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The Specter Of Pro-Choice Eugenics


by Nat Hentoff
The Washington Post, May 25, 1991

The Maryland abortion bill that was passed and signed into law in February was generally described as a "moderate" measure ensuring the women of the state the same rights as Roe v. Wade should that decision be overturned by the Supreme Court.

Another provision of the measure was parental notification before minors can get an abortion. This was a scam, however. The person deciding whether the notification is to be given will be the doctor about to perform the abortion.

There is something quite startling in the law that will gladden the hearts of eugenicists, who are considerable in number -- though many are still in the closet. The section on Abortion [Restrictions] Procedures declares that the state is not permitted to interfere -- at any stage -- in a woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy if "the fetus is affected by genetic defect or serious deformity or abnormality."

This means that a viable fetus can be destroyed if he or she has any genetic defect. Although the qualifier, "serious," precedes "deformity or abnormality," there is no such restriction on performing an abortion because of "genetic defect."

Last July, much to the celebration of many disabled people, the president signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although it is now unlawful to discriminate against the disabled in many areas of life, the Maryland statute permits the ultimate discrimination against them before they are born.

As the Human Genome Project finds out more and more about how to detect genetic defects, the reasons for this kind of abortion on viable fetuses will accumulate. Even now, with increasingly sophisticated prenatal tests, it is possible to discern a considerable number of genetic defects in a fetus.

As law professor Robert Destro points out, by the letter of the Maryland law, a mother could put to death a fetus diagnosed as having myopia. (There are parents who do want perfect children.) And others might well return a fetus marked with cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia.

I expected some strong protests from disability rights groups about this enshrinement of eugenics -- particularly since I have heard fears of the brave new world of the genome at disability rights meetings. But so far as I know, there has been silence among these usually forthright activists.

One reason may be that disability rights groups are ambivalent about abortion. Some of the members are pro-choice; others have no firm opinion but do not want to be identified with so controversial a movement and one that often gets a bad press. They figure they have enough problems of their own.

Some of the key disability groups, however, have been willing to oppose euthanasia (as in the Cruzan case) and to support the rights of Baby Does -- severely handicapped infants whose parents want to let them slide into eternity. The disabled know that as it becomes easier for society to get rid of expensively imperfect people, they themselves may eventually not be safe from lethal mercy.

One disability rights activist -- the feminist writer Anne Finger, herself disabled -- is aware of the return of eugenics and the dangers it brings. In an article in the Disability Rag, she tells of having joined an abortion rights group and of offering to speak at a meeting about disability and reproductive rights.

"When I started talking about how the reproductive rights movement was sometimes guilty of exploiting fears about disability when it argued for abortion because of fetal defect, things got really strained. I expected lip service, condescension, liberalism -- but certainly not hostility."

Also at that meeting was a Harvard biology professor, Ruth Hubbard, who has since retired. She was not hostile: "My problems with prenatal screening stem mostly from my concern about how it's creating eugenic thinking. We act as if we can look at a gene and say, 'Ah-ha, this gene causes this ... disability,' when in fact the interactions between the gene and the environment are enormously complex. It moves our focus from the environmental causes of disabilities -- which are terrifying and increasing daily -- to individual genetic ones."

The pro-choice forces, however, are so intent on removing all obstacles to abortion that eugenics is no specter to them.

Anne Finger remembers the initial, stunning triumph of eugenics in the hospitals and mental institutions of Germany, where so many "defectives" were killed before the beginning of the concentration camps. She is still pro-choice, but she also knows what certain choices can lead to.

Copyright 1991 The Washington Post