April 14, 2006

To Be Or Not To Be?

I have written an essay about disability for my end-of-term submission, and I've repeatedly come across versions of this statement in the reference literature:

"To decide to terminate a pregnancy if you find out the foetus is likely to be disabled is to tell the disabled people of the world that you wish they did not exist."

To be able to grasp this statement in its entirety, one first needs to wade through the abortion debate. If one agrees that abortion is a right that should be awarded to willing candidates, one needs to think what criteria should determine when abortion is ok. Who decides whether it is better not to carry a particular pregnancy to full term? When does "the gift of life" become the "curse of life" for the child or the mother, and who is to determine the fine line between a gift and a curse?

A parallel question is: what is disability? Is there a sharp line between the disabled and the able, or is it a continuum, for example from the school football star to the kid who needs to rest after half an hour of exercise, to the kid who is excused from sports because of a weak heart, to the kid with polio in one leg, to the kid in a wheelchair?

If one passes through these discussions, the next question is: does aborting a disabled foetus mean you are not sympathetic to the disabled and you do not admire their positive attitude to life? I am not sure this is quite true. On the other hand, if I hear someone say "I'd rather die than be fat", it hurts me immensely as a fat person. Further along the continuum of disability, the earnest desire of people to be unlike you definitely causes more severe psychological damage.

Some would say this is not an issue to be discussed theoretically. I would say "What would YOU do if you discovered that your unborn child was likely to be disabled, however you choose to define that term?"

Anonymous comments are enabled for this post, in case you'd like to remain unnamed. Please do not waste your time ranting against me: if you read carefully, I have not taken any stance. Thanks for your time.


darkchocklit said...

You can refer to Nivedita Menon's articles on both abortion and disability. She too rasies similar concerns.

Technology and medico-legal terms too have an important part to play in this

shub said...

I'll fence sit this one I guess....
one way I see it...why bring a lil one into the world and put him/her through a life you know is gonna be a bit more difficult than it already is?
on the other hand...somehow, the heart won't agree to aborting the baby...ever....some corner of it will believe "usse dher sara pyaar (aur medication )deke theek kardoongi"! irrational, but then any mum/potential mum will be!

really, torn between the two decisions, I'm sure I will be.

Miss Sea said...


Heretic said...

If my parents had been worried about a disabled child, I might not have been born. I was a month and a half premie... but have survived the initial hiccups pretty well.

Any Nazi philosophies therefore do not appeal to me. Of course, I cannot speak for others. Given the opportunity, I would gladly terminate all folks who terminate foetuses only because they were going to be born with a "handicap". For children with congenital defects, I'd have to sit on the fence--not having known what a parent would feel like.

Guess my 2 cents is always worth a dollar. :-))

anshul said...

"Is it ok to allow abortion of a foetus who'll possibly be disabled" On similar lines I would pose another question "Is it ok to allow abortion of foetus who'll be a girl child"

To rephrase, I would ask, if the mother(or parents) has the right to abort the foetus, does the foetus have any rights (and when does it start having rights), against discrimination based on ability, gender.

Furthurmore, if a social law prohibits such abortions, then how much of a responsibility does society have towards that child and that family.

I feel it's a conflict of interest between individual and the society. Social morals allow no such discrimination. Individual freedom wants right to make its own decisions, moral or immoral. I think, both have to give some ground, to reach common.
To me, the answer is: if the parents decide to abort after finding out such information, then it shouldn't be allowed. And, the society which makes such a law, should provide for sustenance of the child to help it become capable of living on its own. But then that would be an ideal world. Well, we can atleast strive for it.

Falstaff said...

You realise that's a double barrelled question, don't you? Because it combines your perspective on the disabled with your perspective on abortion. A better question would be - would the disability of your future child be a factor in your decision to abort or not?

In general, I'm pro-choice, so I'm not going to say you shouldn't abort - only that the fact of the disability shouldn't make a difference to your decision. And that's mostly because of the continuum argument that you've brought up in your post - it's not clear that disabled people can't be productive members of society. So there's no real reason to abort on those grounds

Ink Spill said...

hi Falstaff,

I completely realize the double-barrell nature of the question, which is why I tackled the abortion issue head on. To talk about people who would abort only a disabled foetus is a disability question more than an abortion question.

It's probably best not to call oneself pro-choice and then limit the choice you give people. Let them define disability and let them decide whether or not to abort if you're really pro-choice.

And I don't think it's just about whether the disabled can be productive members of society, but also about whether society even cares to give space for them to try.

Chevalier said...

Usually comments on a blog are w.r.t the blog, but this comment of Falstaff's is tempting (sorry, inkspell!): "And that's mostly because of the continuum argument that you've brought up in your post - it's not clear that disabled people can't be productive members of society. So there's no real reason to abort on those grounds".

Parents-to-be hardly decide on aborting based on future productivity/potential of the the kid-to-be! Especially in the case of disabled people, the considerations are likely to be (a) pain on behalf of the child to actually be productive (higher input-output ratio relative to a non-disabled person, even if output > input); (b) pain they themselves are likely to undergo in bringing up the kid, because esp in modern society, the parental role is restricted to input, there's no preferential claim to output except as members of society (unlike say joint families). This pain/input includes financial, emotional, etc factors; maybe even callously factors like social status/pressure & general inconvenience (not any baby-sitter will do).

And if parents are using these criteria, the continuum argument introduces complexity, but it's not like it stops the decision. One can always say a diabetic or asthmatic child's required inputs are within my tolerance, and say a more severe/debilitating disorder is one I cannot cope with, so I will abort.

Sadly, this comment sounds so very - how do I put it - 'cold'? Heartless?

Ink Spill said...

hi Chevalier,

Thanks for elucidating the point so well. Exactly what I wanted to say in response to Falstaff, although I doubt he intended to be cold/heartless.

Perhaps some of us immediately see things from one angle, some from the other. :) Thanks to discussions, we can repair that.

Anonymous said...

It should be clear that there really aren't any absolute natural rights, only soceital ones. Soceity grants its constituents the right to life through the order of law mainly to sustain itself. If the right to life was natural and absolute, murder/suicide etc would have been physically impossible.

With that cleared away, the question of abortion (disabled or otherwise) now rests on the definition of soceity and deciding whether this particular act would hurt it in the long run. Are unborns also soceital constituents who should be granted rights on an equal basis? Would abortion hurt the sustenance of soceity?


Falstaff said...

Chevalier / Inkspill: Fair enough. My point was that just saying 'disabled' didn't give you enough information to justify changing your decision either way, precisely because it covers a very wide range of conditions. So "would you a abort a disabled child?" is a meaningless question. Would the fact that the child was asthmatic make a difference to your decision to abort? is a question that can be answered.

Plus, I guess I was trying to stay away from the 'It depends' answer - which is basically a convenient way of saying nothing.

wendigo said...

if you can abort, then you can abort for any reason. child of rape, child of wedlock, girl child, disabled, you find out belatedly that the father's family has a latent streak of serial-killing, etc. in each case it is about personal choice.
it's a more general question of "at which point do you stop science giving you knowledge, and the power to act on it". if science is allowing one person to evade the consequences of their actions, it is enabling another to have/not have a good life/a life, in spite of being wronged by fate, nature or people. you can only hope that whoever decides has good powers of judgement.
yep, it's an unfair world. rant away. (it's actually the only thing we can do anyway.)

Chevalier said...

:-). By "Sadly, this comment sounds so very - how do I put it - 'cold'? Heartless?" I'd meant to refer to my own comment and weighing of input/output ratios of people, not Falstaff's. From him, of course, one has got used to cold, heartless reasoning :-).

To get back to the question on hand, your blog is a wonderful way of stimulating discussion. Unfortunately this kind of a question is what market researchers/psychologists would put in the category of un-askables: people always answer such questions claiming to do different things from what they would actually do when faced with the decision. Not merely because they want to put a good face here, but also the real world situation is more complex than we can simulate in a controlled, research situation. So don't count on this to give you good data (not including sampling errors because these are all self-selected, skewed to geeks and non-shaving PhD students, etc.).

Finally, interesting side-point on productivity is that this is EXACTLY the logic that goes on in peoples' heads when they abort a girl foetus because they can't afford the dowry for her wedding and she anyway is not going to earn money for them. So gender is a disability, in that it reduces productivity, at least in the parents' perception. And some 5,00,000-odd sets of Indian parents every year choose to abort based on this disability. So there's some data.