When Is Abortion Fetal Euthanasia In Disguise?

Image: Euthanasia needle and gavel

Bioethics is a broad and expanding field of ethical inquiry into questions concerning human life, its beginning and end, and its interaction with medicine and other technologies. When I began my formal study of bioethics, I noticed that many issues were interrelated, and the issue which had perhaps the most implications for the resolution of any other was the question of abortion. For example, a pro-life disability ethic is able to recognize that ableism begins prenatally, which prompts measures to protect fetal humans from discrimination on the basis of disability. It occurred to me only recently that, in at least some cases of abortion, the parents believe that they are aborting the child for its own good. That is to say, while abortion is the method by which the fetus is killed, the parents are really looking at the question through the lens of euthanasia.

There are many reasons why parents (or society) may believe that it would be better for a child if he or she wasn’t born. Often, the reason is a medical condition. There are cases in which a child will not survive birth, or in which the child will have a very brief and painful postnatal life. Another issue is that of prenatal diagnosis of disabilities, in which people argue that the child’s quality of life would be so low that it is hardly worth living.[1] At times, economic factors may come into play. At least in conversations on college campuses, the possibility of hardship by way of the foster system is a concern. A lot of these concerns are understandable; people want their children to avoid pain, on the whole, and to have happy lives. But the desire to avoid pain and promote happiness is a questionable justification for depriving someone of life.

These concerns about the quality of a fetal human’s life after birth animate two different lines of argument. I want to distinguish between how each argument functions and give a response to the primary issue underlying each one. In each case, I’m going to assume a scenario in which a child has a disease which lowers the chances of surviving through hospital discharge and which would likely cause the child to have some amount of pain for the rest of its life.

Am I a Father?

What does it mean to be a father? What does the tragedy of miscarriage tell us about the unborn? And does this give us insight about abortion?

Father holding son

This question — am I a father? — is one whose answer matters a great deal to me, especially as Father’s Day draws near on the calendar. Of course, I already know the answer to the question; I’m not asking it because I have any doubt as to the fact that I am a father. Instead, I’m asking because I think that many people would try to have it both ways. If their philosophy was one which denied the personhood of the unborn, and they gave an answer consistent with that philosophy, then they would deny my fatherhood; but if they answered according to what they instinctively believe to be true, they would say I am a father.

Let me explain. On one hand, my wife is currently pregnant (about which we are both thrilled and nervous). There is a genetically unique child within her, and I am partially responsible (a little under 50 percent responsible, by gene count) for the genesis of that child. Therefore, unless one contests the premise that what is inside my wife is a child, I am a father, and can celebrate Father’s Day. If the four-odd month-old fetus inside my wife is not a child, then no change of import has happened to me; I am, at best, a potential father, a future father.

Perhaps it would change some people’s reactions if I told them that my wife is pregnant not with our first but our second child. Generally, people wish a happy Father’s Day to guys who already have a kid running around, because few people seriously doubt the status of a child who has been born. My situation is a bit different, though, because my wife and I lost our first child by miscarriage. And here the same question as above begins to arise: was what we lost a child? Should I have celebrated Father’s Day last year, since my child did not survive until a full-term birth? Or, in a twisted bit of logic, did I become a father only when my child was dead, since it was located in my wife’s womb beforehand but was outside afterward?