Quick Response #26: We Need Broad Abortion Access for Cases of Poor Prenatal Diagnosis

Some people argue that, if for no other reason, we need broad abortion access because of situations in which a child won’t survive the birth process or other cases of poor prenatal diagnosis. In this quick response video, Emily Albrecht argues that euthanasia by abortion isn’t actually the compassionate option, and then shows why, even if euthanasia were acceptable, that wouldn’t justify abortions in general.


There’s a common move pro-choice people make, where they argue for abortion in an uncommon situation and then use that situation as a justification for why abortion needs to be available in ALL situations. This isn’t actually very strong from a logical perspective: instead of just defending abortion in general, they need to defend both why abortion is right in a given case AND why abortion being allowable in one case means it has to be allowable in ALL cases. It’s not a logical move, but it’s used for its rhetorical strength. Someone tries to back you into a corner defending an unpopular part of the pro-life position, then they generalize it when you’re on the back foot.

One common wedge issue used in this strategy is cases of poor prenatal diagnosis or lethal fetal anomaly. It can be a little tricky to respond to this, because it’s not like any other argument in favor of abortion.

(intro sequence)

At the beginning, I want to set aside issues of non-lethal disabilities as separate from what I mean by “poor prenatal diagnosis.” The issue of prenatal discrimination against people with disabilities is different from cases in which the fetus is likely to die or have extremely poor health outcomes, and we address it in our video “Quick Response: Abortion is More Humane for Children with Disabilities.”

In cases of poor prenatal diagnosis, the fetus is diagnosed, accurately or not, as having a condition which is likely to result in death or severe illness with a shortened expected lifespan. Unlike most other reasons for abortion, this is almost always centered on the child rather than the mother. Women in this situation often want to keep the child, but they feel that it’s better to abort the child in an effort to spare them from suffering or a painful death.

Basically, this case isn’t about abortion, it’s about  euthanasia. It just happens to be euthanasia by means of abortion.

As such, your usual arguments against abortion aren’t going to have the same effect. A lot of people WOULD support doing something similar to someone who is uncontroversially a person, such as an adult with terminal cancer.

Instead of arguing against abortion, you have to argue that euthanasia is not actually the respectful or compassionate response to fetal suffering. Unlike an adult, the fetus isn’t in a position to evaluate whether or not she wants euthanasia to escape suffering; it would be done without her consent. In addition, the proper response to human suffering isn’t to kill the suffering human, but to help them. Abortion for lethal fetal anomaly also puts the parents in the situation of directly taking the life of their child, rather than their child dying from a disease, which can be harmful to them and at minimum complicates the grieving process. All that is without mentioning the reality of the abortion procedure. Euthanasia is touted as a quiet, nonviolent death, but that could not be further from an abortion. The far majority of abortions occur by suffocation or dismemberment. (pause for effect) Suffocation and dismemberment can hardly be categorized as nonviolent and “humane.” Only very late-term abortion procedures use a lethal injection of digoxin to stop the heart, which is perhaps slightly closer to euthanasia’s “quiet, nonviolent death” ideal. And abortion can, in fact, be a painful way for the fetus to die, with new science suggesting that the underlying brain mechanisms to support sensation begin several weeks earlier than previously supposed.

Even if you are unable to convince the pro-choice person why fetal euthanasia is wrong, you should make the case that it doesn’t justify abortion in any other situations. After all, even euthanasia isn’t taken to justify killing in general. Poor prenatal diagnosis accounts for a tiny percentage of abortions; why should that be taken to justify abortion for the sake of career advancement, for example? The reason why it’s harder to argue against abortion for poor prenatal diagnosis—the fact that it’s different from every other rationale—is exactly why you can’t generalize from it: it’s not like any other reason given for abortion.

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