Fetal alcohol syndrome and abortion

By Simon Cushing

In several publications, the philosopher Perry Hendricks has pushed an argument that he calls “the impairment argument,” intended to demonstrate that our horror at causing impairments such as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) to our children in utero should lead us to regard abortion with at least equal horror, as surely death is worse than any non-fatal impairment.  This argument, however, rests on a crucial misconception.  The subject of the harm of FAS is not the fetus – which, he stipulates for the sake of argument is not a moral person – but rather the child that will result if the pregnancy goes to term.  This child, of course, cannot be the subject of the harm of abortion, because an abortion would pre-empt its existence.  This is why pro-choicers and pro-lifers alike avoid drinking while pregnant, and not because the pro-choicers are simply confused about the moral implications of their views.  Hendricks insists that surely the impairment happens to the fetus, and it is the impairment that everybody views as appalling: “Suppose that we stumbled upon a person who is 8 months pregnant.  Suppose further that we witness her polishing off a bottle of liquor.  In that moment (so I claim), the pregnant person has acted immorally – her action did not magically become immoral at some later time.”  But even if we assume that the action is immoral, this does not show that the subject of the wrongness of her action is the fetus that exists at the time. If I were to find out that the reason that the woman was drinking was that she had discovered that her child had a fatal condition such that it would not survive more than a few hours after birth, I would, I hope, feel shame at my previously judgmental attitude.  In general, part of what I find objectionable about Hendricks’s approach (besides his cavalier analysis of impairment, which does not engage at all with the vast disability studies literature) is that he ignores the rights and interests of the pregnant individual. I think it is telling that he FAS as his example of an impairment (rather than, say, the effects of thalidomide) so that the common judgment of drinking as a vice would exacerbate the perceived immorality of causing FAS through alcohol consumption.  But of course, the circumstances of those who find themselves pregnant vary greatly, and often those who cause impairments in their children are in the grips of addiction.  Even in failing to show that abortion is wrong Hendricks manages to do a disservice to pregnant individuals not even seeking one.


Paper title: Why the wrongness of intentionally impairing children in utero does not imply the wrongness of abortion

Author: Simon Cushing

Affiliations: University of Michigan-Flint

Competing interests: None

Social media accounts of post author(s): Twitter: @Simon_Cushing

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