"Voluntary abortion isn't murder, therefore selective abortions can't possibly be eugenics!"

Ross Douthat writes about the supporters of selective abortion of genetically abnormal fetuses:

"[T]he more you accept pro-choice premises, the more likely you are to share the point of view expressed by the other commenter Ezra quotes - namely, that aborting fetuses with genetic abnormalities is no different than two people at risk of passing on a genetic disorder to their offspring choosing not to procreate in the first place."

Julian Sanchez, in a moment of odd blindness writes:

Ross Douthat is defending his application of the term "eugenicist" to people who don't have any quarrel with selective abortion of fetuses with Down Syndrome, in part on the grounds that some people who support reproductive freedom take the position that, in fact, there is nothing wrong with the "eugenic" goal of seeking to ensure that the next generation is genetically healthier or smarter, provided only voluntary means are used. I've argued this myself, but as I also noted, most invocations of the term today are attempts to link benign non-coercive practices with genuinely ugly ones. I may be willing to say "there's nothing wrong with eugenics" here, where I'm able to provide proper context. But because the term is so tightly bound up with compulsion and racism, it would still be confusing at best, and a misleading smear at worst, to describe me as a eugenicist. There's also a sense in which a big fan of the song "Right Here Waiting" could be called a "Marxist," but this would be a signally unhelpful label without a good deal of clarification."

So, if you assume beforehand that abortion is the equivalent of removing a tumor, then it can't be murder and quite obviously destroying an unborn Down Syndrome child with whatever intentions cannot honestly be compared to eugenics. Ok...

But that was Douthat's point. If one begins with pro-choice premises (abortion is not the killing of human life), one is more likely to believe aborting fetuses on a selective basis is no different than a genetically at-risk couple refraining from procreating, or as Julian suggests (in an apparent attempt at a gotchya) selecting your mate with your future child in mind.

This controversy is plainly another front in the ongoing war between pro-life and pro-choice movements. If a living human being is being killed, whatever the reason, murder has been committed. If the motive is to eliminate "defective" babies, even out of a supposed compassion for the baby (because Down kids live terrible lives or because they are so hard to take care of?), it is eugenics by any reasonable definition. The eugenics analogy/charge will keep coming up because it cuts to the heart of the contradiction at the heart of the pro-choice position (that abortion is voluntary), and those with their heads somewhat outside of their asses are able to sense this and become naturally squeamish. That's the real point, sans obfuscation.


  1. There's too much to untangle here, but if you run back through the exchange at Ross & Ezra & Kevin's, I think you'll see that this isn't really to the point.

  2. Reading the whole exchange this still seems to be the main point. You and Ezra seem to believe this can't possibly be eugenics because eugenics implies murder (an involuntary mechanism), while Ross and others begin with the premise that it is murder and thus conclude that aborting fetuses on a selectively genetic basis is eugenics.

    The entire disagreement keeps coming back to this point. You hinted that if parents don't believe they are putting a child out of its misery by killing it, then it can't be eugenics, but you know that's absurd reasoning as it stands, without some presumptions about the morality of abortion per se. To have an argument about terminology across the pro-life/pro-choice spectrum without addressing the fundamental underlying disagreement between them requires attention and an attempt to see the issue from both perspectives. Thus you should be able to assume for the sake of argument, as it were, that all the unborn are human beings. Beginning with this premise, what else would you call the self directed slaughter of all children that didn't meet certain genetic requirements, if we were talking about 1 yr olds for example? How is that not eugenics?

    Obviously you can say you don't think it's eugenics because you don't find abortion itself to be involuntary, but that's the point.

  3. I really wish I had time to clear this up, but I think you have fundamentally misunderstood what is being argued--on Ross' side as well as mine.

  4. Ah, hell, I've got a couple minutes: First, even in your hypothetical, I'm not sure this works. Suppose some people falsely believe it's OK for parents to kill any child under 5-years-old. They think that the right to kill very young children is an important right of parental autonomy. And suppose, in turn, that parents who exercise this right would most often kill children with serious genetic defects. There are many things you could say about the advocates of this hideous policy, but calling them "eugenicists" would be a stretch, because what they are (wrongly) defending is an autonomy right, not the imposition of a particular trajectory of macro-level genetic improvement.

    But beyond that, what's important about the context--and the reason that Ross has been making an argument that looks quite different from the one you make here--is that the "eugenic" tag is supposed to constitute an INDEPENDENT reason to be hostile to abortion. If we all agree abortion is murder, then whether it has any eugenic aspects is almost ludicrously beside the point: The problem is it's murder. The goal of the argument and the use of the label is to establish something *else* questionable about this practice, given moral disagreement about whether it constitutes murder. Which is why Ross keeps linking things like the Sandel essay, which attacks the goal of "perfecting" human beings, whether or not it entails any coercion. If this argument is going to have independent force, it has to bracket the question about the intrinsic morality of abortion.

    The problem here is that there were all sorts of things wrong with the historical eugenics movement. (1) It involved compulsion against adults who were subject to sterilization or forced abortion. (2) It embedded false racist assumptions. (3) Over and above the intrinsic immorality of the compulsion, it supposed that technocratic central planning of the nation's planning was desirable -- something we might object to even if carried out by a program of exhortation or positive incentives. (4) It assumed that it is a permissible goal to attempt to deliberately create human beings with particular kinds of desirable characteristics.

    Now, for the reasons I lay out at the start, even the connection of (4) with advocacy of abortion rights is tenuous, since there's a different between *promoting* a certain sort of goal and *permitting* people to act on it because you think they're entitled to autonomy. Still, of the objections that can be raised against the historical eugenics movement, it's clearly mainly (4) that someone like Ross wants to rely on. So the shape of his argument is, in effect: Bracketing to the extent possible the question of what is inherently wrong with aborting *any* fetus, liberal abortion policies have the additional ugly feature that they would in practice result in "eugenic" fetal selection by private individuals, which is bad because of the way it makes us think of future generations as commodities, etc.

    Now, I think that on this point of contention, Ross is wrong, and I'm happy to argue that point with him. The problem is that, as we've observed, there are at least three other objections, beyond this argument, that could be raised against "eugenicism" historically. Hence the complaint that it's misleading and prejudicial to characterize this very real and legitimate debate as being between opponents and supporters of "eugenics," which carries all the connotations of (1)-(3).

  5. The problem here is you are not recognizing the "soul" factor in every human being and fetus.
    How nay great contributions have been made to mankind throughout history by "imperfect" or crippled, halt, blind humans ?
    Intellectuals who are abjectly immoral should be aborted.

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