Late Term Zika Abortions: Thankfully not Euthanasia

If I were the editor of a recent Newsweek article by Cornell Law Professor Sherry F. Colb, the above title would have been my choice for her article. I must encourage you to read the actual article, lest you believe that the summary that follows is somehow taken grossly out of context. Her concern is that a late term abortion to terminate the life of a Zika-infected baby might be morally problematic because it might be misconstrued as euthanasia rather than simply a late term abortion.

She begins factually with her concern for the increasing prevalence of Zika, a virus causing severe microcephaly of babies born to parents with the infection. Further complicating the matter is that the birth defects are not apparent until well into the third trimester. Thus, per Professor Colb, Zika pregnancies require us to answer two moral questions. The first question is whether it is “…right to end a pregnancy because the baby would be severely disabled if brought to term?” The second wonders whether it is “right to take the life of a fetus late in pregnancy, regardless of the reason?” (I was encouraged at this point that she conceded both that the fetus was alive and that a baby was a direct result – my optimism did not last long.)

She was quick to point out that she considers “…the reasons for a woman’s choice to terminate her pregnancy to be irrelevant to the question of whether she should be legally permitted to do so…” as she is “…entitled to be free of the bodily intrusion that is pregnancy, even if her reason for wanting to assert her bodily integrity is an offensive one.” Her reason for even bothering to discuss the moral issues is because she anticipates that large numbers of women may be wanting to terminate their pregnancies so the discussion is worth having, “…even if our answer will not affect the legal conclusion that the woman should be free to terminate.”

In answering her first question in the affirmative, she effectively equates routine abortion to contraception and considers the fetus to be a “potential” life, arguing that even in Down Syndrome, parents choose abortion, and since Zika is a worse condition (her stipulation), “…it may be that an abortion will spare not only the parents but their child a life that is, in some sense, not worth living.” (I have always wondered what it is we are sparing a specific child by not having it live – a non-entity cannot be spared anything – the concept seems incoherent)

The second question is more troubling for her. Her “no-go” line for abortion and moral significance is sentience but she admits that others have different criteria. However she further concedes that the later one goes in the third trimester, “…the more likely that people will have the moral intuition that we are no longer talking about a ‘potential’ child but are instead talking about either an existing child or at least someone worthy of nearly as much moral consideration as a newborn baby.” For her, the moral calculus has changed. Bodily image abortion arguments fail (simply birth the child alive, “…thereby ending the internal occupation…”). Terminating the pregnancy at this point does not need to terminate the life of the fetus or baby, and “…the choice to have an abortion (one that kills the fetus or baby) is really a choice to take the life of the fetus or baby because it is not considered a life worth living.” She is equating late term abortion to euthanasia. (Correctly in my mind, and, since I have different criteria for abortion, specifically, nothing post conception, therefore, all abortion is euthanasia)

She solves her moral dilemma by hiding inside a legal loophole. “If one nonetheless concludes that because of the potentially catastrophic nature of the birth defects, children with Zika are better off not existing than living severely compromised lives that they would otherwise live, the fact that they live inside a pregnant woman may give people a legal –if not a moral—loophole through which they can achieve their desired end, though it is really euthanasia.” The pregnant woman can do all this “…without beginning the slide down the euthanasia slippery slope, because we can fit what she has done under the heading of “abortion” instead of “euthanasia.”

Let that last bit of mental gymnastics sink in.

From what vantage point does one judge the slippery slope of one moral issue whilst sliding down the slope of another?

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ockraz
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ockraz

You wrote, “Bodily image abortion arguments fail…” What are image arguments?

Mark McQuain
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Mark McQuain

That should have been “bodily integrity” abortion arguments fail. In the original article, Dr. Colb argued that normally a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy ” to be free of the bodily intrusion that is pregnancy, even if her reason for wanting to assert her bodily integrity is an offensive one.” She later argues that “if the woman were truly concerned only about her bodily integrity, she could induce labor and safely give birth to her child, thereby ending her internal occupation without causing the death of her fetus/baby. It is therefore no longer clear that abortion (in… Read more »

ockraz
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ockraz

Oh, okay. I thought that maybe there was something new I’d never heard of before. I think I know what bodily integrity arguments are. Isn’t that basically the right to personal autonomy position originated by Judith Thomson (as opposed to the personhood & moral status arguments)? I guess I understand as a strategic matter why feminists might prefer the bodily integrity argument. It keeps them from having to claim that sometimes a living human organism isn’t “really human” and allows them to avoid the problem of explaining why infants have a right not to be killed when they also lack… Read more »

Mark McQuain
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Mark McQuain

ockraz- Judith Jarvis Thomson offered the well-known “Famous ailing violinist” thought experiment where you have been connected against your will (kidnapped by a society of music lovers)to a famous violinist in renal failure for the next nine months, after which time the violinist can be safely disconnected. Since the violinist is clearly a (famous) person, personhood was not the issue. The question seems to me to be whether or not your desire to be disconnected from the violinist (an act that would cause the violinist’s death) can be justified by your claim to bodily integrity. I am by no means… Read more »