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. 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.
Imagine a world without abortion.
I don’t mean just a world where abortion has become illegal or unthinkable. I want you to imagine a world where abortion doesn’t exist at all, because it’s not possible. In this alternate universe of Fantasia, the uterus is different than in our world. Women have “super uteruses” that can withstand a great deal of external interference while protecting the baby inside. This means miscarriages almost never happen and women can drink and smoke during pregnancy without harming the baby. However, doctors in Fantasia are limited in what they can do during a pregnancy. They cannot perform an amniocentesis, fetal surgery, or use ultrasounds to see into the uterus because of the reinforced structure. Abortions are not able to be performed because the procedure is literally impossible to carry out without also killing the pregnant woman. Hence, in this world, if a woman becomes pregnant, she only has two options: parent the child or place the child with an adoptive family.
When I have conversations about abortion with pro-choice college students, they regularly express concerns about what would happen if abortion were to become less accessible or even illegal in the United States. One of the concerns I am hearing more and more frequently is about foster care. I’ve had students tell me that they think the foster care system is set up in such a terrible way that it is doing a disservice to children and if we didn’t have abortion then it would be an even bigger problem. They say they are concerned the children who are born instead of aborted will be put into foster care and would be unlikely to be adopted by a loving family.
This problem is one of the most straightforward concerns a pro-life advocate can respond to because it is simply based on a misunderstanding of how newborn adoption works. Children who are in foster care are usually waiting to be returned to their biological parents, placed with another family member, or, in some cases, to be permanently adopted from their foster home. Children in these situations often have complicated family environments, which results in them being in and out of the foster care system for years.
However, when a woman during her pregnancy chooses to place her newborn child with an adoptive family, it is a completely different process. Women arrange private adoptions through agencies which help them choose from multiple families to pick the best option for them and whether they want an open or closed adoption. Newborn children in these situations do not go into the foster care system, but are placed with the new family right away.
Adoption plays a role in both foster care and newborn adoption, so it is understandable that some people conflate them. This misconception is something pro-lifers should understand how to graciously correct when it comes up in conversations. Unlike a philosophical disagreement, this is not an issue that requires a complicated debate because it is a simple factual mistake.