Reporter's Notebook

When Does Abortion Become Eugenics?
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Readers discuss the ethics of choosing to abort a fetus based on sex, race, disability, and, perhaps in the future, sexual orientation. To join the debate or share your own experience, email (For a broader series of reader stories on abortion, go here.)

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This reader’s story involves a genetic abnormality that is very similar to Down Syndrome, in the sense that both conditions are rarely fatal these days and often lead to long productive lives. But sometimes, as in this reader’s case, the diagnosis is much more dire and the uncertainty is agonizing:

I met my husband when I was 33, we married five years later and immediately after started to try to have a baby, knowing that my age meant it might not be easy and that we were at higher risk for our pregnancy to be affected by Down Syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities. After a few months, we found I was pregnant. I scheduled an appointment for prenatal genetic testing in my first trimester.  

That testing started with an ultrasound. I knew immediately that there was something wrong by how the tech behaved.

A reader, Ilya, has this takeaway from our debate over sex-selective abortion:

I lean pro-choice, but I doff my hat to the pro-life camp for this deft maneuver. They have demonstrated that it is logically impossible to be both “pro-choice” and “anti-discrimination.” Why is this the case? Because “choice” and “discrimination” are the same thing.

But pro-life advocates are also put in a difficult spot, as Noah Berlatsky explains in a 2013 Atlantic post about a new documentary, It’s a Girl, which investigated the high rates of sex-selective abortion and infanticide in China and India. The film’s trailer presents a shocking finding: that those two countries “eliminate more girls [every year] than the number of girls born in America every year”:

Here’s Berlatsky:

In the film, Dr. Puneet Bedi argues that ultrasound and abortion has increased the ease of gendercide for wealthier people, and so has created unprecedented gender imbalances (140 boys to 100 girls, according to the film). Other sources, though, dispute that technology has made that much of a difference, arguing that before abortion, infanticide was simply more widespread. Either way, though, the point remains that the root of the problem is clearly not abortion per se, but widespread sexism and sexual violence—which puts pro-lifers, with their often explicitly anti-feminist rhetoric, in an awkward position.

A reader today makes a similar point:

Following my callout for stories from expectant parents confronting a Down Syndrome diagnosis, a reader steps forward:

My wife and I discovered early in her second pregnancy that the fetus had Down Syndrome, and we elected to abort. It was a difficult decision, but I will always fight to make sure others in our situation are permitted the same choices we had.

I believe that people tend to overlook the complexity of this tragic question and forget that everyone’s situation is unique. (Our first child was already diagnosed with a genetic disorder, and we were not sure we had the resources to care for two special needs children.) Furthermore, there’s a tendency to see Down Syndrome births as occurring in a vacuum—a single potential life whose existence is predicated on an abortion decision. Three months later (well before the expected delivery date of the terminated pregnancy) we were expecting once again, and had a healthy baby girl. Is her existence a violation of some higher power’s plan?

“Everyone’s situation is unique” carries the same meaning as “It’s So Personal,” the name of an Atlantic/Dish reader series on late-term abortions that I edited back in 2009. (It was prompted by my former colleague Andrew Sullivan’s reaction to the assassination of abortionist George Tiller.) Those personal stories center on genetic abnormalities more severe than Down Syndrome, but, as this second reader explains, that line is often blurrier than I assume:

Parents who abort because of Down Syndrome get singularly called out in these discussions and that is a real shame. They already live with the pain of not knowing where their baby would have fallen on the spectrum of health for Down Syndrome. Children with the syndrome have a wide variety of health outcomes, from death in utero to potentially long lives. Some live short lives full of pain. Some live long healthy lives. A parent can’t know which the child will have in advance.

Greg is aligned with this reader’s point that laws against sex-selective abortion are “pretty much unenforceable”:

I agree that the natural response to making these abortions illegal is for parents to lie (and I seriously doubt that it’s predominantly women making these decisions; male coercion is seriously underappreciated). If you are determined to abort your child, the truth is no obstacle.

The larger point is to stigmatize this decision legally in the hope of shaping culture in a more positive direction for valuing human life regardless of how it looks. Same as incremental restrictions on smoking, soda consumption, opioid use, etc.

Another reader, William, shifts the discussion to disability:

Sex-selective abortion may not be common in the United States, but disability-selective abortion, which is also mentioned in Emma's article, sure is.  

Emma just posted a piece on the provocative issue of sex-selective abortion, pegged to a recently passed law in Indiana banning the killing of a fetus based on its “race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, or diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability.” Such abortions raise a lot of ethical quandaries among pro-choice progressives, especially advocates for the disabled. As Emma puts it:

Should couples be able to abort their female fetuses—and it’s almost always female fetuses—in the hopes of having the boy they really wanted? Should a mom, ashamed at having a mixed-race baby, be able to abort because of race?

… or because of sexual orientation, if a “gay gene” is ever discovered? Terri, a member of the Atlantic reader group TAD, doesn’t see any quandaries here:

Advocates of the Indiana law want to get into the weeds to make people uncomfortable in their defenses of specific circumstances in order to piecemeal restrict abortion and thus set precedent for even further restriction. It isn’t an argument worth having. The answer is simple: Abortion is no one’s business but the woman and her doctor.

Responding to Terri, another reader worries that sex-selective abortion could be a slippery slope to eugenics, aided by the increased use of genetic engineering technology (such as CRISPR, previously covered in Notes):

It’s not the weeds. Technology has enabled people to choose to abort because of sex, disability, selective reduction (not wanting the hassle/expense of twins—“eenie meenie, miny ... go ahead and kill THAT one). Soon we will add more knowable features. Children are rapidly becoming more like a customizable product. If the DNA isn’t for a strapping, blonde, healthy son just abort and try again. It’s not coincidence that [early 20th century birth-control activist] Margaret Sanger was a racist eugenicist.

This reader makes a key distinction:

I don’t see the problem with people selectively choosing which genes they want to pass on (or introduce, for that matter)—as long as it’s their choice. The problem comes in when people are coerced into it.

What do you think about this controversial issue? Drop us an email to sound off. Another reader thinks this is all a theoretical debate: