The Tragedy of Aborted Geniuses

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.

29 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Aborted Geniuses

  1. 1

    Interesting point, Eve. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I’ve seen that reads, “I’m glad Mary and Joseph didn’t believe in ABORTION” [all caps in original]. The obvious response, of course is, “I sure wish Hitler’s parents had believed in ABORTION.”

    (Hitler is referenced in the first comment! Godwin would be proud.)

  2. 2

    Well written. Suppose the stories didn’t focus on the child at all? Suppose they ended with, “…and the mother loved her baby.”

    The problem with this line of argument is bigger than abortion. For some reason, we like stories that teach us the opposite of what they should:

    Pay tithing because my poor friend paid her widow’s mite and was blessed the next day to find her mattress stuffed with money. Be nice to the nerdy kid at school because the popular crowd will respect you for it and you’ll gain even more friends that way. Apologize for stealing because when I did that the store owner gave me a free box of candy bars as a reward for my honesty.

    It’s not that we appreciate the irony. Rather, it’s that these stories let us have our cake and eat it too.

  3. 3

    I just can’t stand those “genius” stories. What if the woman had an abortion, and then in the time she had freed up by so doing, cured cancer? The loss of potential cuts both ways, but failing to mention it really says something about what certain people think women are capable of accomplishing, or should be permitted to accomplish.

  4. 4

    If the high abortion rate for abnormal fetuses shows anything, it shows that certain people aren’t so “pro-life” after all. (What a surprise.)

  5. 5

    Oh interesting. I am not impressed with smarts, but what people DO with their smarts can impress me. I figure getting excited about someone who is a “genius” is as stupid as praising them for being born beautiful–it is simply dumb luck.

    I don’t remember how old I was when I became aware of the practice of abortion, but I do remember that something I used to think about, having been born post Roe v. Wade, was potential friends who had been aborted. I used to wonder how many more friends I might have if they had all been born. Now I figure God works it all out.

    I had a conversation with a friend wherein she told me about a niece that was born with Downs and how her condition had been a surprise to her parents. My friend felt that her sister-in-law definitely would have aborted had she known. But now that the child is with them, they are thankful for their ignorance, because they wouldn’t have given the child a chance, and it has been a great experience for them.

  6. 6

    Excellent point, Eve.

    It’s like the song, “What If She’s An Angel?” The basic premise is that we should help people because they might be angels sent to test us. Um, no, we should help them specifically because they are not angels – because they are fellow humans (spiritual brothers and sisters) who need our help.

    There are many things where the justifications are much worse than the actual issue, in and of itself.

  7. 7

    I think Elder Nelson was probably just trying to illustrate the sense of potential in a way that the most of his readers could relate to.

  8. 8

    My counter to the “but the child that was aborted could have been the next Einstein” has always been:

    “Well, yes. But it could also have been the next Charlie Manson.”

    I just don’t think the “genius” argument is valid at all.

  9. 9

    Ziff, whoopee! Thanks for helping us win the (entirely hypothetical) Godwin Niblet for 2008. I think your and Elaine’s and z’s and Ray’s points all nicely illustrate the problems with construing the value of a life in terms of the person’s genius, beauty, or possible accomplishments.

    I very much like Brian J’s proposed ending to all such stories: the mother (and the rest of the family) loved the child. (And I agree, Brian; this line of argument in which we introduce an additional reward, a piece of candy, so to speak, for living the gospel really undermines the whole point of living the gospel.)

    Seth, I agree that Elder Nelson is undoubtedly just trying to illustrate the losses of abortion and the value of life. I certainly didn’t mean my post as an attack on him. But I think there are fundamental problems with the stories he tells (and as I noted above, he’s far from the only one who’s telling such stories; he’s simply participating in a much broader cultural practice). I just seriously question the assumptions underlying such stories, chief among them the idea that a genius’s life is worth more than the life of a child of merely average intelligence, which in turn is worth more than the life of a child whose mental capacities are compromised or diminished. For one thing, such differential criteria could be used just as easily to support the abortion of fetuses who don’t meet them.

  10. 10

    Pay tithing because my poor friend paid her widow’s mite and was blessed the next day to find her mattress stuffed with money. Be nice to the nerdy kid at school because the popular crowd will respect you for it and you’ll gain even more friends that way. Apologize for stealing because when I did that the store owner gave me a free box of candy bars as a reward for my honesty.

    Obey the Word of Wisdom because you’ll be healthier?

  11. 11

    Well said, Eve. I’m reminded of the Life in Hell comic in which Matt Groening’s child tells the tale of the three heroes evade capture by the police of the whole world, even though they stole all the Halloween candy, but then at the very end they inexplicably fall off of a cliff and are eaten by sharks. Pasting a contingent and basically irrelevant ending onto a story can’t provide moral justification for the decision in the story. If the act can’t be determined to be morally unwise per se, then the contingent and unpredictable consequences of the act also can’t make it morally unwise.

  12. 12

    My aunt had German Measles when she was pregnant. My cousin was born blind, deaf, mute, and mentally handicapped. I’d be outraged if anyone told me he should have been aborted.

  13. 13

    I’d never thought about the mother’s extra free time until you said this:

    What if the woman had an abortion, and then in the time she had freed up by so doing, cured cancer?

    Interesting perspective . . .

  14. 14

    I like one of the undercurrents of this discussion– the one regarding paying tithing, being nice, being honest, etc. I wonder a lot about the mentality that sacrifice is the means to an end. The end being: bless me now with all my great rewards, thanks! It’s a strangely juvenile and sort of materialistic understanding. Why not sacrifice to learn how to? or to learn how to love God and our fellow men more? to humble oneself? Take, for example, the oft said phrase: “You need to say the prayer because you need more blessings.” True, as fallen, struggling people we need all the divine intervention possible on our behalves (can I pluralize that word?). But my problem with the mindset is that we’re treating God as if He is some kind of a vending machine. I prayed, I paid my tithing, now make someone put an envelope of cash in my mailbox, please. I am furthered troubled by what this mindset propagates, as mentioned earlier: you can have your cake and eat it, too. *sigh* This is a bit disjointed, apologies.

  15. 15

    queuno, 10: The WoW is different because it spells out (more or less) that health is part of the promise. Not so with the examples I listed. The closest is tithing in Malachi, but there it just says, “open the windows of heaven”—which could mean money, revelations, peace, or angelic visits.

  16. 16

    Ok, about the woman curing cancer because she had time after the abortion….give me a break. A woman couldn’t cure cancer, her brain is 1/3 the size of mens’…it’s science.

    Just kidding, I do think it is a bit ridiculous that you try and turn this into a “men are oppressing the women” feminist argument. The argument is about abortion, namely the babies, not about whether women are capable of contributing to society or not. Save that for somewhere else.

    On the other hand, maybe the baby aborted would have helped save all the whales and endangered owls??? Maybe I should start a side thread about another cause that is unrelated, then accuse society of trying to kill whales and owls because they aborted this child (who I am 1000% sure would have been a marine biologist/owl saver extraordinaire).

  17. 17

    Give me a break. A man couldn’t cure cancer–his brain has a lower proportion of gray matter than a woman’s and weaker connections in the corpus callosum. . . it’s science.

    Just kidding. (Whatever that means.)

    You’re right though, that if one argument is invalid (we shouldn’t abort children in case they’re geniuses, meaning worth more than other people), then the counterpart is equally invalid (we should abort children in case the mothers are geniuses, meaning worth more than other people.) Both arguments are problematic.

  18. 18

    In an ideal world, all babies would be loved; in this one, that’s not always the case. I think the most difficult issue about abortion for me is that I don’t have access to understanding the myriad forces working on the woman or family choosing to have one. I don’t think “what if the baby is a genius?” is a particularly compelling argument at the desperate point of making that choice.

    Perhaps the greatest intervention would be creating stronger, more supportive and empowering networks for women and families before pregnancy occurs.

  19. 19

    You missed the point. The example of the genius is used only to illustrate that people assume their is sometimes mercy in abortion, when in fact we do not know the outcome of variables (like the German measles.)

  20. 20

    Melissa, the question is, though, why are such outcomes even relevant to the abortion decision? Why does the child’s genius retrospectively justify the decision not to abort? The troubling implication is that the parents would have been somewhat more justified in aborting a merely average child, and still more justified in aborting a disabled child. Almost-aborted genius stories bother me because they inevitably seem to rely on this kind of ugly, sliding-scale valuation of human life.

    (It’s not that I think outcomes are wholly irrelevant in all cases; if the child is endangering the mother’s life, or will be unable to survive after birth, then outcomes are clearly central to the decision to abort or not abort. But those are life-and-death scenarios, not genius-non-genius scenarios. I think there’s a huge difference.)

  21. 21

    I find the central arguments about abortion focusing on the child problematic, especially for LDS. Do we believe children who die live with our HF or not? Or do we assume an aborted childs spirit never will get another chance for a body and therefore never progress? Destined to be a spirit forever. It bothers me, we want it both ways, the aborted baby is such a loss, but when death occurs it is the Lord’s plan. Let’s focus on the problems in society that make abortions neccessary or wanted. Let’s be more supportive of families, so they may not choose abortion as the answer. But let’s not pretend that we don’t believe in an afterlife, a ressurection where children who have not had the chance to benefit this earthly world will be able to benefit each other and all of our HF children.

  22. 22

    Brian – Are you referring to the Wow(a) in the Doctrine and Covenants or the WoW(b) in the temple recommend interview? 🙂

    Although, I agree it wasn’t a perfect analogy, but at the end of the day, we obey the WoW(b) because it’s a commandment, nothing more. Drinking a glass of wine/grape juice may or may not be a good thing, or it may be harmful, or whatever. At the end of the day, the “commandment” to obey the Wow is so that we can have a temple recommend…

  23. 23

    #20 – I agree.

    #21 – It seems to me that, more than the eternal fate of the child, the central issue in abortion is who has the right to decide when we enter and leave this our Second Estate. While we have certain roles to play in that as parents, relatives, etc., ideally it’s the Father of us all who should decide in “life-or-death issues.” Since we’re far from ideal in most of life’s circumstances, however, I think it’s all the more important to always strive to render to God His prerogative in these (very touchy) areas.

    I think it’s an excellent point you made that if we were to improve the circumstances surrounding childbirth (such as supporting families better), we could prevent a great many of the abortions that do take place, which would be laudable for a great many reasons – including that of God’s command, as revealed through His chosen servants, “that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”

    One line of thought that I have yet to see discussed is this:

    What if the child’s parent/s are abusive? What if we knew that he would be born into other terrible circumstances, suffering throughout his life? What if we (hypothetically) knew he would die of some disease when only 10 months or 10 years old? Wouldn’t it be better to spare the child that harm, and just them him straight to the Celestial Kingdom?

    I hope it’s obvious that I find such logic abhorrent – it leads to another slippery slope of “justified” taking of life when, again, it’s most often not our prerogative. The point has been made very well in these comments, I think, about how the limitless inherent value of any given life should be honored, whatever the child’s mortal capacity or destiny.

    Thanks for your posts, everyone – very thought-provoking.

  24. 24

    queuno, 22: It’s not obvious from how I originally stated it, but my point was not why we obey but rather what we should expect when we obey.

    In some sense every decision could be reduced to obedience, but if that is really all that remains “at the end of the day,” what does that say about God? While I admit that there are probably instances of “obedience for obedience’s sake,” if all commandments end there then God is nothing more than a lion tamer: “Jump through this hoop, now sit up, etc.” To put it another way, would you obey God’s celestial laws if there was no promise of a celestial reward?

    So, I disagree that at the end of the day the WoW is about obedience. The particulars of what is and is not allowed might just as well be arbitrary, but at the end of the day I believe the WoW is about the promise God makes at the end of section 89.

    Now, to tie this in so it’s not such a tangent (not blaming you!!): one could say “don’t abort because it’s disobedient,” but in the end I hope that the mother who decides to deliver her baby finds something more…lasting? (not the right word). Hence, I end my story “…and the mother loved her baby.”

  25. 25

    #23 If we believe our HF should decide when we leave this second estate, how do we know he is not influencing the woman deciding to have an abortion.

    I think we often want to say he should decide life or death, but then don’t think what we find wrong may his answer.

  26. 26

    I had an experience before Sarah was born that, I think, answers this problem. I needed expensive surgery in order to even attempt to get pregnant and Bill was balking. I felt that I knew her spirit, that she was dancing all around me in excitement about being born.

    One night I was driving home and the news came on the radio. There were several disasters, world problems, etc., reported, and then a report about someone horrifically abusing a child. I began to cry and I prayed, “I cannot bring another child into a world like this. I’ve screwed up so badly already in raising my kids. I can’t do it.”

    And as clear as a bell, these words came to me, “Your worst is better than other peoples’ best. This spirit is going to come into the world, where you give birth to it or not..”

    Then I thought about my baby going into a home where she might be abused, or in Africa, where war was raging, or India. And I resolved to give her a home and a body.

    My point in sharing this is that those geniuses God wants to be born, will be born. Those spirits are all promised bodies and they will receive them. Perhaps circumstances will be such that their genius will never be recognized, but an abortion does not in any way prevent a spirit from coming to earth.

  27. 27
  28. Pingback: Commentary on Elder Nelson’s Article on Abortion « Mormon Magz

  29. 29

    I just read through this post, and I know that it has been a while since it was put up, but after reading the idea it ended on, I felt I had to point out an issue with the final story from annegb.

    Let me begin by saying that I while I honor annegb’s experience as something real and sacred and personal, there are some wider implications underlying the ideas she presents.

    What her story and thought/inspiration surrounding it implies is that all Mormons or people who would be good parents, or even people who would be better parents than most ought to have as many children as they possibly can, because then those spirits will come into bodies where they won’t be in the middle of a war or famine or in a home where they are abused, etc. And that if these people don’t have as many children as they can (as fast as they can to get the most in before their childbearing years are over), then they are consigning a spirit to a horrible fate somewhere.

    There are other implications as well (for instance, a single person who would make a good parent–head over to the sperm donors?, etc.), but I’ll leave it at that.

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