I can’t believe I’m wading into the abortion debate, but Steve’s and Jay‘s recent posts on the topic at BCC and Elder Nelson’s October Ensign article (not yet available online) have inspired me to tackle an anti-abortion argument that’s long bothered me. In this post I’ll confine my comments to a particular story I’ve seen in arguments against abortion. (And, let there be no mistake, the omnipotent if site-specific Bouncer will also confine your comments to that issue. If you want to discuss the narrative and implicit arguments I examine here, to favor or oppose or express your utter indifference to them, I will read with great interest. If you want to discuss various ways we value life based on assessments of intelligence, beauty, or other such factors, I will read with equally great interest. But please refrain from rehashing familiar pro-life and/or pro-choice arguments, knocking down straw or actual men and women, and making blanket generalizations about pro-lifers and/or pro-choicers, and engaging in the abortion or culture wars more generally. If this thread disintegrates into yet another debate over the legalities of abortion, I–ahem, that is to say, of course, the Bouncer–will shut it down.)
Now to the matter at hand. For all I know the following story is a pro-life commonplace; indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that’s the case. But since I most commonly encounter extended critiques of abortion in Mormon contexts, those contexts are where I’ve heard it. The story is this. A pregnant woman finds herself under pressure to abort, or considers aborting, for a variety of often related reasons: exposure to disease that would potentially harm–or almost certainly has harmed–the fetus, advanced maternal age, the absence of a supportive husband, the presence of a large number of other children, poverty. However, she goes ahead with the pregnancy, and her child is born a genius (or sometimes a famous political leader). In one variation the child for whom abortion was recommended turns out to be Beethoven; in another, which Elder Nelson recounts both in his most recent article and in the May 1985 Ensign article on which it draws, the child is brilliant and attends a major university, having suffered hearing loss but no other deficits from her mother’s exposure to German measles during her first trimester.
My first exposure to this argument was in a 1980’s New Era article evidently no longer available online, an interview with a teenaged genius who expressed his opposition to abortion in precisely these kinds of terms. He calculated the small fraction of the total number of abortions in the United States or the world that would represent aborted geniuses, and–as I dimly and perhaps inaccurately recall at a distance of more than twenty years–bewailed that particular loss of human potential. Even then I found the unexamined premises on which his reasoning stood chilling.
What troubles me about this narrative is that intelligence (or, much more accurately, some human, limited, fallible measure of something we call “intelligence”) vindicates the mother’s choice to have the child. But what if the child turns out to be perfectly, spectacularly average? More to the point of these specific narratives, what if the child does suffer from the predicted cognitive deficits? It’s difficult, if not downright impossible, to imagine these narratives ending with a triumphant announcement, “The child was born with Down Syndrome!” But if we’re really serious about avoiding a sliding scale that values human life based on I.Q., that, in a sense, is precisely how such narratives should end.
Much concern has been expressed–rightly, in my view–about the high abortion rates for fetuses suspected to have Down’s or other chromosomal abnormalities. But we can’t have it both ways; if a human being is no less valuable because she has Down’s, she’s also no more valuable because she’s a genius. Genius can no more underwrite or augment someone’s right to exist and inherent human value than developmental disabilities can erode that right and that value.
We need both a much more thorough critique of our current notions of “giftedness” and “genius” and a much more complete and careful account of what it is that constitutes intelligence, anyway. And we need much better stories about the vital, soul-sustaining connections–the love, the mercy, the grace we receive from God and extend to one another–that make our lives matter.