Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 20, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

"SELECTIVE REDUCTION"....Hmmm, sort of a slow day today. What should I write about? I know: how about abortion?

The New York Times magazine ran a short piece this weekend by Amy Richards, a woman who got pregnant with triplets and decided to abort two of the three fetuses. Here's the paragraph that got everyone hopping:

Having felt physically fine up to this point, I got on the subway afterward, and all of a sudden, I felt ill. I didn't want to eat anything. What I was going through seemed like a very unnatural experience. On the subway, Peter asked, ''Shouldn't we consider having triplets?'' And I had this adverse reaction: ''This is why they say it's the woman's choice, because you think I could just carry triplets. That's easy for you to say, but I'd have to give up my life.'' Not only would I have to be on bed rest at 20 weeks, I wouldn't be able to fly after 15. I was already at eight weeks.

When I found out about the triplets, I felt like: It's not the back of a pickup at 16, but now I'm going to have to move to Staten Island. I'll never leave my house because I'll have to care for these children. I'll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise. Even in my moments of thinking about having three, I don't think that deep down I was ever considering it.

Over at Unfogged, Unf says, "I haven't suddenly concluded that life begins at conception, but I do start to think that motives ought to matter. And in particular, when you have the motives expressed in this article, you ought to be sent to jail." And that's from a pro-choice liberal! Professor Bainbridge, a pro-life conservative, goes predictably further: "It is hard to see how any one with normal human values could find common ground with the author of this essay, whose morality differs but little from Hitler's executioners or the Rwandan genocidal killers."

This is what happens when you print an article that's not actually written by the author but "told to" someone else. It's got a stream of consciousness feel to it, and let's face it: most of us wouldn't look much better than Richards if we got suckered by a national magazine into revealing what we're really thinking when we're under stress. The thoughts that leap unbidden into our heads are often not very pretty.

(In fact, to read the whole piece correctly, I suspect you have to mentally insert lots of long pauses, several sighs of resignation, some staring at the ceiling, and a bit of stuttering and backtracking. Just my guess.)

But the criticism sure seems overwrought anyway, regardless of where you fall on the abortion question. If you're pro-life, and you think abortion is an abomination anyway, why is aborting two out of three fetuses any worse than aborting them all, as people do all the time? Both emotionally and intellectually, I don't get it.

And if you're pro-choice, why the sudden concern with motive? It's unfair anyway, since the "Staten Island" crack is what most people are focusing on, even though that's obviously just a metaphor: Richards says pretty clearly that she's concerned that triplets would prevent her from working and make her into a full-time housewife, and that's not what she wants. What's wrong with that?

I'll confess I was surprised to learn that you could selectively abort multiple fetuses apparently it's called "selective reduction." I had never heard of that before. But whatever your immediate emotional reaction to this, a moment's thought tells you that it's morally no different from any other abortion. No better, no worse. And since the whole point of human intelligence is that it frees us from relying merely on immediate emotional reaction, surely it's not too much to ask that we do it in this case too.

I'll end with two questions. First, why do you think this article produced such an emotional reaction? Second, can you suggest any serious moral argument for why selective reduction is worse than any other abortion?

Kevin Drum 6:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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