George Will and the Metaphysics of Personhood

George Will in his “Eugenics by Abortion” (Source: WaPo 4/14/05) argues in favor of a bill proposed by Senator Brownback–The Prenatally Diagnosed Condition Awareness Act.:

> Its purpose is “to increase the provision of scientifically sound information and support services to patients” who receive positive test diagnoses for Down syndrome, spina bifida and other conditions. Under this bill, parents could learn, for example, that there is a waiting list of families eager to adopt children with Down syndrome.

What troubles Will is that up to 80% of fetuses that are diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are aborted in the US. We should note that this test occurs at roughly 16 weeks, well within the scope of the right of the mother to choose to terminate the pregnancy.

But Will wants to be able to judge the reasons for an abortion, and he seems to believe that the desire not to have a child with a significant disability is a matter of “inconvenience.”

>determined not by its impact on the disabled person’s life chances but by the parents’ reluctance to be inconvenienced by it.

This, Will argues is “Eugenics by Abortion.”

The argument is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it doesn’t explicitly rest on a claim about the rights of the fetus–a claim that legally is moot in the U.S. Instead, Will uses a consequentialist argument against the spectre of eugenics. Roughly the argument works as follows:

1. Eugenics is bad.
2. Aborting fetuses because of prenatally diagnosed conditions is eugenics.
3. Therefore aborting festuses because of prenatally diagnosed conditions is bad.

Actually, Will never states (3), though it is certainly the theme that runs throughout the column. All he wants to argue is that the government should make certain that information about the alternatives to abortion are made available to women when they are informed of prenatally diagnosed conditions.

Nonetheless, the argument advanced in favor of it (independently of idiosyncratic religious commitments) is not sound.

The argument rests on an ambiguity, specifically the ambiguity of the notion of eugenics. Certain forms of eugenics are obviously wrong. But other forms may not be. They must be evaluated on their own moral terms.

For example, if there were a test to determine whether offspring would have a greater chance of a painful debilitating condition if they were conceived from two particular parents, it would not trouble, I think, our moral intuitions if those particular people chose to adopt rather than conceive. This would be a case of “eugenics.” It is not, thus, the decision itself that is the problem, but the implicit belief that after conception a being with an interest in continuing to exist already exists, that makes this putative case of “eugenics” troubling. Thus, the first premise above is false–only some forms of “eugenics” are bad.

But perhaps premise #2 can be strengthened:

2a) Aborting fetuses because of prenatally diagnosed conditions is immoral eugenics.

But now we have to ask why? One possibility is that you believe that the fetus has rights. Thus, abortion would be analogous to infanticide eugenics, which seems quite plausibly a instance of “immoral eugenics.” Well, if you believe the fetus has rights at 16 weeks, then the eugenics argument adds little additional support to your likely belief that abortion is murder, no matter what the motivation.

Thus, Will needs another reason if the argument is not to simply be fallacious.

There is one other reason to find this troubling that Will touches upon but does not explicitly formulate. Some people who live with this disability or who value particular people with this disability, infer from such a judgment that their lives are being disvalued. Something like this seems to be the view expressed here:

>This [that 80% of fetuses mentioned above are aborted] is dismaying to, among others, the American Association of People with Disabilities, whose premise is that “disability is a natural part of the human experience.”

Again setting aside the rights-belief, can we find here a reason to believe that abortion for this reason is “immoral eugenics.” Two premises could be given here:

1. It is wrong to prevent the existence of some people with disabilities.
2. It is wrong to prevent the existence of a person who has this disability.

The first claim would suggest that we have an obligation to allow some members of the human species to have disabilities (if they would naturally arise). The second would suggest that we have an obligation not to intervene to prevent the existence of a possible-person who would have this disability if they became actual.

The first claim seems probably false. That is, if we could create a therapy that would eliminate pre-natally any diagnosable disability, it seems that we would be right, and even obligated to use it.

The second claim is more complicated. First of all, in order for there to be something morally wrong, it seems, someone must be harmed: The only possible candidates are the fetus or other disabled people (perhaps society, but I’ll leave that aside). So we must ask, is it the case that someone is harmed when a peson (who would have had a disability) not to have come into being? That is, can we harm a merely “possible person”?

At first glance it seems not. Otherwise we would seemingly harm ALL the possible people who are not brought into existence (whether with a disability or not). (Derek Parfit has some great stuff on this and obligations to “future generations,” by the way).

And so we need a slight of hand in order to move the harm from a merely “possible person” to an actual person. Will supplies just this:

>a geneticist showed her “a really pitiful video first of people with Down syndrome who were very low tone and lethargic-looking and then proceeded to tell us that our child would never be able to read, write or count change.” Try telling that to Jon Will as he navigates Washington’s subway system to use his season tickets to the Wizards basketball games and (soon) Nationals baseball games.

This is what Will wants to evoke in order to avoid having to argue his case. We are to think of the abortion that results in the non-existence of a merely possible person as actually the disappearance (causing not to exist) of an actual person. But, of course, if the fetus that became this person had been aborted, there wouldn’t have been a person who would now be caused not to exist.

To put this relatively tricky point one more way–if I had not been conceived, or if the fetus that became me had been aborted, I would not have been me, and therefore I would not have been wronged. The fact that now, I look at my non-existence with horror should not blind me to the fact that I can only do so because I do in fact exist.

Thus, the argument based on the harm to the possible person does not seem to get off the ground.

The last alternative is to look at the harm to other people with disabilities. I suspect that there are two problems here. First, a problem that looks like the problem I described above arising from my horror of my possible non-existence. Second, a problem that arises through the perception of a value judgment. To decide that a person should not be brought into existence because of this disability might be misinterpreted as implying that therefore people who exist with this disability should not have been brought into existence. But this simply does not follow, and if it can be rendered plausible I think it will run into the same problem analyzed above.

So, it seems unlikely that Will could justify his claim that this is immoral eugenics by abortion. Of course, the bill he is arguing in favor of claims to be moderate, requiring only information be provided to possible-parents of the disabled. And while one never wants to argue against increased access to information, one wonders whether there is strong enough reason here for the government to intervene in the patient-doctor relationship on the basis of the sort of flimsy argument that we have analyzed.

[I would note in passing, the somewhat bizarre comments that Will offers on the superiority of parliamentary systems, and his wistful comments that suggest a wish we were governed not by our constitution, but by a European style democracy.]