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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2001 / 22 Elul, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Eugenics and abortion -- A PRO-LIFER I know has suggested that before deciding on an abortion, a woman should be required to have a sonogram so that she could see the evolving life within. I told the pro-lifer that mandatory sonograms would involve coercion by the state, which would be unconstitutional, and indeed a violation of privacy.

But her idea reminded me of a man I've known a long time who is a strong supporter, as his wife, of abortion rights. One day, looking rather startled, he had seen a sonogram of their child in progress. "I saw the fingers move," he told me, "and the legs." He sounded somewhat awed.

After the child was born, his memory of the sonogram faded, and he resumed his celebration of Roe vs. Wade. One evening, during a vigorous debate on abortion, my friend snapped at me, "If you're really pro-life, why don't you go out and kill doctors performing abortions!"

"I couldn't," I explained, "because I AM pro-life."

Recently, I saw in a Detroit pro-life publication, Lifespan News, a report of a "new high-tech ultrasound device -- a $175,000 scanner." The manufacturer, said the news story, says the imaging is so precise that "it produces crystal-clear photographs" of the face and body of the evolving not-yet-born life.

There is another dimension of this and similar devices. Not only will there be available, at the patient's bedside, such detailed images of the fetus, but doctors will be able to detect pre-birth abnormalities more easily.

As a result, some parents might decide, depending on the nature of the abnormalities, on an abortion rather than take on the emotional and financial expenses of dealing with his or her care for what could be many years.

But other parents might -- on seeing in front of them an actual human being -- not just, as some pro-choicers maintain, "a clump of cells" or a "product of conception" -- decide to keep the child.

In a formal debate some years ago with an activist in the abortion-rights movement, my opponent used exactly that "clump of cells" description to scoff at my assertion that the fetus is a human being, with characteristics, including DNA, distinctly its own. Sitting behind us, as the debate continued, was another pro-choicer who, however, had recently given birth. Spontaneously, she whispered, "But it IS a baby."

My own choice to become pro-life had nothing to do with religion. It was hastened by a letter in the Feb. 18, 1990 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association by North Carolina physician Joel Hylton: "Who can deny that the fetus is alive and is a separate genetic entity? Its humanity also cannot be questioned scientifically. It is certainly of no other species. That it is dependent on another makes it qualitatively no different from countless other humans outside the womb.

"It strikes me," Dr. Hylton continued, "to argue one may take an innocent life to preserve the quality of life of another is cold and carries utilitarianism to an obscene extreme. Nowhere else in our society is this permitted or even thinkable -- although abortion sets a frightening prospect."

Since that 1990 comment, this prospect has increasingly become thinkable -- with the rise of support for euthanasia and eugenics, the latter especially having become more thinkable. In her important new book "Future Perfect: Confronting Decisions About Genetics" (Columbia University Press, 2001), Lori B. Andrews of the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago points out:

"In large measure, the history of eugenics (improving the human race) is a history of brutality against the disabled. People who were mentally disabled were involuntarily sterilized in the United States -- by the thousands." And the Supreme Court approved this perfectibility of the human race in a 1927 decision, Buck vs. Bell, written by the much-respected Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

As Supreme Court expert Tony Mauro has noted in Legal Times, "Buck vs. Bell has never been fully overturned." The Catholic bishops are correct, in my view as an atheist, when they link capital punishment, euthanasia and abortion as devaluations of human life. So too is eugenics.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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