor, Dr. Steven Ralston stated it clearly:
I am pro-choice and I believe all women and couples should have the right to and access to abortion services regardless of their motivations. Period. Asch, p. 339.
Lest you think he was just being dogmatic in his beliefs, I found most of his chapter to be nuanced and thoughtful, which makes the above statement even more sad. For example he also wrote:
I found myself continually questioning my underlying assumptions about prenatal diagnosis, genetic testing, parenthood, families and disability. I wouldn’t say I was thrown into an existential crisis, but I certainly spent a lot of energy trying to resolve what for me was clearly a conflict: my belief that society would be better if it were more tolerant and accepting of those with different abilities and needs, and my belief that insofar as the world is not yet ideal, the decision to terminate a pregnancy with an abnormal fetus is reasonable.
He’s right about the conflict; those are two contradictory beliefs.
Unfortunately, his belief system is ultimately about a radical, unconstrained self-determination of the powerful, granting big people ultimate authority over tiny people. How else to describe his conclusion about abortion “regardless of motivations”? Even Dr. Asch includes ‘parental expectations’ as part of her argument even though no parent has ever accurately predicted what parenting would be like.
Those are not principles upon which anything can stand.
Self-determination leads to death, not just through abortion but in an eternal sense. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)” and “the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)” and “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot (Romans 8:7).”
There is an eternal answer! ”BUT GOD, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4-5).”
And it is that God who supplies every need for families in our situations (Philippians 4:19), who truly knows the ends from the beginnings (Revelation 21:6), and who has plans to benefit us (Jeremiah 29:11).
In fact, the best argument of all is that because we are weak and unable to control or predict the future we should welcome our children with disabilities into our families, churches and society. God himself has regard for the weak, will fulfill every promise he has made, and longs for us to enjoy him forever.
Because only God is truly strong and wise and knows the future, our weakness becomes a strong argument against aborting our children with disabilities – or any children.
So, I admit to being grateful for a secular argument being raised against aborting our children with disabilities. But it does not have the power to save the little ones, nor does it have the power to save for eternal life. And I fear in the end it actually makes it worse.