What About Abortion for Fatal Fetal Diagnosis?

How should those of us who will live long, healthy lives, treat human beings who won’t? Should we kill them to help ourselves feel better? 

A news story making the rounds this weekend out of Florida raises an important question for pro-life advocates to answer: If a baby is going to be born with a birth defect that will be fatal, is abortion permissible?

A recent piece for “The Guardian” provides an overview of the situation in question:

In a few weeks, a Florida couple will have to bid farewell to their child shortly after the baby is delivered, a gut-wrenching reality created by the US supreme court’s elimination of nationwide abortion rights last year.

Because of a new Florida law that bans abortion after 15 weeks except under certain circumstances, Deborah Dorbert has become one of many women having difficulty accessing necessary abortion procedures after the supreme court overturned the rights granted by the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision.

The article describes how Deborah’s baby has been diagnosed with Potter Syndrome, a lethal condition involving the developing baby’s kidneys. Citing the abortion law, the article goes on to explain how the legal exceptions to Florida’s 15-week abortion ban are setting up a scenario where women like Deborah will have to watch her baby die from the condition because she will be unable to obtain the abortion.

At the conclusion of the article the author, Maya Yang, goes on to write:

Despite the pain that the Dorberts and couples in similar situations are experiencing, the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has maintained a staunch anti-abortion stance.

Earlier this month, DeSantis said that he would sign a six-week abortion ban if one passed.

“We’re for pro-life,” DeSantis said. “I urge the legislature to work, produce good stuff, and we will sign. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

It’s worth taking the time to pause and reflect here, and put ourselves in the position of parents who experience this sort of tragedy. Pregnancy is a normal, healthy human condition, but it is one where things can go tragically wrong, as happens in rare cases like this one, where the baby in question will die shortly. The pain people in these situations experience is very real, and the need to show compassion and empathy towards moms and dads experiencing pregnancy loss is something both pro-life and pro-choice people can and should agree on. Many pro-life advocates are often at a loss for words as to how they should think and talk about the issue at hand.

However, hard situations don’t mean there are no right answers, and even in this circumstance, doing what is right is still of the utmost importance.

First, it’s important to remember two things: Damaged human beings are not non-humans, and human beings are still worthy of respect, even if their lives are due to be cut short. Very often when the issue of fatal fetal anomalies are raised, people simply assume that the child in utero is not fully or actually human.

Suppose the issue at hand involved a child who has already been born. Suppose parents received a fatal diagnosis for leukemia in their three year old, and are told their three year old daughter only has six months to live before her parents will have to watch her die. Would it be okay for her parents to kill her now, so they won’t have to watch her die down the road? While we might be sympathetic to parents experiencing this sort of scenario, this does not in itself mean intentionally killing a three year old now so she doesn’t die six months later is justified. Similarly, if the unborn are human, just like the three year old in the example, it doesn’t follow that we may intentionally kill them to prevent their dying at a later date. 

Scott Klusendorf asks a helpful question: Why should those of us who will live longer be allowed to intentionally kill those who won’t live long at all? 

Let’s review the pro-life argument: It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings, therefore, abortion is wrong. 

Pro-life advocates who oppose abortion in the case of fatal fetal anomaly aren’t doing so because they are heartless, monstrous individuals. They are doing it out of a reluctance to participate in unjustly killing someone. At best, even if pro-life advocates are heartless towards people in tough circumstances, it doesn’t automatically mean we are mistaken about the wrongness of abortion. It would mean we just haven’t thought very deeply about the issue. Our opponents still need to take the time to answer our argument. The fact that an innocent human being may die shortly is not in itself an argument for intentionally killing them.

It bears mentioning that when it comes to tough questions about abortion, there are often two types of questioners: Those seeking answers, and those seeking excuses. Pro-life advocates need to know how to recognize the difference, and respond accordingly. The article by The Guardian is an example of someone seeking excuses.

While the piece by the Guardian raises important moral questions, it’s worth noting that The Guardian is not being driven solely by a desire to report news for the sake of informing people. They have an ideological reason for focusing on stories such as the Florida case. In a comment from the website’s editor Betsy Reed at the bottom of the article, readers can find the following quote:

…we avoid the trap that befalls much US media – the tendency, born of a desire to please all sides, to engage in false equivalence in the name of neutrality. While fairness guides everything we do, we know there is a right and a wrong position in the fight against racism and for reproductive justice. When we report on issues like the climate crisis, we’re not afraid to name who is responsible. And as a global news organization, we’re able to provide a fresh, outsider perspective on US politics – one so often missing from the insular American media bubble.

Did you catch that? The Guardian is admitting that they do have a perspective on contemporary issues, one which drives their reporting. While this can be laudable(especially their rejection of moral relativism and the idea there are no right answers on moral issues) it should lead one to ask questions. It appears as if The Guardian is covering the abortion story not simply because it is an important piece of news, but because it makes pro-life advocates look cruel and heartless. Accordingly, why should anyone take seriously the moral claims of a person who is cruel and heartless? The Guardian isn’t looking for questions about the pro-life position; they are looking for an excuse to dismiss the pro-life position entirely. 

Fair enough. The problem with the argument being implied in the piece (that pro-lifers are cruel and heartless individuals) is that, at best, all it does is establish Florida’s abortion law is poorly written, not that any and all abortions should remain legal. At best, the authors at The Guardian have made an argument for a singular exception in abortion law, not that the law itself needs to be overturned. They still need to argue for why the law itself needs to be repealed. Arguing that the Florida abortion ban should be entirely repealed because it leads to rare but unfortunate side effects is like saying all laws prohibiting homicide should be repealed because there are rare but unfortunate instances where people need to use deadly force to protect themselves or someone else. As Francis Beckwith notes, hard cases make for bad law.

Suppose we were to ask the following question of our critics: “Tell me, what if we amended laws prohibiting abortion so that we allowed for exceptions in cases like a fatal fetal diagnosis? Would you be open to that?”

Never in a million years. As mentioned above, the objection is a smokescreen, a way to dismiss what pro-life advocates have to say by painting pro-lifers as horrible human beings without answering their arguments. In response, pro-lifers should ask the following: “Then why bring it up? If you have an argument for why we should keep abortion legal, then why not give me that argument, instead of hiding behind this case?”

As a reminder, not everyone is looking for an easy out. Many people are genuinely wanting to know how to resolve the moral dilemma they see in the issue. They don’t want people to experience the pain of watching their baby die.

To this I am sympathetic. Morally speaking, abortion isn’t justified in this case, any more than it would be justifiable to kill a three year old so her parents don’t have to watch her life end. However, this doesn’t mean people need to be left to their own devices without care.

In recent years, Perinatal Hospice has become commonplace in situations where a baby is diagnosed with a fatal condition. Providing both physical and mental support for parents, Perinatal Hospice assists grieving families through end of life care for their babies, both before birth as well as afterward. It’s important to note there is a massive body of evidence which indicates carrying a pregnancy to term, even in the case of a fatal fetal diagnosis, may actually be what assists a grieving family in finding closure and healing. On the other hand, there is a significant body of evidence showing that not only does abortion not assist with grief; it aggravates it. As one Perinatal Hospice organization puts it on their website, termination of a pregnancy is not a shortcut through grief.

Hurting people need real support, not quick fixes, even though quick fixes may be appealing. Additionally, pro-life advocates need to understand that in many cases, there are often unasked question lurking behind asked ones, especially when it comes to difficult topics such as a fatal fetal diagnosis. Engaging questioners with sensitivity and respect will go a long way towards helping change minds and save lives.