I can get really frustrated by people who enter into philosophical arguments about serious medical ethics questions online. Many of these people have a definite agenda, often controlling access to abortion, but try to couch it as some sort of intellectual exercise. Many of these commenters are men who toss around large words like “autonomy” and “qualitative determination.” This happens all over the interwebs, and I know better than to spend my time hunting down every blowhard that litters a comment section with his ideas on viability and fetal rights.
However, I clicked through a link on my Washington Post headline newsletter on Trisomy 18, since it is a topic that genuinely interests me. Presidential candidate and notorious crusader against contraception and abortion Rick Santorum has a daughter with Trisomy 18, one who is questionably lucky to have survived the few years she has, and has been hospitalized yet again. I was generally pleased with the accuracy and tone of the article. I hesitantly stumbled into the comments section, and then happened upon a perfect example of what I like to refer to as mental masturbation, from a commenter named “johnbmadwis”, which he wrote in response to a comment drawing the logical connection between the suffering and medical expense of Santorum’s daughter, and his position on the ability of other families to choose this road for themselves:
But haven’t you just made Santorum’s point and fueled the fire of the pro-life proponents? That is, the pro life advocate’s long held belief that abortion rights advocates are not really talking about rape and incest, but rather personal evaluations of the quality of life of the fetus or externalities such as heartache and expense. Regardless of the condition of the fetus, pro life advocates would say society has a moral interest, they’d say imperative, in preserving the life of such a fetus from individuals such as yourself, who may want to terminate that life due to such condition. At what point, if any, does that societal interest give way to individual autonomy? Would you truly advocate for the ability to terminate that life after birth? in the last weeks of pregnancy? 3rd trimester? viability? Whatever the point, what is the guiding principle? Individual autonomy? Quality of life? (determined, assuredly, by one other than the one whose life is at stake – so, whose individual autonomy?) at what point does one achieve individual autonomy? Does a fetus have individual autonomy At some point the life of the fetus does, presumably, outweigh the individual’s autonomy, right? When? Is individual autonomy equally valid if it were exercised for clearly base purposes such as mere inconvenience or desire, say, to have a boy instead of a girl? Who should make that qualitative determination? Society? The individual carrying the fetus. The affected fetus? The personal choice of a couple does affect the life of another human being in your scenario, so, it is reasonable to ask you when, if ever, do you believe that personal choice must give way to other principles or interests?
My reply, which was thankfully limited by a character limit, is here (I added a few hyperlinks to this version, but otherwise it is unchanged):
@johnbmadwis, these questions have been answered by courts and medical ethicists. There is an obvious glaring difference in autonomy between a child who is already born and a fetus, whose existence depends entirely on the mother, whose life is intimately affected and at risk by carrying a pregnancy. Late term abortions (post viability) are extremely rare, and most states have strict limits on the conditions under which such procedures can be performed.
If you are worried about a slippery slope, it is pretty obvious the slope has been tilting towards restrictive legislation limiting all abortion, not just the dramatic but rare cases you bring up. More than 400 bills have been proposed recently in state legislatures seeking to place barriers on access to abortion, from extended waiting periods for all terminations, overreaching excessive requirements for providers and facilities that don’t extend to other, riskier outpatient surgeries, to personhood bills for fertilized eggs.
Trisomy 18 is a serious condition that is considered mostly “incompatible with life.” Not only is the fetus likely to die in utero, but if it survives, it is likely to die as newborn. The article (mostly) covered this really well. (We do know the “cause” of most trisomy 18 – nondisjunction during meiosis II – which is much more common the longer the egg has been in a suspended state of meisosis, i.e. in older mothers).
Santorum’s daughter is lucky in some ways to be a 1% in more ways than one, but this is more than just some sort of ethical masturbation in a comment section of a blog. This issue involves the emotional and physical challenges to the mother. Have you ever carried a fetus, commenter with a male sounding handle? Have you ever had a stranger put their hand on your belly and ask when you were due, when you knew the fetus would most likely die before birth, or soon after? Then there’s the suffering of the baby if it survives, and the emotional toll such care takes on caregivers – do you have any idea what it is like to work in a NICU on suffering, terminal infants? With major cutbacks in personnel in public hospitals, too.
Not to mention the health care dollars arguably misproportioned here. I got to tell pregnant mothers with no insurance yesterday that they had to pay full price, cash up front for necessary basic lab tests. These are mothers who don’t have husbands flying around the country campaigning for president. These are mothers who may and do skip important labs, or prenatal visits, because they have to choose between knowing if they have hepatitis B or food for their existing children. We got to tell a mother who was having her fourth baby and desired a tubal ligation that there was no funding anymore for it. She could pay $1400 up front to the clinic then pay more in hospital fees. Maybe she could google birth control – oh, wait, she probably doesn’t have a computer.
Enjoy wringing your hands about the autonomy of a trisomy 18 fetus. It’s a luxury.