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Aborting abnormality


Cleft lip and palateIn a multi-ethnic society, we must be exposed to diversity in order to accept it without fear or hostility. No matter how friendly or open-minded we may be, awareness and exposure are the only way to make something 'new' and 'different' become normal and even mundane.

If this is true of ethnic and cultural differences, it is even more true of the differences that originate in disabilities and medical conditions.

Most of us cannot imagine how life with a disability could ever feel 'normal'. Yet disability advocates attest that the biggest obstacles to a happy and comfortable life stem from the prejudices and discrimination of the wider community.

How many of us have positive, normalising experiences of disability on which we can draw? I have to admit that I can only recall meeting two or three people with disabilities in my lifetime.

So perhaps we should not be surprised at the data released by the British Department of Health on 4 July, which details abortions performed for foetal abnormalities over the past decade. It revealed that in 2010 alone there were 482 foetuses aborted for Down syndrome, 181 for musculoskeletal abnormalities such as club foot, 128 for spina bifida, and seven for cleft lip and palate.

While these conditions may be abnormal in a medical sense, abortion is not a medically indicated response. One can only surmise that our sense of social abnormality plays a greater role in the decision to abort. With a scarcity of positive experiences to draw on, we cannot consider disability and other medical conditions to be within the range of 'normal'.

I've never met anyone with Down syndrome. I don't know anyone who has had a cleft palate. There is nothing in my experience to normalise these conditions.

For many of us, the disabilities and medical conditions subject to abortion in Britain and most other developed countries will remain unfamiliar anomalies; notable deviations from the norm. What kind of decision will we make if faced with an unfavourable diagnosis for our own children?

A 1999 literature review focusing on England and Europe found that 91–93 per cent of pregnancies testing positive to Down syndrome were aborted. With comparable regimes for testing and abortion, there is no reason to suspect that Australia's abortion rates would differ significantly.

The overwhelming majority of parents choose to abort their disabled children. Through the mechanism of individual choice, we are eliminating those whose medical conditions or disabilities may be detected in the womb.

According to research published by my employer Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in 2007, 85 per cent of Australians support legal access to abortion for 'severe disabilities', while 60 per cent also support legal access for 'mild disabilities'. The Australian public are firmly behind this de facto elimination of the congenitally disabled.

So while we embrace a multi-ethnic society and encourage tolerance and acceptance of natural human diversity, our medical culture is moving determinedly in the opposite direction. We can look forward to an increasingly homogenised society in which deviations from the medical norm become less familiar and hence less tolerated.

In this sense, abortion as a response to disability and other medical abnormalities forms a vicious circle. The more abortions for foetal abnormality there are, the more homogenous our idea of normality will become. This homogenous sense of normality, intolerant of congenital problems and disabilities, will in turn encourage abortions for foetal abnormalities.

What hope do we have of drawing upon some kind of positive, meaningful, or normalising experiences when we face the prospect of a disabled child ourselves? 

Zac AlstinZac Alstin is a research officer for Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide. He has an honours degree in philosophy, a graduate certificate in applied linguistics, and an amateur interest in Chinese philosophy.

Topic tags: abortion, disability, congenital abnormalities, down syndrome, club foot., cleft palate, spina bifida



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Existing comments

It is indeed disturbing that "The Australian public are firmly behind this de facto elimination of the congenitally disabled." One wonders how long before this majority extend the same view to those with acquired disabilities. Then how long before they realise that one day they might acquire a disability. Definitely a b****r moment.

Ian | 12 July 2011  

You miss the point Zac. Most Australians support women's right to choose abortion for any reason. We believe it should be up to each individual woman to decide, according to her own circumstances. It's nothing to do with disability.

Women choose to abort unwanted pregnancy for a whole raft of reasons. And we do not need to justify our decisions to you. Please don't confuse human rights disability issues with women's human rights issues.

Anna McCormack | 12 July 2011  

Bravo, Zac. You have raised awareness of the most widespread form of disability discrimination. People wonder why the disability lobby is so concerned about euthanasia. Look no further.

The sad thing is that many people are not willing to know the joy, growth, and yes, grief that comes with disability, all of which lead to greater understanding.

Many people see disability as the ultimate misfortune, and while disability becomes less and less prevalent, such an attitude is likely to become entrenched.

Moira Byrne Garton | 12 July 2011  

Zac, Hitler would be proud of our eugenic society. Imagine aborting an otherwise healthy baby because of a cleft palate an easily remedied condition. Our family friends who have seven children have a child with cleft palate,fixed. Intelligent, lively, goes to normal school and loves soccer. The mother was offered abortion for cleft palate. We have friends with two adopted down syndrome children who are the happiest poeple on earth. This "sterilised" society would indeed make both Margaret Sanger and Hitler proud that even in their absence their ideas have flourished.

How sad and how ironic that we can sprout inclusiveness so long as it meets with our standard of perfection.
In my work I have encountered and spoken to many many women who have aborted for feotal abnormality and guess what? their grief is much more conflicted because by the time that they discovered and were told of the disability, a bonding had occurred and the first option offered to them, abortion, and accepted by them lead to guilt and shame and regret.
A guilt experience because they had to determine the moment their infant died. Parents are meant to love their child and not take it to die.

Anne Lastman | 12 July 2011  

How can anyone be a research officer with a Bioethics Institute, and have an honours degree in philosophy, without having met anyone with Downs syndrome? What sort of wisdom does he love?

Jim Jones | 12 July 2011  

Unlike Zac Alstin, I have known many people with serious, fatal disabilities. My son, 22 at the time, died of his disability in 2007. I support the 85%, and so did my son. To contextualise this tragic issue in the context of ethnic or other forms of diversity is in my opinion offensive and bordering on the nonsensical.

Michael | 12 July 2011  

Are you suggesting we ramp up the population of disabled people? - putting serious strain on facilities and infrastructure not to mention the family unit. Just so as you say we can normalise their disabilities within the community - which of course would not happen.

While you may not have had much exposure to disabled people I have and would not wish it on anyone. I am sure the parents making decisions to suit their situation are best placed to know what they need to do as much as I'm sure it would be a heartbreaking experience.

Voxpop | 12 July 2011  

An important set of arguments of which we need to be reminded more often. Zac speaks to a condition endemic in Australian society where the 'other' needs to be shut out, removed,and obliterated. There seems to be something so fragile about the Australian psyche that in most of us it is threatened by difference of any kind .....and we see evidence of this in the issues Zac raises, in our dealings with refugees and asylum seekers, with those of different ethnic origins and faiths, in the way we respond to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Thanks Zac, for this timely reminder.

Jamie Miller | 12 July 2011  

There is never a reason for an abortion. Abortion is evil.

Trent | 12 July 2011  

Zac you have led a very sheltered life.

Bev Smith | 12 July 2011  

After reading some of these comments, I feel compelled to respond.

Anna, Perhaps the majority of Australians support women's right to choose abortion for any reason, but perhaps not most.

Research in 2004 found 74 per cent of Australians are *broadly* pro-choice. In 2006, only 39 per cent supported abortion for financial and social reasons. A much higher proportion support abortion for 'medical' reasons, such as disability, as Zac has presented. Without wanting to opine for him, I think Zac is questioning why there is increased support for abortion where disability is involved, and lamenting the richness such lives could bring to our society. Human rights disability issues and women's human rights issues hand in hand - many women are disabled.

Jim, until relatively recently, many kids with Down's Syndrome were excluded from mainstream schools - and sports. Without Zac's having someone in his family or neighbourhood community with Down's Syndrome, I find it perfectly plausible that he would not have encountered someone with that condition. Zac's argument need not be negated just because he has not had life experience (granted, it may enrich his understanding).

Michael, I am incredibly saddened that your son wished he had never been born.

Voxpop, I am offended by your comment. 'A serious strain on infrastructure and facilities'? There are far larger burdens on society and the economy. In any case, many, many people with disabilities live productive and contributing lives.

Disabilities can and should be normalised in the community. A number of other variants have been - consider left-handedness, homosexuality, and mental illnesses such as depression or OCD.

People with disabilities will always be a minority. Zac has simply expressed concern about the further shrinking of the population of people with a disability through a move that smacks of eugenics.

Moira Byrne Garton | 12 July 2011  

Anna A significant number of Austalians believe, based on medical evidence, that abortion is ending a human life. Let us keep emotion out of the discussion and not call the act, murder. In a court of law it probably wouldn't be. However there may come a time when such decisions demand to be justified before the courts. Then we might discover that even women's rights have limitations and thst unborn infants do have such rights.

grebo | 12 July 2011  

I agree with Anna. Whilst I am in the process of sending out invites for a DisabiliTEA as part of the campaign for an NDIS: www.everyaustraliancounts.com.au I support early detection of abnormalities, quality medical advice and my right to decide what is best. I am a consumer and a worker in the disability area so I trust that whatever decision I make on whether to carry a pregnancy with or without disabilities is mine to take.

Julie | 12 July 2011  

Hi Anna McCormack, You're quite wrong, I'm afraid. While 7 out of 10 Australians agree with arguments for legal access to abortion based on women's rights and the idea that abortion is a 'necessary evil', only 15% believe abortion is morally acceptable when the foetus is healthy and there is no abnormal risk to the mother. The fact that roughly 96% of abortions (based on south australian data) fall into this category may come as a surprise to the average Australian. The question of severe and mild disability was asked separately. Hence the results speak for themselves: 85% support for legal abortion in cases of severe foetal disability, 60% in cases of mild foetal disability.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Hi Jim Jones, Knowing someone with Down Syndrome is not yet a prerequisite to studying philosophy, nor was it on my J&P specifications... According to the best estimates I could find, there are roughly 22,000 people with Down Syndrome across Australia. Given that the population of Aus. is just under 22million, that's roughly 1 in 1000 Australians with Down Syndrome. I'm not sure that I even know 1000 people...

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Hi Michael, I'm sorry for your loss. But I don't see that killing the disabled in utero is a solution to the problem of disability.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Hi Voxpop, By 'ramping up the population of disabled people' would you be referring to the practice of *not* killing them in utero? Not to mention that this article is not solely about disability, unless you count cleft palate as a 'disability'. Likewise, would your value as a human being be any less if you had a club foot? I hope not.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Thanks Ian, Indeed, it's notable that some of the euthanasis legislation proposed last year in SA basically sought to offer a 'compassionate' response to people suffering a disability or other permanent medical condition. It all sounds lovely and compassionate until you realise that we're effectively saying "if a healthy person wants to die, we try to stop them. If a disabled person wants to die, we offer to help."

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Thanks Moira, You're right about the euthanasia issue, it 'favours' those with disability and long-term medical conditions. The 'fit' need not apply.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

By the way Anna McCormack, parents who choose to abort because of foetal abnormality belong to a specific category. They are not aborting for a "a whole raft of reasons" but because of an unfavourable diagnosis at a late stage of pregnancy. People in this category are usually treated as different populations in studies precisely because their experience is so different from the vast majority of abortions.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Julie, why are you helping out a group called "everyaustraliancounts" when you don't believe this to be true?

HH | 12 July 2011  

Hi Anne Lastman, There are definitely people making the link to eugenics... "medical eugenics" is the preferred term. But there's a lot of resistance to this concept, because many believe eugenics can only occur under an authoritarian regime. But if we go deeper into the real nature of eugenics, it's not about state control, purely about achieving 'better' people. Hence it is, sadly, entirely compatible with this kind of free-market regime.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Well said, Zac. Of course, people with disabilities feel the squeeze at both ends of life's spectrum. Their life experiences tell them that there are those in the community who feel 'ikky' about them and wonder legitimately whether others feel they'd be better off dead. They know they'd be targets under euthanasia & assisted suicide.

Paul Russell | 12 July 2011  

Hi Bev Smith, Your comment reminded me of 'Sheltered Workshops' where people with disabilities can find employment. But apart from that, I'm not sure why you say that...is it because I haven't met anyone with a cleft lip or a club foot, or is it because I don't think such people should be killed in utero?

Zac | 12 July 2011  

I guess that a major reason for people aborting a disabled foetus is the desire to save that future person a life of suffering - so not necessarily a selfish decision, but rather, a concern for the other. A disability that would mean the person couldn't look after themselves is different from left-handedness or homosexuality. The worry would be 'who will look after my child when I no longer can'

Russell | 12 July 2011  

Thanks Paul,

That 'ikky' response is quite frightening to behold. Our society is much more sensitive to the ugliness of racism...

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Hi Russell,

I'm sure this is part of the motivation for many parents. Though, I hope this is the kind of fear that might be alleviated through greater normalisation of disability in society.

At what point do we decide it is better to kill someone in utero than to let them endure suffering in life? Cleft palate and club foot put the lie to this motivation in such cases. As for other cases, how much suffering does a person with Down syndrome endure?

Besides the inherent problem in killing to spare suffering, I'm especially wary of our attempts to imagine the degree of suffering a disabled person will endure in their lifetime, and to make the value judgement as to whether it is worth living nonetheless.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

I was a clinical child psychologist, and I have seen hundreds of disabled children and babies. While children with mild Down syndrome, spina bifida etc can be loved and supported in a family, severe handicaps mean that the mother must devote her life to that child, leaving the other children in the family effectively motherless. When there is hope, it can be worth while. When it can mean parents in their eighties are still caring for their child of sixty, there are several lives that other people cannot say must be spent that way, including the child himself or herself. The parents should decide.

I have often been in tears when I saw what happened in a family. A surgeon repented of his efforts to save severe spina bifida when he saw the results.

Dr Valerie Yule | 12 July 2011  

I'm amazed at the tiny number of abortions in the UK which have been performed because of foetal abnormality. Abortions in Australia total more than 100,000 per year, and I believe that British hospitals perform about the same number. What can be concluded from this statistic? Could it mean that a majority of British women faced with the possibility of giving birth to a seriously disabled child, choose life?

Congratulations Zac. Knowing that there are brilliant young intellectuals in our society championing the rights of the congenitally disabled, brings joy to my heart. I especially liked the way in which you were prepared to join in debate with those who responded to your article. In fact the volume of response is an indication of how important the subject of preservation or destruction of unborn life is, in Australia. Let's hear more from you.

Claude Rigney | 12 July 2011  

It can be easy to have dogmatic views about termination of pregnancy until someone very near and dear finds themselves carrying a baby with a very severe disability. The arch examples of this are the mother with an anencephalic baby or one with a cardiac abnormality incompatible with survival outside the neonatal period. Do we really say to these mothers that we expect them to continue a pregnancy for 4-5 months in the certain knowledge the baby will die shortly after birth? A very few may do so but many will find the mental anguish utterly unbearable and ask for an early induction. The rest of us - especially those who have never carried a baby - should be very hesitant to express contrary judgement.

Wedgetail | 12 July 2011  

Like Zac, I find the popular endorsement of, or at least acquiescence in, human reproductive engineering repulsive. It is eugenics revisited: imposing a state-sanctioned view of what is acceptable/normal/useful to determine the life of the individual. We do not have to think far back, to the sterilisation campaigns and euthanasia atrocities of the 20th century, to see where this is headed.

walter | 12 July 2011  

"At what point do we decide it is better to kill someone in utero than to let them endure suffering in life? Cleft palate and club foot put the lie to this motivation in such cases. As for other cases, how much suffering does a person with Down syndrome endure?" Zac - I think you're not being fair to people who are faced with a terrible decision. Who's to know how much suffering the disabled person might endure? I suppose in the end you think about how much disability you yourself could endure, at what stage you would prefer not to be alive. I don't think people would make the decision lightly and I think their decision has to be honoured.

Russell | 12 July 2011  

Zac essentially presents a slippery-slope case against abortion on grounds of detected disability of whatever degree. By pointing to abortions for milder malformations (cleft palates/club feet) where a significant degree of life-independence is not compromised, he concludes abortions may begin at the severer end of the spectrum but they end at the trivial or unnecessary. I don't think his argument is satisfactory. His plea for “normalisation” of the disabled doesn’t take into account - or else blurs - the significant differences between severer and milder conditions. Granted, we might be horrified at abortions for cosmetic reasons - it isn’t a question of societal tolerance and definitions of “normality” but of the scope/character of life in the here-and-now, the resources available to care for bodies that cannot and will never be able to care for themselves or be free of pain, or inability to relate. Valerie Yule raises a valid counter-consideration. There’s little enough joy/relief to see or care for an injured loved one during life; there’s none at the prospect of an entire lifetime devoted to an unborn that will never breathe, move or learn by itself etc. To argue as if disability were of one species and conclude that no foetuses should ever be aborted is simplistic, and effectively dismissive of the anguish of those doomed to bear the burden.

Stephen Kellett | 12 July 2011  

Note that all the arguments of the pro-abortionists above also justify infanticide and, in fact, the killing someone of any age with a "disability".

HH | 12 July 2011  

I believe that every human life is precious. I believe in the dignity of every human being. I also know of the difficulties encountered by people with disabilities and their families. I know that, often, the people who speak most loudly about the sanctity of human life do nothing to acknowledge the difficulties of, or support, in practical terms,the lives of people with disabilities or their families. The plight of women in their eighties attempting to care for much loved daughters and sons with severe disabilities is a source of hidden suffering. Abortion is an abhorrent alternative and not a solution, but are those who condemn it prepared to share the care that falls to others?

Sheelah | 12 July 2011  

Hi Dr Yule,

Perhaps I am being naive, but are there no options other than abortion or a family life rendered dysfunctional?

Our society is preparing to spend 35billion dollars on the National Broadband Network...what are our priorities if we do indeed make it easier for the disabled to be killed in utero than to be supported in a sustainable family environment?

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Thanks Claude, for your kind words. I am not sure what proportion of foetuses testing positive for disability are *not* aborted, though the Down syndrome figure I mentioned is a grim indicator.

In South Australia, roughly 96% of all abortions are under the category of 'mental health of the mother' ie. not for foetal abnormality, pre-existing medical condition, or for the physical health of the mother.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Hi Wedgetail,

My understanding is that instances of foetal disability are highly traumatic for the parents regardless of outcome, but there is a good body of research examining the psychological outcomes for women who have had an abortion for foetal abnormality.

Some studies suggest it may be as traumatic as spontaneous miscarriage, for example. It is by no means safe to assume that termination has better psychological outcomes for women.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Thanks Walter,

Individual choice is a prevailing theme at present, which distinguishes contemporary 'medical eugenics' from historic versions. However, our choices are not made in a vacuum. It is interesting to see many references to the intense difficulties of raising a disabled child when, in other contexts, we would ask why society is not doing more to support families with disabled children.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Hi again Russell,

I hope not to be unsympathetic, but you will find that disability advocates tend to react quite badly to the presumption that we can put ourselves in their shoes and thereby decide whether or not their lives are worth living.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Dr Valerie Yule, I am not sure you can speak on behalf of parents of children with disabilities. Your comment does not reflect my life at all.

I write from intensely personal experience. One of my children is significantly disabled. I have devoted my life to my child, but I have devoted my life to my husband and other children as well. I have also devoted myself to my education and career.

My child with a disability is loved and supported in my family by all family members, and a variety of close friends. My other children are far from motherless; in fact, I sometimes wonder if they receive 'more' from me than my child with a disability because they are able to demand it. Hope is relative.

I do agree with you however that there is an issue where parents in their eighties are still caring for their child of sixty. However this indicates a systemic issue in our society rather than a need to terminate such lives before they are born.

Sheelah, you raise an important point. I have often thought that the Catholic church in particular needs to 'walk the talk' when it comes to supporting individuals and families affected by disability.

MBG | 12 July 2011  

Hi Stephen,

It is not my argument that abortion for foetal abnormalities begins in the sever but ends in the mild...it is a simple fact illustrated above in the UK abortion stats.

My argument is that a homogenised society becomes increasingly intolerant of difference, and this intolerance contributes to the further homogenisation through abortion for foetal abnormalities.

My opposition to abortion is not founded on the false presumption that disabilities are all of one species. Rather, it is founded on the fact that abortion for foetal abnormality is a utilitarian argument, blind to the nuances of human nature which render the right to life inviolable, and make our fulfillment as human beings dependent in part on our respect for the good of others.

Utilitarianism can justify...anything. It is not good ethics.

I find it disconcerting that we are offered in this debate a choice between abortion and a dysfunctional, overly burdensome, family life. As I suggested to Valerie, perhaps we need to reassess our social priorities as we embark on this $35b Broadband Network.

We do not, for example, assume that the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill should be a burden to isolated families. Why disability?

Zac | 12 July 2011  

"disability advocates tend to react quite badly to the presumption that we can put ourselves in their shoes and thereby decide whether or not their lives are worth living"

Zac, I think you're making a similar mistake to commenter HH who surely knows that abortion is legal while killing a person isn't, because there is a difference there.

I can't put myself in the shoes of a disabled person and then decide to kill them. But a woman is responsible for bringing a child into the world - she has the responsibility for her action and her responsible decision may be, that as far as she can work out, the best course of action to prevent unbearable suffering is not to allow the pregnancy to continue.

Russell | 12 July 2011  

Hi Sheelah,

as I've said to others, our society is about to spend $35billion on a faster broadband network, yet we return again and again to the dichotomy of parents who must either abort their disabled children or suffer the terrible isolated burden of caring for them into their old age. No third option?

Perhaps by providing abortion as 'the choice' we unwittingly condemn parents to near-total responsibility for bringing a disabled child into the world?

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Zac, I think you miss an important point Russell and others make: that people faced with the prospect of long-term care of a severely disabled or nonviable infant often make the decision to abort with ultimate seriousness. That they themselves may suffer psychologically neither diminishes the character of their decision nor the enormity of the alternative consequences, in contrast to your thrust which suggests that essentially the abortion of the severely malfunctioning was merely an extension of ignorance and discrimination towards the disabled living in our society. I say they’re not at all the same thing and your argument does not establish that they are.

Moreover, in ancient times when survival of the tribe was fragile, the weak were destroyed for the sake of the group. If you wish to argue that conditions now are different and society as a whole should be allocating the necessary billions of dollars in equipment and trained personnel to assist or take care of the nonviable indefinitely that is a different case and you would have to persuade the majority that appropriate taxes be imposed. But institutionalising what amounts to “extraordinary means” does not mitigate anyone’s suffering or its futility.

If your objection is based on the ensoulment of the foetus, then abortion in such cases simply has the effect of returning the soul to God, without prolongation or realisation of the suffering, does it not?

Stephen Kellett | 12 July 2011  

I have just returned home from a day with people dealing with abortion grief.
Please understand what abortion means. It means the intentional death of ones son or daughter. Not a worm or a snail, though these appear to have more right to its own than an in utero infant. And who suffers most where there is a disability the disabled or those looking on? Are these discomforted? Do these disabled bring before our eyes something we don't want to see? And since when have we begun to equate "life" with " $ $$$ "
Again Hitler and Margaret Sanger would be proud.

Anne Lastman | 12 July 2011  

Quite a few posters are failing to distinguish between grounds for sympathy and grounds for moral justification.

Tom is plausibly threatened with gruesome torture if he doesn't kill (innocent) Mary. If he finally gives in and kills Mary, we may reasonably feel sympathy for him in respect of the alternatives he faced. But we can never say that, in the circumstances, it was morally permissible, or just, for him to kill Mary.

The fact that someone suffers great distress if a disabled person is allowed to live has no bearing on the inalienable right of that innocent person not to be directly killed.

HH | 12 July 2011  

When people are faced with this situation, there are no good choices, there is only the certainty of grief and sorrow. That situation is not helped by people taking theoretical positions ('A woman's right to choice', or 'Abortion is vile') outside the human reality of shared pain. The people best placed to make these decisions are the people who are directly involved in that pain. The people best placed to decide whether or not abortion should be considered for spina bifida are the people who must weight the impact of that on their other children and the quality of life of the child against the foetus's right to life and their own loss and sorrow.

I do not find bio ethical arguments that are divorced from pastoral reality compelling.

Mervyn Thomas | 12 July 2011  

2 of our grandchildren have disabilities 1 is Autistic the other has Downs. We would not be without either of them. Downs was diagnosed in utero and parents decided not to abort. Although the child with Downs is sometimes a little difficult, she attends main street school, goes to dance and gymnastic classes and is a gorgeous loving child. Her parents are trying to provide for her future support when they can no longer care for her. Who do you trust?

The one who is Autistic is an exceptional teenager, loving and brilliant when it comes to computers, but there is not enough support aides at schools, he feels left out. The support is sadly lacking in all states and it doesn't rate high on the list of government funding.

Fran | 12 July 2011  

I am strongly against elective abortion (I.E abortion for reasons other than medical (threat to the mothers life, this includes significant and factual threat to mental health), rape, etc) but cannot in good conscience say that mothers/parents should be forced to deliver and raise children who are severely disabled and who thus would require intensive care throughout their lives.

L. O'Brien | 12 July 2011  


"Zac, I think you're making a similar mistake to commenter HH who surely knows that abortion is legal while killing a person isn't, because there is a difference there."

What's the difference? If you're at one end of the birth canal, you're not a person. But if you've managed to get to the other, and have the umbilical cord snipped, you are?

HH | 12 July 2011  

Rusell what a lot of bolony this "I can't put myself in the shoes of a disabled person and then decide to kill them. But a woman is responsible for bringing a child into the world - she has the responsibility for her action and her responsible decision may be, that as far as she can work out, the best course of action to prevent unbearable suffering is not to allow the pregnancy to continue." what is an infant in the womb an ingrown toe nail which causes suffering and needs to be cut out.? Russell, this attitude is part of the problem of abortion, the male refusing to support the woman so that she doesn't abort.

Russell a child is womb is the same child that comes out and the child at 10,12,14, ,,38, 40 weeks is the same child just bigger. This is the lunacy which has seen abortion declared a right" abortion means the killing of ones son or daughter please understand that. And the woman does not have a right to kill another human being. because the child is another human being, another person in its own right. It is infanticide.

Anne Lastman | 12 July 2011  


Whichever way you cut it, the being we're discussing is a member of the human species and the action taken against it is killing. You can call it 'ending a pregnancy' if you like, but then isn't birth also 'ending a pregnancy'? In the end, it's a euphemism for an action that quite intentionally kills a human being rather than allow it or help it to survive.

I do not think it is fair to put all the responsibility on the mother. After all, as you point out, abortion is legal in this society. We fund it, our doctors perform it, hence the mother's choice is not made in a vacuum. The options offered by society matter a great deal for better or worse.

The point about 'unbearable suffering' brings us back to the issue of trying to predict quality of life with a disability - which is why I mention the disability advocates.

Secondly, the underlying presumption is that we can 'avoid' suffering by killing the one who is going to experience that suffering. This is a utilitarian ethic.

Zac | 12 July 2011  


You're saying it's a very difficult decision, and I agree with you. But then I think you've taken my argument in the wrong direction.

I'm not trying to blame people for ignorance and discrimination....I'm very aware that our experiences - both positive and negative - can have a drastic effect on our expectations and our knowledge of what is possible.

You keep distorting my argument towards consideration of the 'nonviable' and the 'seriously malfunctioning'. But what of the examples I actually cited? Is Down syndrome a 'nonviable' condition?

I wrote about disability generally because a) people were shocked by the 'viable' conditions being aborted and b) what I am saying applies to all forms of disability or indeed abnormality: that knowledge and experience can overcome fear and alienation. It's a general principle.

If you want to argue for a eugenic social policy on the basis of a tribal ideal, be my guest. I'll happily argue that we should start by killing all the eugenicists, since their ideas are so bad for social cohesion.

Your reference to 'ensoulment' has nothing to do with my position.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Hi Mervyn,

I don't mean to be rude, but that's not much help, is it? Can we apply the same formula to the parents of the child with the cleft palate? They were surely in the best position to decide...

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Hi L. O'Brien,

I'm afraid we'll end up disagreeing on the same principle as last time (Hiroshima). That is, the basic principle that we cannot do evil that good may come. In this instance, even if suffering is avoided, it doesn't justify the killing of the sufferer...or their families.

You can think of it as 'forcing the parents to raise children who are severely disabled' But I look at it from the other side, where our positive action is to kill another human being as a means to an end.

Suffering might be avoided, but how can we call the killing a good thing?

It makes me think about the Chinese one child policy....You can either do a whole lot of horrible things to people, in order to avoid a potentially bad future; or you can refuse to do such horrible things, and try to meet what the future holds as best you can.

Only one of these options *guarantees* that horrible things will happen at your hands.

Zac | 12 July 2011  

Thank you Zac. I found my temper rising at your statistics and wondering just what impact the faith has had on Society of all levels and faiths when such a high proportion of Society advocate abortions of children with medical abnormalities as you call them.

I admire your objective analysis and thank you for your measured reflection. I am still boiling and almost giving up on us. Well done. I will read your very calm approach and statistics and conclusion and try to calm down and pray for us all. Keep up your good work.

Fr Laurie Bissett msc | 12 July 2011  

Go back to school Zac; you missed lesson 1, the lesson that explains that book knowledge is only an attempt to understand the real world.

Jim Jones | 13 July 2011  

The L'Arche and Daybreak communities and their animators come across to me as more real to me than your comments, 'Joe Blow'.

Louise Jeffree | 13 July 2011  

Thanks Fr Bissett,

It is extremely sad, and I fear the ramifications for our society and culture will be profound. It's accompanied by these strange ideas...that abortion is not killing, or that killing is not bad, or that there's a mysterious and profound difference between the child before birth and after.

And then I'll stumble across some kind of public health information document which blithely explains that the risk of Down syndrome will increase as more women delay pregnancy but that the actual incidence of live births will not change thanks to better 'prenatal screening'.

There's a nice Belloc quotation you may like: "Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night; it is already morning."

Zac | 13 July 2011  

@Anna Mccormack- I think it's you who is missing the point here. This is not about women's right to choose abortion it's about the lack of knowledge society has about the for mentioned disabilities and anomalies. Because of the increased abortion rate for these, fear has increased. What we fear, we avoid! If only people would seek current and up-to-date information about these disabilities and anomalies and what life is like for these such, there would be less fear, more acceptance and a society that welcomes, instead of shuns, those that differ from the 'norm'.

Genocide did not die with Hitler, it lives strong in what people now want to call "human rights". But tell me now, where are the rights of a 25 week old fetus that, if was to be born naturally could well and truly survive- but if it is detected to have a cleft palate, talepes or even Down syndrome it's 'ok' to terminate that life?? I am not a pro-lifer, I support choices- as long as they are made with the right information, current and up to date and not based on fear.

Kris | 13 July 2011  

Hi Jim,

Was lesson 2 "play the man and not the ball"?

I could understand your criticism if I'd just written an article called "observations of people with Down syndrome" and yet admitted not making any such observations, but such is not the case.

So what are you trying to say? If I meet people with Down syndrome I'll be more amenable to the idea of killing them in utero?

Zac | 13 July 2011  

Zac –

This was a wonderfully thought out article. As a father of a child with DS, I found heartening. DS is on the forefront of the eugenics debate because it is easily detectible and they are the cusp of non-invasive tests. My daughter and I do on occasion suffer for due to her disability – though it is never due to any limits or difficulties her extra chromosome has caused. We suffer from many people in society and their poor perceptions of her worth and abilities. In short they are afraid of her because she is different. Even grown up boys and girls try to make rules and laws to exclude her for their own comfort.

I am pro-choice. A woman should have the right to choose. Today, so few do have that choice. They are fed misinformation about all the difficulties of having a child with DS. My daughter was a “surprise diagnosis” at birth. She has profoundly changed my life for the better in a much unexpected way. I meet so many parents of children with DS that tell me the same thing. Quite the contrary to “suffering”, we cannot imagine being without a child that has touched us on a level that transcends words.

Yet medical professionals talk about risks and burdens. While most research and survey work on families shows quite the opposite…..including studies showing lower divorce rates among parents of a child with DS than parents of typical children!

People argued the “end of life care” justification – I am not sure how that differs for people who will develop dementia. Alzheimer’s is linked to the same gene, so we could soon have a test for susceptibility. If you test positive we can abort you or have your life cut short at 60 yrs to avoid it…or we could do the reasonable thing and make some accommodations in our society.

People argue folks with DS are less economically productive (burden). I am less efficient than my computer. For the energy I consume and the time off of work I need, my computer could do so much more work. Once we perfect AI in 10 years we could then take the rational argument to the next level. Seems ludicrous, doesn’t it?! Life is about more than economics (thankfully)…how bleak a world where the only value is our input into some larger economic process with no real purpose other than self-perpetuation for its own sake.
When you pull away the cloak of emotion and look at the underlying premise, all of the arguments boil down to someone being different and that is scaring the 5 year old in us.

Scientists are pretty close to breakthroughs in cognitive treatments for people with DS that will increase their IQs significantly (https://www.dsrtf.org/plus15). When this group of people has the capability to be fully independent adult members of our society with little or no support, and that time could be within 5 years, all of the cloaks will be pulled. Then folks will have to deal with their inner 5 year old again just as they did in the past civil rights struggles.

Brad | 13 July 2011  

Thanks Brad, it's very heartening to read your words, and thanks also for the link to the DS research site.

At the moment, the extremely high rate of abortion of Down Syndrome represents a terrible precedent for every other condition or 'abnormality' that we will one day be able to screen.

Unfortunately, many people fail to see the significance of what we are already doing.

Zac | 13 July 2011  

"I do not think it is fair to put all the responsibility on the mother. After all, as you point out, abortion is legal in this society. We fund it, our doctors perform it, hence the mother's choice is not made in a vacuum. The options offered by society matter a great deal for better or worse"

Zac - I don't think ALL the responsibility should be the mother's, but certainly some of it is. And abortions happened long before it was legal. We didn't then and don't now have a perfect world - that's the context in which a woman will have to make the choice.

Perhaps the nub of our difference lies here: "It's accompanied by these strange ideas...that abortion is not killing, or that killing is not bad, or that there's a mysterious and profound difference between the child before birth and after."

If you believe in a religion of absolutes and certainties, you may believe that there's no diifference between a foetus and a child. But the law reflects the fact that most of us see a difference.

Russell | 13 July 2011  

Zac, I think you may have taken my argument in the wrong direction yourself. I’m not arguing for an ‘eugenic social policy on the basis of a tribal ideal’ but simply pushing the point that in the real world you cannot get blood out of a stone. Primitive tribes had no resources (as well as perhaps superstitious cruelty and ignorance) to tolerate offspring requiring special care; the same often applies to people in the modern world, without massive social support which requires, in the bottom line, money as well as other things.

Perhaps we’re arguing at cross-purposes: I’m happy to concede your general thesis that abortion on the criterion of “abnormality” may end up being equivalent to abortion on a ground of mere aesthetics, which is to say, no ground at all. In other words, I agree that abnormality is too loose and broad a criterion for sensible and compassionate intervention. Your examples of Downs syndrome, cleft palate and other conditions seem hardly to fall into the more extreme medical categories which are simply not equivalent in terms of what I’ve been referring to as viability. Medical professionals can identify and describe those situations I think are quite different.

Stephen Kellett | 13 July 2011  

Hi Stephen,
Yes, I think we are misconstruing each other. Thanks for your clarification.
The costs for disability generally as opposed to the specific severe instances you have in mind are, I suppose, a matter of priority over which we may differ.

Zac | 13 July 2011  

Hi Russell,

Abortion for foetal abnormalities is entirely dependent on recent medical technology. For example, ultrasound technology became commercially available only in the early 1960's.

My conclusions about the nature of abortion and the nature of the human being before and after birth are not religious in nature.

As it stands, I'm not aware of any significant difference between a human before birth and after. Do you know of any?

If you understand why it is wrong to ever kill another human being, you may find that this 'wrongness' extends to humans at all stages of development.

Finally, according to the research mentioned in the article, 58% of Australians do not accept the argument that 'the foetus is not a person'. Indeed, the best way to summarise the research is that Australians are deeply conflicted about abortion. They are not comfortable with it, think there are too many, but do not want to restrict legal access.

Zac | 13 July 2011  

Zac, I wholeheartedly agree with your article. Like you I have had very little experience with people that have a disability, except some minor contact with people that have cerebral palsy who sell the "Big Issue" in Melbourne. They are always friendly, polite and obliging people. The fact that some women are aborting disabled babies may be an indication of their perceived lack of support from husbands, partners, family and welfare organisations etc. However, I believe it to be their right to have an abortion. (Trent, your comment is silly). Abortion is a women's human rights issue. It is not a religious or men's issue! Men should only provide moral support to their wives/partners on the issue of abortion. With respect to the issue of disabled people in our society, they have probably been one of the most discriminated groups of people and there has been very little effort made for both disabled and abled people to have social contact in schools, workplaces, churches and sports clubs etc. Our society favours people who are male, white, caucasian, upper middle class and abled. We all need to have a 'good hard look at ourselves'.

Mark Doyle | 13 July 2011  

"As it stands, I'm not aware of any significant difference between a human before birth and after. Do you know of any?

If you understand why it is wrong to ever kill another human being, you may find that this 'wrongness' extends to humans at all stages of development."

Zac are you saying that from the moment of conception - the sperm fertilising the egg - you think that the embryo is a human being the same as you or me? Ok, that's a belief you're entitled to. But most people think as I do that although the creation of human life is a very, very special thing, there are circumstances in which the greater good might seem to favour ending the process of that embryo/foetus developing into a separate human life. In the early stages of that development, before the brain could be capable of awareness, we don't see the embryo/foetus as having fulfilled its potential to become a full human being.

Russell | 13 July 2011  

Mark Doyle, as a woman I disagree that abortion is simply a woman's rights issue. It is a human rights issue.

I found it disappointing that some comments deride the author for not having met or spent time with someone who had Down's Syndrome. Perhaps the critics are over 30 or 40 years old, but the reality is that if you were born after abortion became widespread, then you probably haven't come upon many people with disabilities, simply because the vast majority have been aborted. (sadly)

Sadly it is very hard to explain to today's modern, self-centred, pleasure-centred man or woman, the value of something that is not 'perfect'. We throw out a plasma t.v. and replace it with a bigger one; we replace a computer when its lost a few pixels - we are a desperately superficial generation.

Micah | 13 July 2011  


From a scientific perspective, what you are suggesting does not make any sense.

We know that conception creates a unique entity, quite obviously separate from the mother and quite obviously continuous with the adult form of a human being.

If it is not a human being, what is it?

The fact that different creatures pass through stages of development and maturation is not controversial. It is only in the context of abortion that some people 'discover' a mysterious distinction between an embryonic/foetal human being and a mature or adult one.

It is a living individual member of the human species, and we can say this without any doubt or emotion.

Zac | 14 July 2011  

Thanks for your support, Micah. I had not even considered that a difference in age would correlate with a difference in exposure to people with Down syndrome, but it makes sense.

Zac | 14 July 2011  

Hi Mark,

I'm glad you agree with my article. The issue of abortion and human rights, though, is a whole other kettle of fish.

At risk of inciting a tangential debate, let me just say that I do not believe it is ever good for us to kill another member of our species, nor that we can have a moral right to do something that is not good for us.

Zac | 14 July 2011  

"From a scientific perspective, what you are suggesting does not make any sense.

We know that conception creates a unique entity, quite obviously separate from the mother and quite obviously continuous with the adult form of a human being.

If it is not a human being, what is it?"

Zac, doesn't your phrase 'continuous with the adult form of a human being' imply that at an early stage, an embtyo/foetus is not the same thing as the adult form of a human being? An embryo developes into a full human being. That you could say that an embryo that has not yet developed a brain is the same as one that has, is hardly scientific. I think that you are in the realms of philosophy/religion, which is where people have legitimate differences in beliefs.

Russell | 14 July 2011  

Russell - your case is becoming more and more confusing: "I think that you are in the realms of philosophy/religion, which is where people have legitimate differences in beliefs." If people have "legitimate" differences in beliefs, then what's wrong prolifers trying to criminalise abortion?

HH | 14 July 2011  

Russell, You're mixing a number of pro-abortion arguments about personhood, awareness, and humanity. eg. the difference between a human being before and after development of the nervous system is a different question from whether a human embryo is a 'full' human being. Both of these are distinct from the relevant moral questions... Biology is quite unequivocal: it is an individual member of the human species, at an embryonic stage of development. Your problem seems to stem from putting *moral* weight only on human beings who have been born. To try to deny that an embryo is a member of the human species is just ridiculous. Separate the scientific issue (what kind of thing is the embryo?) from the moral issue (should we be allowed to kill it?). Utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer acknowledge that there is no essential difference between the child before birth and after. Since he supports abortion, he therefore logically endorses infanticide under the same conditions. That's why I suggest you consider the moral question of why it is ever wrong to kill a human being, rather than trying to redefine what a human being is.

Zac | 14 July 2011  

Thanks Zac, for this perspective, it needs to be heard. The alarming thing is that the majority of people with disabilities don't actually have them from birth - they suffer illness or accident later in life. Anyone of us could become that "person with a disability". So when we abort babies because of a disability, and justify that by saying it prevents their suffering (and our burden), what messages does that send to disabled people... It would be better for you and for us that you weren't around? Your disability makes your life less valuable? Your disability is a burden that we resent? No wonder disability rights groups are almost universally against euthanasia. It's not exactly a big leap from 'it would be better if you hadn't been born' to 'it would be better if you were dead'. I can see a time in the near future when parents who resist the pressure to abort an "imperfect" child will be blamed for bringing this burden onto society, rather than admired for their courage and love. (And not just admired from afar, helped!) Actually, that time is probably already here, looking at some of the comments on this article.

Meg | 14 July 2011  

Thanks Meg,

yes there is indeed evidence of parents being blamed or criticised for refusing to abort. It is seen as an irresponsible action. I'm glad that many disability activists recognise the danger implicit in the 'choice' of euthanasia that many people are keen to offer them.

Zac | 14 July 2011  

An inspirational video, that really shows us the dignity and worth of just one human life is: 99 Balloons - Remembering Eliot. It shows beautifully the worth and dignity of a human life.

"Two months before he was born, Eliot was diagnosed with Trisomy 18—a genetic disorder with a very low survival rate. His parents, Matt and Ginny, began writing letters to him daily. Eliot lived 99 precious days, and his parents kept writing. After his death, they turned their letters and photos of Eliot into a video that has now been seen nearly a million times on YouTube."



Cathy | 14 July 2011  

One last go, because I think our differences are not reconcilable. " To try to deny that an embryo is a member of the human species is just ridiculous". What I, and I believe most people think, is that an embryo is developing into a human being, so very special and not to be destroyed carelessly. But instead of your black and white definition of the start of life, we see a process of development from cells to human being. It may be that the seed of a tree can 'continue' to become a tree, but you'll recognise the difference between the seed falling on you, or the tree falling on you.

When you say that you don't believe that "we can have a moral right to do something that is not good for us." you assume your definition of what is "good" for us is the right one for everyone. Obviously there are many, varied ideas of what is "good" and "moral", and HH can try to criminalise abortion, but I think we've 'moved forward' on that issue as people stopped obediently following what they were told by the Church, and started to think out what the 'right' policy should be, based on their experiences and their morals.

Russell | 14 July 2011  

Worse and worse, Russell.

People can have "legitimate" philosophical differences, on abortion, you've conceded. Meaning (if anything) that there are acceptable philosophical arguments either way. But then you state those who "legitimately" prefer abortion have thereby "moved forward" on some scale which you choose not to define or defend - presumably philosophical - compared to those who oppose it.

It may appeal to the gnostic or the Hegelian. But it doesn't appeal to common sense.

P.S. Well done, Zac, in a pit where reason has taken a holiday.

HH | 14 July 2011  

HH - I understand, having been there, that it's a comfortable position to accept the absolutist teaching of some authority, like the Church. But I also see it as 'moving forward' (using Julia Gillard's phrase, just for fun) when people take in more perspectives and start to think for themselves. That gives us a variety of ways to apply what we see as good or moral. Zac's mystical view of human life is fine for Zac, it just doesn't fit with me.

Although I think you're wrong to want to criminalise abortion, I understand that that could be your thought out position. I think you have no chance of success. What happened with contraception and abortion, is going to soon happen with gay marriage, and probably in my lifetime, with euthanasia. It really is a pity that as people think their way through these issues they have to leave their Church behind.

Russell | 15 July 2011  

Dear Zac, I appreciate your concern about us as a community trying to homogenise people. We have a son with Downs who is almost forty. Our journey together has been far from easy but as a family we have all been so enriched by his presence among us that I am glad the option of abortion was not given me. We all need to learn to appreciate and value difference.

jean Sietzema-Dickson | 15 July 2011  

HH - I understand, having been there, that it's a comfortable position to accept the absolutist teaching of some authority, like the Church. But I also see it as 'moving forward' (using Julia Gillard's phrase, just for fun) when people take in more perspectives and start to think for themselves. That gives us a variety of ways to apply what we see as good or moral. Zac's mystical view of human life is fine for Zac, it just doesn't fit with me. Although I think you're wrong to want to criminalise abortion, I understand that that could be your thought out position. I think you have no chance of success. What happened with contraception and abortion, is going to soon happen with gay marriage, and probably in my lifetime, with euthanasia. It really is a pity that as people think their way through these issues they have to leave their Church behind.

Russell | 15 July 2011  

Russell, you seem to say that as people "think for themselves" and reason their way through these issues, they'll inevitably "leave their Church behind". I spent many years thinking for myself, far from any influence of the Church. Eventually, thinking for myself led me towards the Church and her teaching. Of course I now feel I've "progressed", though my pro-choice friends see me as going backwards. Peter Kreeft has the best philosophical take on personhood and abortion that I've come across. Doesn't rely on "mystical" approaches, just looks at the facts and draws out the reasonable, logical & above all CONSISTENT conclusions. (And that's the kind of stuff that drew me to 100% accepting these "hard" teachings btw, that I found real reason & consistency there). http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/personhood.htm

Meg | 15 July 2011  

Russell, your dismissal of the anti-abortion position a uncritically based on "absolutist" Catholic teaching is patronising and wrong. The position is based on common sense arguments. Even atheists and agnostics see them: look up "atheists for life" and "libertarians for life" (Doris Gordon, founder of LFL, is an atheist). Here's the atheist Camille Paglia: "Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful. Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue." I'm sorry to hear you've "moved forward" from the Church. I don't know where you are now, but your stated litmus test of ethical positions: whether they're politically "successful" or not - a version of "might is right" - means you're going to be an ethical nomad to the end of your days. Who knows, maybe you'll stop by our Oasis again some day, and, as T.S. Eliot says, "know it for the first time." I pray for that.

HH | 15 July 2011  

In the small city of Canberra I know 15 or 20 people with Downs syndrome, well enough for us to greet each other if our paths cross in the Mall, for example. Most months I would have afternoon tea and a bit of a conversation with 5 or 6 of them. All are under 40. They are not really so rare; my contact with them is because of my son's disability, but they do not spend their lives in hiding. Yesterday I went to the funeral of a 15 year old boy who never saw, never walked, never talked. There were about 200 mourners by my estimate. We're around, we of the disability community, and it behoves anyone in the bioethics business to find us and get to know us; with friends like Zac we don't need enemies, though we've certainly got enough. There's an organisation in Sydney called Fighting Chance Australia which is trying to organise "In our Shoes Day" to enable people interested to spend 24 hours with the carer of a disabled person. Then again, maybe you can get it all out of books.

Jim Jones | 15 July 2011  


Ethics is the science or study of morality. It is about defining and understanding the concepts of 'good' and 'evil'/'bad'/'ill' in the context of humanity.
Though there are a multitude of opinions on these matters, they cannot all be correct, lest morality be a meaningless subject.

With regard to embryos 'becoming' human beings, we disagree on two levels: the level of terminology and the level of moral principle.

Unfortunately, we cannot discuss the moral issue until we agree on terms. Had we the time, I would ask you to define 'human being' 'life' and 'embryo' etc. Regardless of how many people hold an opinion to the contrary, I will stick with the scientific definition eg.

"life is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes (i. e., living organisms) from those that do not,either because such functions have ceased (death), or else because they lack such functions and are classified as inanimate." (wiki)

If you say that the embryo is not 'alive' then you must be defining life differently. You can call my view mystical as much as you like, but you are the one arguing that an embryo is not 'alive' and not 'human'.

Zac | 15 July 2011  

Meg - you're quite right. You could work out your own way and end up with the Church's position, though most of us have gone in the other direction!

The article you link to I think can be summarised by the sentence "The reason we should love, respect, and not kill human beings is because they are persons, i.e., subjects, souls, "I's", made in the image of God Who is I AM." Well, that's a particular religious view ...I still have a religious view but it's not that one anymore.

HH - no, I certainly didn't mean that the most popular view is right. After all most of the positions I hold were minority viewpoints, it's just in the last few years that some of them have become mainstream. I only mentioned the trend in the numbers to suggest that the kind of arguments the Church is putting forward are not winning many hearts or minds.

Russell | 15 July 2011  


I'm sorry if my article antagonised you. That was not my intention.

"with friends like Zac we don't need enemies"
That's a nice piece of hyperbole Jim. I don't see that friendship has much to do with. There are people in prestigious positions arguing for infanticide and euthanasia for the disabled (with freedom of choice, of course!)

But if you'd rather rail against me personally for my lack of personal acquaintance with people suffering certain disabilities, well that's your prerogative.

Zac | 15 July 2011  

Having had the pleasure of attending one of the events held recently in this country featuring ex-planned parenthood director Abby Johnson I am so fully convinced now that this conspiracy of silence for the baby's rights so overshadowed by the 'right to choice' for the mother is THE civil rights issue of out time. What 'choice' do these precious children have? I have a child with a disability and a grandchild with downs syndrome: both are much loved and loveable. Death was never an option for them and why should it be ?

Mary | 17 July 2011  

Russell, there is no doubt as to the increased popularity today of a moral code which is undeniably more lax than the traditional Judeo-Christian ethic.

One possible explanation for this shift you seem to have overlooked is: moral decay.

As sign that this might indeed be the correct explanation is the inability of the apologists for the new morality to produce anything like a coherent account of their position/s, and their frequent resort to fallacies such as the ad hominem argument - both tendencies being evident in many of the above responses on this blog by those hostile to Zac's article.

HH | 18 July 2011  

HH - overlooking your use of the word 'lax' ... I'm not so sure about 'moral decay' though I probably do see it in different places to you (particularly the business world), but consider for a moment how many people appear to be really trying to work out their morality - those who listen to Encounter and The Spirit of Things and The Philosopher's Zone, who look at Compass or blogs like this one .... there's a lot of evidence that, starting from the Judeo-Christian position most of us start from, people are really trying to work out what is the right thing to do. If you start from the position that most people are bad and need to obey strict rules to be good, you might see this as moral decay, but I think that most people are mostly good, and although not in every area, we are still making some progress.

Russell | 18 July 2011  

Dear Zac, Thank you for your insightful article. I think it is quite amazing that you are able to write so thoughtfully on such a topic (without having a child yourself, which is usually where lots of people start). I didn't know very much about disability issues before my child with Down syndrome was born. Now I do and I understand that his vulnerability is not in the extra genetic material but in the social mis-understanding of the worth of his life and his ability to live a good life. My little boy is no more of a 'burden' than the care I give to my other child. He eats, sleeps, laughs, talks, explores and leads a very happy and worthwhile life and will continue to do so. Michael Kendrick writes, "notions of a good life are equated with notions of a life that is without hardships or limitations" (2009,p.49). I do wonder, along with many parents who have a child with Down syndrome,'what is all the fuss about?' If more parents facing a positive pre-natal report for Down syndrome knew the reality then I imagine they would make a different decision; one not based on fear or ignorance.

Virginia | 18 July 2011  

Thanks Virginia. Comments such as yours more than outweigh the negative responses here!

Zac | 18 July 2011  

Hi Zac, I can see where Jim Jones is coming from, as you work for a Bioethics Institute. Of course, we do not know precisely the work that you do, but your counter-argument that you may not know 1000 people misses the point. There are opportunities to meet people with all kinds of disabilities, which may in turn deeping your understanding and add experience and authority to your writing. You just have to get out there and seek them out.

That said, the research you are required to write about may require a more objective, rather than subjective author.

Rob | 18 July 2011  

Russell, I'm not qualified to say if people these days are mostly bad or mostly good.

All I observe as a bell-wether is 1.) it's an easier life not to believe that things like abortion or contraception or euthanasia, fornication, adultery, etc are out of bounds, no matter the urge to commit them. The very protesters against the Catholic position imply as much, ever complaining about "legalisms" and "restricting our freedoms", etc. [When has anyone ever heard the complaint: 'O Catholic Church: make our lives harder to live - permit contraception and abortion!']

2.) No-one's come up with a coherent account of why it's OK to do them, even sometimes. If you/they have one, please supply!

HH | 18 July 2011  

Hi Rob, It wasn't clear why Jim took issue from the outset, but I thought it important to clarify that the prevalence of DS in Australia can be estimated at 1 in 1000, which makes it entirely plausible to not know anyone with the condition. I could understand someone like Jim being irate if I was a disability advocate who did not know enough people with disabilities. In my work, the issue of disability is most often encountered in relation to some other ethical problem. Eg. abortion + disability, euthanasia + disability, eugenics + disability, personhood + disability. Basically, being disabled is not an ethical problem, though it is relevant to a host of ethical problems. In addition, the nature of ethical inquiry should not depend on personal experience. For example, I do not know any African Americans, but I can say on principle that African slavery was morally wrong. Do I need to know someone with DS in order to determine whether or not it is permissible to kill such people? No. I know it is wrong in principle. And yet I've also been told in private "if you knew them, you wouldn't mind them being aborted." Sick.

Zac | 19 July 2011  

Zac, I missed your last comment to me, or I would have replied to it because you have again misrepresented me, and that it is not a proper way to carry on a conversation. You wrote "you are the one arguing that an embryo is not 'alive' and not 'human'" No, I never argued that because I don't believe that. Of course an embryo is alive. If you go to an IVF clinic they will take a sperm from here and an egg from there to put together. They are both alive - there wouldn't be much of a result if they were dead. The skin cancer I had burnt off recently was alive. But human life isn't the same as a human being - well, it is to you, but to most people the early stages of the developing embryo have not developed enough to be considered a human being.

Russell | 19 July 2011  

Russell, I hate to misrepresent people, but it's much easier for you to reject my representation than to clarify your own comments, especially when you write things like: "instead of your black and white definition of the start of life, we see a process of development from cells to human being." Okay, so you've rejected my 'black and white' definition of the start of life... "there are circumstances in which the greater good might seem to favour ending the process of that embryo/foetus developing into a separate human life." Okay, so, an embryo can 'develop' into a separate human life. But now you say "Of course an embryo is alive." and "human life isn't the same as a human being". Much clearer. I attribute this clarity to our newly agreed definition of 'life'. Now for the human being: "human being any individual of the genus Homo, especially a member of the species Homo sapiens. " In my view, the question 'is the embryo a human being?' can be rephrased as 'is the embryo a member of the species homo sapiens?' If not, then of which species is it a member? I still don't see anything mystical about this subject...

Zac | 19 July 2011  

Zac - this was where we got to last time and I can't make the leap to understand your view, nor you understand mine. If we both looked at a lump of clay on the potter's wheel you would see a pot and I would see a lump of clay. For me the embryo or fertilised egg is human life developing into a human being - it hasn't developed enough of the attributes of what most of us think of as a human being to be thought of as a human being. It's potential to keep developing into a human being makes it a precious thing, but not necessarily a thing to be considered above all else.

Russell | 19 July 2011  


On the contrary, I think we have made great progress. You are defining a human being according to its attributes, I am defining it according to species membership.

The philosophical debates on this issue continue down the lines of such questions as: which attributes of a human being are morally significant? Why are these attributes morally significant?

If I pressed you on more details of these attributes, I would want to know whether a newborn child possesses them? And if not, would infanticide be permissible? If the newborn does possess these attributes, then at what point during birth are they acheived? or rather, does the unborn child possess them moments before birth?

I would point out that children are born pre-term and survive, while others are aborted at later gestational periods. How does this reconcile with the time-line of an embryo/foetus gaining the attributes that make it a human being?

I hope you appreciate the significance of these questions. Will you endorse infanticide, or condemn late-term abortion at some point, or have you discovered some important transitional phase at precisely the moment of birth, on which the human right to life may rest?

zac | 19 July 2011  

Zac I find your comments to Russell to be condescending and much like HH you demean the conversation by projecting ridiculous claims of infanticide etc onto your opponents. I must admit to being scared of you militant pro-lifers who seem to have so little compassion for, or understanding of the already alive humans and their rights. You seek to trample those that are making the tough decisions that you may never have to face and do so with absolutely no respect to them.

Throughout my entire adult life I've lived in fear of the prospect of falling pregnant - the fear is not related to the ultimate decision that I would make to abort but of the pro-life brigade and their intrusion into what is my decision to make. If a pro-lifer falls pregnant by all means carry to term and be happy but don't seek to control my body and my life - I see it as akin to forced slavery.

I would also like to see our foreign aid money freed up from the ACL bind and allow funds to go to contraceptive aid. Women in third world countries are shackled to their reproductive organs and have no choice over how many malnourished children they have to care for and watch slowly die. It seems to me that there are many moral imperatives (condoms and HIV, clergy sex abuse, contraceptives etc) that religion either cannot or will not acknowledge. You don't hold moral authority simply because of your religion in fact that is what blinds you to humanistic morals - you're too busy following medieval dogma.

Voxpop | 20 July 2011  

Voxpop - I find your comments to me to be condescending and you demean the conversation by projecting ridiculous claims of religion and 'medieval dogma' onto others.

Ethics is all about principles. If you can't follow your ethical principles through to their conclusions, then you cannot take part in a serious ethical discussion.

You've interpreted my comments according to your own prejudices, when you know nothing about me. Good luck with that.

What is good for us, as human beings? How do we live a fulfilled life? These are the basic questions that ethics seeks to answer. But it is bound to logic and observable evidence.

So when someone says that a foetus 'becomes' a human being, we have to ask 'how?' and 'at what point?' What observable evidence is there of a foetus 'becoming' a human being at some point?

It takes a lot of honesty to follow your principles through to the end. That's why the likes of Peter Singer earn some respect by admitting that if it is permissible to kill the unborn, then it ought to be permissible to kill infants.

That's where the logic of these principles takes us...

Zac | 20 July 2011  

"That's where the logic of these principles takes us..."

Zac, I don't think you'll find many people who live, or want to live, a life governed by logic and nothing else. We're human, not mathematical equations. Can you allow some room for 'sentiment' in your concept of what being human means.

Once again, in your black & white definitions of life, you're failing to understand that most of us realise we have to live, perhaps uncomfortably, with some complexity in this area. And that means we won't all come to the same conclusions - for me pre-3 months might be what I'm comfortable with, while for others it might be 4 or even 5 months. Some people might change their opinion as medical science progresses, other people might not care if a 3 month embryo could be kept alive and develeoping outside the womb, because to them that wouldn't be 'a human' way to go.

So no, I can't give you a certain fixed time; the time, in law, will be formed by public opinion. I don't think your way of looking at it will do much to change public opinion in your favour.

Russell | 20 July 2011  

Hi Russell.

I've always been more interested in observation than in change. But I agree that public opinion is unlikely to change anytime soon.

My interest in ethics has always been for the sake of knowledge and guidance. Society offers its own popular 'wisdom', but what certainty we find in popular opinion can shift and change without warning if it is not based on evidence and reason.

Sentiment/emotion is guided by what we believe to be true - our perception of reality. Eg, we love what we believe is good and true, and we hate what we believe is evil and false.

The question is how we form our beliefs...whether we use evidence and reason/logic, or not.

Regardless of diverse public opinion, I want to know whether abortion would be a good choice for me and my wife/partner/girlfriend, or whether it would be a bad choice.

Unfortunately it takes a lot of work to get to a real answer, and this includes really understanding what 'good for me' means.

A lot of people give answers that amount to "it doesn't matter"...but such people are usually unable to demonstrate that it does not matter.

I've appreciated this sincere exchange, Russell.

Zac | 20 July 2011  

I happily fell pregnant with my 4th child at 40. When recommended to a genetic counsellor, I decided in tears to undergo a nuchal translucency test. I had not previoulsy had one with my other pregnancies. There was so much pressure on me to undergo the test even though I explained to the counselleor that I would not have a termination of the baby if anything was indicated. He told me I would be one of the few. His whole approach was that I should have all the testing available (even invasive testing with a risk to the baby) and he was frankly surpised at how upset I was by the whole thing. After the test and when no further testing was indicated, the counsellor told me he was relieved as he was concerned that he would have a hard time convincing me to have more testing. I was appalled. He presented as an individual with an interest in ensuring that babies with Downs are not born. I told him that I had had a very positive experience of people with disabilities but he told me that Downs babies are a lot of work. When I queried this, he said they may need speech therapy! He was so ignorant. Sadly it seems that the approach of the medical profession generally is to encourage this kind of testing and then encourage termination of the pregnancy if there is a problem. While it may not be express, it is very much implied. This is mirrored in our society. It is almost as if to have a baby now with a problem is irresponsible. People regard it as a choice. I would never choose to have a baby with Down syndrome, but terminating a pregnancy because is not something that for me is a choice.

PEL | 22 July 2011  

Hi Pel,

thanks for sharing your experience. Sadly the anecdotal evidence suggests that plenty of people have encountered the same attitude in the medical profession. Some people are even referring to current practices as 'Medical Eugenics' http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=55/

Zac | 22 July 2011  

Many years ago a woman that i knew had testing for foetal abnormalities because she was having her first pregnancy in her late 30's. The test result was not conclusive but 'abnormal'. Her and her husband continued with the pregnancy and subsequent birth of two beautiful daughters who were born with hairlip. Both parents were so grateful for their earlier decision not to abort. However, at the end of the day it is a decision for the persons involved.

I personally believe we have a lot to learn about tolerance and acceptance. Unfortunately, we have not reached an acceptable level as yet for our so called 'sophisticated society'.

rhonda | 15 August 2011  

Do people realize that this is how the Nazis started out? They started by eliminating disabled babies and children, and the mentally ill. Go read about Aktion T4. They didn't start with Jews, but with helpless children. And they called it "mercy death." Now we supposedly enlightened, democratic societies are supporting eliminating disabled children in the womb and increasingly people (especially in the godless academy) are calling for killing newborns and young children for the same reason, as well as elderly, terminally ill - more or less anyone "defective" or "unproductive." Same actions and same terminology the Nazis used. So what does that make us? Yep, Nazis. And how long before they start eliminating anyone who is unwanted by society.

Horrifying - the normal reaction to all of this is horror. Disabled and otherwise vulnerable people are opportunities for us to show our love, generosity and charity. There is something worse than suffering. It's called sin. I tremble for a society whose answer to suffering and disability is to murder the sufferer.

Mouse | 18 August 2011  

One more thing: Abortion is never right. But to abort a child for a cleft palate is selfish and demonic in the extreme. Cleft palate is easily corrected with surgery. But then we have people aborting children just because they wanted a boy and got a girl - if this doesn't make us sick and sorrowful, what will?

Mouse | 18 August 2011  

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