[For pro-choice month on Feminist Fire]

Many people seeking to advance the cause of the unborn use grisly pictures of aborted foetuses as a way of shocking the viewer into seeing the humanity of the child, as a way of stirring their pity. I won’t post any of these pictures on this blog, for reasons which will become clear, but you can find some easily enough if you do a Google image search on “aborted foetus” or “aborted fetus”.

People who adopt this tactic say that it is a legitimate way of calling their fellow citizens to act against abortion, to stop the killing. They say that it is as legitimate as showing images of human suffering in other contexts: prisoners in a concentration camp, starving famine victims, the dead bodies of children killed in war.

I think this is problematic, for a number of reasons.

First, I am not convinced that showing human suffering actually does have the same effect today that it might have had 20 or 50 years ago. People have seen too much violence, too much suffering, too many grisly pictures. Need proof? Just consider the fact that people with spare money in their bank account can sit tight and not reach for their credit card even when faced with an image of a child with a distended belly, too listless with hunger and disease even to flick away the flies that crawl over her eyes. Showing these pictures just doesn’t shock people any more, not enough to jolt them out of complacency and into action. It doesn’t work.

Second, I don’t think the analogy between abortion and slavery, the Holocaust, war or other large-scale death projects is a valid one. The most obvious reason is that I don’t agree that a foetus is a person, unlike the people suffering and dying in famines and genocides – a critical distinction. A fairer analogy might be with pictures of what goes on in abattoirs or animal research labs – but even then the useful images are an effort to depict and communicate suffering and not just to show a bloodied corpse where suffering is, at best, inferred.

Third, I think there is at least a question about human dignity here. If that dead foetus really is a human being, shouldn’t we respect its human right to privacy? Its right not to have images of its corpse spread over trucks and across the internet? We have codes of respect in place that prevent us from publishing images of dead people: if that foetus really is a person, shouldn’t those codes apply?

Those who support the use of aborted foetus pictures to oppose abortion might brush all those things aside (especially the middle one, because such people normally do believe as a matter of faith that the foetus is a fully realised human person and would probably find despicable any analogy with mere animal suffering). They are acting for the greater good, they say. Does it matter if the pictures only influence a few people? What does it matter if we violate a foetal right of privacy if what we are doing is calling attention to a much greater violation of the foetal right to life?

Why does it matter? What harm is in it?

As I’ve said, I don’t personally believe that a foetus is a person, which means that while I agree that it is a living thing deserving of respect and dignity I won’t be addressing any question about the violation of foetal rights that may be involved in the public display of foetal corpses*. I am thinking in this post about the harm these pictures do to the general public that have to see them.

(* Although anyone who does have a different view of foetal personhood might do well to address this before they start defending the grisly picture “argument”.)

Many people are likely to be shocked and offended by these pictures. That in itself is no reason to complain about the ethics of using them. But some people, especially women who have had or are about to have abortions, are likely to suffer something more. Imagine a woman, grieving and perhaps traumatised, unable to articulate her sense of loss, or to think clearly about what she has lost or why she feels such extreme distress. Imagine that woman faced with an image of a dead foetus – imagine her tying that image in with her grief and her sense of loss – imagine her going through a process over years of mortification, guilt, self-blame, confusion, breakdown. Thinking and imagining for years about the “person” she has killed.

I am not saying that we should refrain from arguing about whether a foetus is a person just because it might make women who have had abortions feel guilty.

What I’m saying is that as we conduct the debate we should try to be sensitive to the emotional and other harm that we might cause. We should be compassionate (even to babykillers – Jesus would have been). Furthering the case against abortion by showing emotive and grisly pictures to people who might find them triggering, to people who might be vulnerable to emotional harm from them, is just cruel.

Got to be cruel to be kind, you say? That might be a tempting refuge, if you could show that the cruelty does actually result in some greater good. Can you show that grisly pictures actually do save unborn babies? Can you show that grisly pictures actually do convert waverers to anti-abortion activism? No, I thought not.

Cruelty to vulnerable women in the unsubstantiated hope that this might eventually contribute to a chain of events which might eventually reduce some types of human suffering (but not hers), is not kindness. It just isn’t. It is cruelty.

Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a bright young woman with a bright future ahead of her. She was a student soon to complete her studies and embark on a glittering career, and her life was full of promise.

But despite all this, the young girl was sad. Worse than sad, if the truth be told, because the break up of what she thought was a match made in heaven had knocked her sideways and she was struggling just to get through each day. She would make it into classes as and when, and in between she survived on TV and ready meals. Exams loomed, and they worried her, but she didn’t really seem able to get excited about them. It was not a pretty picture.

She wasn’t stupid. She did know that her body felt different. She did notice that her periods seemed not to come. She blanked it out, and put it down – wishful thinking, this – to the stresses of her life. Exams. The split. Friendlessness. The sadness.

But then, the exams were over and, back at the family home for the summer, reality had to be faced. She did the test. The Test. It was positive. A parting shot from that match made in heaven.

Now what the hell do I do?

The NHS doctor said – you’ve left it too late. A friend said – go private. The private hospital said – this is the price, when do you want your appointment?

The operation. Waking up groggy, relieved. A scan – the alien is still there. A few days later, a trip to the hospital, some drug or other. The next day, admitted into hospital. The same drug, I think, or maybe a different one. Twice. The alien is tenacious.

Contractions, although I didn’t know it at the time, because what they had done was to induce an early labour, I think. I didn’t really understand. At the time, just pain, cramps. They offered me pain relief, eventually they gave me something that worked a bit, for a while. Then, at long last, the weird slippery rush of a flushed alien. Later, I would know that it was the same slippery rush of a normal, full term birth. But this one, of course, was different.

The rest – the placenta and all, I suppose – stayed put. Another operation. I remember being woken for the trip to theatre. I remember the anaesthetist, cheerfully competent in the middle of the night, coming to me after an emergency somewhere else. I remember the relief of waking up to find that it was finished. Really finished this time.

Was it bad? Pretty bad, I think. Regrets? None.

I’m sorry, Mum, if you’re reading this, that I never told you before.

Once upon a time there was a Beautiful Princess and her delightful Prince, who was Charming. One day, the Beautiful Princess and her Charming Prince had a bit of a slip-up of the contraceptive variety, for which they were equally responsible, and – lo! – about three weeks later there came that inevitable, spine-chilling dots-on-a-wee-stick moment.

OK, so the princess was me, and the prince turned out not to be so charming after all, but if I’m going to tell a story I feel I should do it right…

I knew I was pregnant before I even took the pregnancy test. My period wasn’t late, no more than a day or so which wasn’t unusual. But I could feel it in my breasts, a tenderness and a tingling pain, a sense of growth and change. Something different in my body. I knew.

The night before I took the test, I tossed and turned in bed and failed to sleep, wishing I could come to terms with the idea of pregnancy. It was the May bank holiday weekend. A few days before my birthday. I took the test in the morning very early, and confirmed my suspicion. I was horrified. I rang the father. He said “Well, good news!” but he didn’t mean it.

Later, he suggested – no, he urged – abortion. I didn’t want one. I didn’t want a baby, but I didn’t want an abortion either. He resented that it wasn’t his decision, and he pushed me to do it. It tore me up a little. Well, a lot.


It sounds daft but I felt the hand of fate upon me. We’d spun the wheel, taken our chance, diced with destiny, made our bed… and we were stuck with what we’d got. Not our place to change the course of destiny. As though it was somehow meant to be. How many bites at the cherry did I want? And also… again, it sounds daft… I felt already an emotional connection (perhaps it was love, perhaps “only hormones”) to this thing implanted and growing inside me. Just a clump of cells, but a necessary clump. An essential clump. Something irrefutable and un-do-away-with-able. Magical. Mine.

He’d said he would “stand by me”. Now he said he wouldn’t… couldn’t. Ha! I decided I didn’t care. I knew that nobody could bully me one way or the other. Not even my silver-tongued prince, playing the little-boy-lost. If he upped and left, so be it. I’d manage, somehow.

I chose my clump of cells. I chose the little person that it became.

My daughter, chosen.

Woo-hoo! I must really be making my mark. Some anonymous guy thinks I’m a dumb-pig bad-mother clueless sort who – get this – he doesn’t even want to have sex with! Can you believe it?

The part I liked was where he said that if a man says he doesn’t want a child he fathers, and the mother refuses to have an abortion, then he’s entitled to refuse payment of child support. I’m not even going to engage with that kid of crass stupidity, but it did remind me of a great Twisty post from the archives. Enjoy!


I’ve deleted the troll(s). It was getting booooring.

One of the things about being poorly is that you spend a lot of time lying in bed trying to pass the hours until you feel a bit better. Mainly I have been passing that time intermittently snoozing, entertaining Baby M as best I can, and listening to the usually excellent BBC World Service.

This will explain why so many of my posts at present are observations on news stories. It’s because these are the most interesting things to have penetrated my passive consciousness in the last few days.

Anywhoo… There were a couple of good ones today.

Firstly, today saw the first Kuwaiti elections in which women were allowed to participate as full voting citizens. Twenty-eight women stood as candidates, and women voters queued up to exercise their newly won rights. Hooray for Kuwaiti feminists!

Secondly, I listened to an extended piece on the South Dakota abortion ban. Catching up with the latest news on this, I found that people in South Dakota had managed to force a referendum of the issue. Under state law, they can do this if they collect as many as 16,728 signatures calling for a referendum within a 90 day period. In fact, over 38,000 signatures were collected and the ban has been deferred until after a referendum, to be held in November. Hooray SD feminists!

Two moments in this report are really worth repeating.

The first was when the state legislator responsible for sponsoring the bill – sorry, I’ve forgotten his name – described the way in which he and his colleagues have sought to undermine the landmark case of Roe v Wade (in which the US Supreme Court decided that the constitution required that women have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy, free from state interference).

He said that for many years they have been “picking away” at it, with restrictions and regulations and various measures designed to limit access to abortion services. He then said:

“When you have been picking away at something, there comes a point when you have to say: this is a cripple, it’s time to terminate.”

Nice metaphor, I thought, in the circumstances. Tasteful use of the word “cripple”, too. Maybe when he next meets a woman forced to bear a severely disabled child against her will, he’ll dust it off and use it again.

The other moment was a vox pop comment from a member of the public asked for an opinion. A supporter of this bill, he was asked whether he didn’t think it was a bit strict, given the absence of any real exceptions from this near-absolute ban. He replied:

“I don’t really understand what flexibility you are supposed to have around the word No.”

Again, nice choice of words. Maybe when he next meets a woman forced to bear the child of a man who raped her, they can have a cosy little chat about the meaning of that pesky little word No.


Finally, I get mail!

The abovementioned well-timed service interruption, preventing many from watching the England game last night, also prevented me from getting anywhere near the internet. Go Telewest!

And I had such a lot to say, as well.

For one thing, there was the uplifting feeling I had when listening to an interview with Charlie Wilson. Wilson is the subject of a forthcoming based-on-real-life film starring Tom Hanks, and I for one will not be watching it. This is a man who channelled an estimated $10bn of US government money into supporting a secret war against the USSR in Afghanistan. You’d think he might be a little bit sheepish, but he isn’t. He is full to bursting with self-congratulation over the whole thing, openly boasting about how he called in favours and misdirected funds to support his own pet, unsanctioned project. He is proud of what he did.

Asked about his penchant for globetrotting with beauty queens and the like, he says – Well, I had to travel a lot, “and I tried not to do it with ugly women.” Asked about his alcoholism and alcohol-related health problems, he says – Oh, I don’t think I drank any more than Winston (Churchill). Asked about his pulling strings to get the two Department of Defense aircraft withdrawn from the US embassy in Pakistan because the attache refused to break government rules and allow him to take his then-current girlfriend on board for a jolly, he says – It may not have been the best thing, but I’m sure anyone else would have reacted in the same way.

What a guy.

And I had a whole lot to say about China.

For example, did you know that in China, one woman kills herself every four minutes?

Xu Rong [head of the Suicide Prevention Project at the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women] estimates that 70-80% of suicides are the direct result of conflicts between husbands and wives.Xie Lihua, editor of China’s foremost women’s magazine, agrees that traditional values are a problem. “If a woman goes to live with her husband’s family and they treat her well, or if she’s found someone who loves and respects her, she’ll be all right. If not, things will be very difficult for her. This is because there’s a saying among men that goes: ‘marrying a woman is like buying a horse: I can ride you and beat you whenever I like’.”

The story here is hopeful though. Women are setting up support networks in villages. Young women are starting to leave their villages to find work in cities and towns and to understand their own self-worth, and the possibilities before them. Go Chinese feminists!

On the other hand, did you know that women who break the one-child policy by getting pregnant for a second or third time risk forced abortions and/or sterilisations?

Zhu Hongyun… was forced to have an abortion in May 2005 because she already had a son. After she realised she was pregnant, she knew the authorities would try to prevent her from giving birth so she fled from her village and went into hiding in Linyi city. She says family planning officials kept her three sisters-in-law hostage until she returned and agreed to let them terminate the foetus. It was seven months old. Zhu is still trying to recover from the trauma of seeing her dead son dumped into a black plastic bag.

The authorities say that they are taking action to prevent this. Did you know that a man named Chen Guangcheng (an amazing human rights activist) is currently being persecuted for exposing the scandal of illegal forced abortions?

Last September, he was abducted off the streets of Beijing by family planning officials and police from Shandong…Knowing their chances of promotion are linked to family planning targets, officials turned to ruthless measures to enforce regulations.

It’s pretty scary stuff.

And now, because I spent tonight blogging about what I wanted to blog about last night, I haven’t blogged about what I wanted to blog about tonight. Rats. I will catch up with myself eventually though, never you fear.

I’ve said almost everything I wanted to say on this topic.

(See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 if you haven’t been keeping up!)

An analogy struck me on the way to work this morning which puts things into a clearer perspective for me in terms of what I was trying to say about cultural norms causing too many women to opt for abortion on discovering that their child has special needs – especially when they do so not to prevent a life of suffering for the baby but because they themselves feel they could not cope with the demands of special needs parenting.

Imagine that a woman unexpectedly discovers she is carrying twins or even triplets. She is shocked. It is not at all what she expected. She has no idea how she will cope with the staggering extra responsibility of more than one baby. This is similar to the discovery, I think, that your one baby will have special needs. You are shocked and horrified, unable to imagine how you could possibly cope with the extra demands and pressures of such a child.

(The analogy is missing the important point that, with the discovery that your child is not going to be the perfect baby you assumed you would have, there comes a natural grieving process, but I think the analogy is good enough to illustrate my point.)

The two situations both involve shock, and a feeling that you will be unable to cope. But the reaction of other people in each case is very different.

The woman with a multiple pregnancy is expected to feel grateful for the extra blessing, and is immediately offered copious amounts of support and help and information about how she will manage to cope. There is not the expectation that, in the absence of additional medical problems, terminating one (or, perhaps, all but one) of the babies would be the normal thing to do. The supported course of action is to continue the pregnancy.

On the other hand, the woman whose baby has Down’s syndrome is given counselling and information about abortion, together with details about how disabling and problematic Down’s syndrome can be. Perhaps she is also given positive, supportive information about how babies with DS grow into happy, fulfillied adults who are as loved and as loving as anyone else. But abortion is seen as a – even as the - normal, supported response.

And I would not be in the least surprised if, in the interests of preventing mothers who do take that normal course of action from feeling guilty about it, the information provided is skewed away from the happy life that a person with Down’s syndrome can lead and towards the risks, dangers and problems inherent in the condition, and the normalcy of a decision to terminate.

This leaflet is one I just found on the NHS website. It gives an awful lot more information about antenatal screening than I was ever given, and on that score it is excellent. It does however tend to bear out my suggestion above that the choices between having the baby, giving the baby up for adoption, or terminating the pregnancy are to be presented as equal and rest only on the preferences of the parents. That’s kind of good, from a pro-choice and pro-empowerment angle. But it’s also kind of bad, in that it reinforces the idea that termination is just another normal thing to do when you find that your baby isn’t perfect.

Now, finally, I want to give really the last word to a woman called Sarahlynn. I discovered her blog Yeah, But Houdini Didn’t Have These Hips completely by accident today while browsing with nothing much in mind, and it dovetails so neatly with my recent topic of conversation, that I think anyone interested in this should read it!

She has written several eloquent and passionate posts about choice in these situations, and in particular her own choice to continue her pregnancy after discovering that her baby would have Down’s syndrome (Trisomy 21). So, similar topic, but with the advantage that she actually does know what she is talking about. Start here.

The story so far…

In Part 1, and Part 2, I’ve been talking about the way imperfect babies – specifically those diagnosed in utero as having Down’s syndrome (abbreviated to DS for the rest of this post) – are routinely aborted.

Most women take the screening tests and, if those tests are positive, go on to have amniocentesis. A huge number of women who then discover that their child does have DS decide to terminate the pregnancy.

DS is, while serious, not the kind of condition that is so serious that from the child’s point of view termination is plausibly a better option. From the child’s point of view, a life with DS is markedly better than no life at all.

There may be exceptions where antenatal tests can show that the child has additional problems, perhaps a serious heart defect, that might seriously shorten life expectancy or worsen the child’s expected quality of life. But I am assuming that this is not normally the case and that we do not know, at least not in time to make a decision about termination, how serious the child’s condition will be. So in the usual case, a termination would not be for the benefit of the (potential) child to save it from a life of suffering, but would be (almost) entirely for the benefit of the family, who may feel that they do not want or cannot cope with a child who has DS.

I don’t say that it is never right or ethical to terminate a pregnancy where the foetus has DS. There are some families who genuinely could not cope with the significant extra demands of parenting a child with special needs. (I really can’t imagine how I would cope, and have the most enormous respect for people who do – I suppose, like them, that somehow I would if I had to!)

I don’t claim that I am a better judge for any given family than they are themselves.

But I cannot deny that I find troubling the very high proportion of people who feel that they “do not want or could not cope” with a baby who has DS. As I said in Part 2, this seems to demonstrate to me a widespread attitude that I find unsettling. It is an attitude that seems to demand perfection, that demands a dream family and a dream baby and refuses to accept a baby who cannot live up to those standards. It seems to flirt dangerously with the idea that “designer babies” are acceptable and even desirable.

I have been posing myself the question how this fits in with my pro-choice views.

If I support the right of every woman to choose whether to continue any pregnancy to term, how can I at the same time make moral assessments of the decision that any woman makes? How can I play Judgement, when the key claim of my pro-choice stance is that no-one other than the woman herself is qualified to make that judgement?

I think there are a few ways to answer this.

The first, and most obvious, is that when we allow a person the right to choose, we allow her the right to make the wrong choice and not just the freedom to make the right one. It would be silly to pretend that every choice is the right choice, just because the right person made the choice. So it is perfectly possible for a woman to make the wrong choice – for any number of reasons – and perfectly allowable for somebody else to express an opinion to that effect. I am free to choose whether to eat a litre of ice-cream, and you can criticise my choice even while you acknowledge that you have no power or legitimate authority to try and impose your own choice.

But I don’t claim to criticise any individual choice. I am merely criticising the trend and asking questions about why we have such a trend. That is not the same as criticising any individual decision, or any individual person who makes that decision.

To use an analogy – it is perfectly proper to criticise and ask questions about a general trend away from breastfeeding and towards formula feeding, without criticising any individual who chooses not to breastfeed or finds herself unable to do so. The reasons underlying the trend are nothing to do with individual decisions, except insofar as the reasons for individual decisions can give us clues about the reasons for the trend. Similarly, it is perfectly proper to criticise and examine a general trend towards elective Caesarean births and away from natural deliveries, without implying any judgement of any individual who elects for a Caesarean.

By golly it’s emotive, but that doesn’t mean we should not think or talk about what the best choices might be, about the causes of other choices becoming prevalent, or about how we might better support women to enable them to make good choices for them, free of the kind of pressure that might steer them inappropriately in a different direction.

I admit up front that I am not best qualified to come to any firm conclusions about this, having precisely zero experience of special needs parenting – I’m not even sure how I got onto this subject, except that I was writing about antenatal screening and it got me thinking!

My views about choice are broadly as follows:

No person has the right to force a woman to undergo pregnancy and bear a child against her will. A foetus does not have this right, and nor does a government.

I am not sure whether a foetus has any rights, but if it does, these rights do not include a right to be nourished and supported as a parasite inside an unwilling mother, putting her health and even her life at risk without giving her anything back.

However, even if a foetus does not have rights, people have responsibilities towards it. Nobody has a greater responsibility than the two people who created it, and nobody has a more immediate responsibility than the one person in whose body it is growing. At the highest, this is a responsibility to take care of the foetus and of its mother, to ensure that the child it will become has the best start in life. At a minimum, it is an obligation to ensure that termination is as painless as possible for the foetus, preferably taking place before it becomes sensitive to pain.

This responsibility is in my view greatest when the pregnancy has been chosen – which is why, when a person has chosen to have a child but then rejects the child for some imperfection or defect, there is something troubling about it. The responsibility is least when it has been forced upon the woman (by rape, or the bad luck of contraceptive failure, for example).

And that is a key point in arguments about choice.

My pregnancy was unplanned and unwanted. But because I chose to continue it, it was not forced upon me. And so I did not feel bitterness and resentment at a thing taking over my body and my life; I felt a growing sense of awe at the responsibility I had undertaken, and a growing love for the unfelt life within me. Because I chose it.

And so much as I might (with not a jot of experience or moral authority, I freely confess) urge families to take more seriously the possibility of special needs parenting, I would never dream of forcing it upon them. If it is wrong to force any child on a woman, then it is doubly wrong to force her to take on the extra demands of a child with special needs.

If it is easy to resent a child that makes ordinary demands, how much easier would it be to resent one that makes inestimably higher demands?

Resentment and frustration at the restrictions and demands of parenthood (especially special needs parenting) will happen anyway. But, for me, when those feelings come boiling up to the surface and threaten to overwhelm me, it helps bring me back to earth to think: I chose this; I chose you. I’m glad to the skies that I had that choice.

In Part 1, I was talking about what seemed to me to be a remarkably high proportion of women who find out that their baby has Down’s syndrome and decide to abort the pregnancy.

From what I had read (admittedly not much), Down’s syndrome is not generally associated with life-threatening defects and, while it would usually have some impact on long term health and quality of life, this is not normally anywhere near so significant that you could say the life in question is not worth having. That so many women faced with the knowledge that their baby had Down’s (59 out of 62) chose to abort the foetus – and that so many women faced with the knowledge that their baby might realistically have the syndrome (62 out of 71) chose to have risky diagnostic tests – seemed to me to be troubling. It also seems to me to exemplify a more general trend, an unhealthy, and even an absurd, preoccupation with “perfection”.

I say that this preoccupation with perfection is absurd because it is based on a concept of perfection that itself makes no sense. “Perfect” seems to mean “like me, you know, NORMAL”. If the baby will be blind, or deaf, or if one of its legs will be shorter than the other, or if it will be someone who develops and learns differently – then it is defective. But if it will have allergies, or an inherited predisposition to breast cancer, or if it will struggle to maintain a healthy weight, and not be much good at sports, then it’s fine.

These features are examples only – I suppose that other people might think of other features as defective or not-defective. But who set these standards? Who is the judge? I don’t know. I just know it wasn’t me. And it wasn’t you. But you and I would have been pressured to submit to them if our unborn children had failed to comply and the doctor had suggested abortion. It is absurd that my decision about my child should be influenced by standards of perfection / defectiveness that I didn’t set and that don’t even make sense to me.

And if it is OK to abort a child just because it is “defective” according to these standards, why should it not be OK to abort a child based on other standards? No, that one is a boy and we wanted a girl. That one does not look enough like its father. No, we wanted one with a gene for [insert requirement here].

Where do you draw the line? When does acceptable screening become the creation of designer babies, the practice of eugenics? Who should draw up the standards of which foetus is worth keeping and which can fairly be terminated? What should be the requirements for being allowed to survive to term without your mother being pressured to terminate?

These questions are chilling. They are what make the preoccupation with perfection unhealthy as well as absurd.

Why chilling?

To me, there are two central problems with this slide towards designer babies, quite apart from the problem of setting the standard requirements for “perfection”.

The first is merely practical – given how little we know about genetics and generally about the workings of the human body (and we think we know so much!) it would be foolish and dangerous to start tinkering with it. It would be like trying to speed up human evolution, steering it in the direction that scientists and future parents think they want to go. But what if, unknown to those at the wheel, there is a great big spiky rock just around the corner, and you are steering right at it? What if those human traits you were about to breed out of the species, on the grounds that you think they are defects, turn out to be incredibly valuable for some hitherto unsuspected reason? What if, by tinkering with the very stuff of life, you accidentally mucked up something fundamental? Would you just say, Oops!?

Another objection is to my mind even more compelling. It is that this kind of screening can muck up the very thing that is so amazing, beautiful and life-affirming about parenthood: unconditional love.

“I want a baby, and I will love it, but I only want it if it will [have brown eyes / be a girl / serve as a bone marrow donor to my first child / insert requirement here].”

How would it feel to be a child who was only wanted because it fit the criteria? Would there not be a place inside you, however small, that wondered whether your parents really loved you for you or only for your appearance, your state of health? Would you not resent somehow that they made these conditions for your existence, and resent that you have to continue fulfilling them in order to keep their love? Would a tiny part of you not fear what would happen if things were different? What if you didn’t want to keep donating your bodily tissues?

How would it feel to be a child who was supposed to fit the criteria, but doesn’t?

(A screening slip-up means the child has the wrong colouring, or the wrong sex. The baby has the right kind of bone marrow but cannot be a donor because it is not itself strong enough to undergo donation procedures. The baby has no congenital learning difficulties, but goes on to develop some other condition, or suffer some form of brain damage, which mean that it becomes learning-disabled after all. The child looks just like Mummy, but in an accident its face becomes damaged and ugly. The child looks just like Daddy, but then Daddy runs off with a secretary and suddenly Mummy can’t stand the resemblance any more.)

Would you not feel that you had let your parents down somehow? Would there not be a place inside you, however small, that wondered whether they can still love you, and not be disappointed in you, now that you don’t fit the requirements? Would you wonder, perhaps, whether you will ever find anyone who loves you just for you? Would you wonder whether you even deserve to be loved, just for yourself? Is it not bad enough to feel that you are a burden to your parents, without the added guilt of knowing that they expected perfection?

The unconditional love of a parent, particularly a mother, is the first and most affirming love that we receive. It is a beautiful, irreplaceable, eternal gift. And I think it is damaged when as a parent you allow conditionality to creep in by auditioning your embryos.

This is not to say that it is never justifiable to terminate a pregnancy where the foetus has some true defect. But we need to be careful what we consider to be a defect, and how serious a defect it would need to be before termination becomes an ethical choice.

Presently, where Down’s syndrome is routinely considered to be that serious a defect, I think we have got the balance wrong.

(I’ve been thinking a lot about how this fits in with my pro-choice stance. That is for another post. Perhaps Part 3!)

After I wrote this post on antenatal screening for Down’s syndrome, I did a little research to find out a bit more about the condition.

Starting from a position of complete ignorance, I had assumed that it must be a pretty horrid syndrome to have, given that we go to such lengths to screen for it and given that so many women choose a late term abortion rather than continue with a Downs pregnancy.

Remember, that in this study, most women with a high risk of Downs went on to have the risky amniocentesis diagnostic testing. And of the 62 women receiving a positive diagnosis after amniocentesis, 59 chose to abort the foetus. Remember also our estimate that, as an unintended result of the testing process itself, at least 16 healthy babies were lost.

I wanted to get a feel, in my own heart and mind, for whether I felt that it was “worth” giving up 16 healthy babies in order to identify and prevent 59 babies with Downs from being born. Or, more accurately, in order to give the 62 women who wanted it the choice whether to prevent their Downs babies from being born.

In my own heart and mind, I think a problem would have to be pretty bad before I would consider aborting a foetus because of that problem. It would have to be the kind of problem that meant the child would have a very low life expectancy, a very high risk of serious health problems, or very poor expectations in terms of quality of life.

So I went and had a look on the Down’s Syndrome Association website to find out a bit more about it. Well, I was surprised. I confess that I was entirely ignorant about it, so it was daft of me to have preconceptions. But the way people talk about Downs, and the way people abort babies who have it, I was expecting it to be a lot worse than it is.

All people with Down’s syndrome have learning difficulties. Some have heart problems or other health difficulties, but these are not usually life-threatening and can generally be well managed by monitoring and suitable treatment. The degree of learning difficulty varies significantly and cannot be predicted genetically. People with Down’s syndrome go on to lead happy, fulfilling, ordinary lives. They learn to walk, talk, read, write, form relationships, hold down jobs and play a full role in the community, just like anyone else.

Given what I read today, I would never want to abort a baby just because it had Down’s syndrome. I don’t think I’m particularly humane, or particularly self-sacrificing. I’m certainly not anti-abortion. I just don’t see why a learning disability (which could only be mild) and an increased risk of certain other (only potentially serious) health problems are in themselves a good enough reason to reject a child.

Would you reject a child that you knew had a high risk of developing eczema or asthma? Would you abort a pregnancy because you knew a certain type of cancer ran in your family and there was a very high risk of your child carrying the same gene? Would you give up a baby that was otherwise wanted because you knew it would develop serious dyslexia?

I’m not saying that a woman ought to carry such children to term. It is up to every woman, every family, to make their own decision.

But it seems remarkable to me that so many pregnant women would abort a child just because it had Down’s syndrome. It seems that only the brave few keep these babies – perhaps they are the fanatic pro-lifers, or perhaps the women who know they’re on their last chance for motherhood. It seems that the norm is to abort if you can. Out of 71 women with a positive AFP test, 62 chose to have amniocentesis because, presumably, they thought they would abort if the child had Down’s syndrome. Of those 62, 59 actually did abort their Down’s baby.

I’m not saying that in any given case the decision to terminate is the wrong one. I’m just saying that the numbers seem all wrong to me.

I wonder why this is? It stems, I think, from our desire – our need – for a perfect baby.

And that opens up a whole can of worms – which I will leave squirming away in anticipation of Part 2 of this discussion. There is plenty more I want to say, but my rotten virus programme has been keeping me occupied and it has got late. I will hold forth again another day.


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