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Thoughts on the recent Abortion and Disability Debate – Ann Furedi & James Mumford

The abortion of those with a disability has been the subject of much media debate in recent months. You can listen to a debate on the topic between the head of  BPAS Ann Furedi and Ethicist James Mumford, the debate is based on recent tweet’s from Richard Dawkin’s.

I just had a few observations related to the debate and the philosophical basis for Dawkin’s comments to “abort it and try again”.

1. If the abortion of disabled fetuses is an affront to the dignity of those born with a disability then the abortion of a fetus without a disability ought to be an affront to the dignity of those without a disability.

2. Dawkin’s comment about replacing a disabled fetus with a healthy one is not something he came up with himself, his views are based on Peter Singer’s controversial replaceability principle in his book ‘Practical Ethics’. What this entails is applying utilitarian ethical principles to the problem of fetal disability. Utilitarianism intends to minimize suffering and maximizing happiness, therefore, in the event of fetal disability the mother using utilitarian reasoning ought to kill the disabled fetus and replace them with a healthy one. This is because the death of the disabled fetus results in no future suffering for them and it maximizes happiness/pleasure through bringing a healthy infant into the world.

3. A few problems with the replaceability principle are that it assumes the total suffering of the disabled life will be greater than the healthy one. However, this cannot be definitively known, what if the ‘healthy’ fetus grows up to be a murderer/rapist/robber etc, or grows up to be a manic depressive who hates living but cannot bring about ending their life. There are numerous cases where the life of someone without a disability does not guarantee producing greater happiness on the utilitarian calculus. The replacement principle simply begs the question by assuming that the life of someone without a disability will de facto be a happier life than someone with a disability when this simply cannot always be the case. In fact numerous studies have observed that those living with a disability are as happy or happier than their counterparts with no disability.

How can the person intending to replace the disabled fetus know that their next attempt at conceiving will actually bring about a healthy fetus and not another disabled fetus? If this were the case the the suffering from a utilitarian perspective is immediately doubled, the parents must go through another abortion, knowing they are responsible for another death. Why must the disabled fetus be replaced with another one, why not a dog? Providing they were well looked after and not disabled? As long as the act brings about happier consequences then all is good and well.

4. The replaceability principle is eugenic, it supports and helps propagate the idea that humans must meet arbitrary standards of normalcy before they can be welcomed into the world. If you cannot see how this is eugenic, you don’t understand eugenics.

5. The eugenic basis of the replaceability principle helps to subvert the maternal-child relationship into one which is conditional and tentative. Rather than accepting ones offspring for who they are, they may only be permitted to live should they meet certain requirements and not use more than their fair share of societies resources.


About @Nicodemus

I'm a Holmesian Christian, a former atheist, university lecturer and a husband of one wife.


5 thoughts on “Thoughts on the recent Abortion and Disability Debate – Ann Furedi & James Mumford

  1. Reblogged this on Apologetics UK.


    Posted by TysonB | December 26, 2014, 4:54 pm
  2. Just because a fetus isn’t human, it doesn’t stand we have no ethical responsibilities to non human entities. I just think it’s sad an anthropologist of all people is eager to eat again from the fruit of the eugenics tree; but he’s never liked the judge a tree by its fruit category. The ethical question is can negative eugenics ever be brought to heel once let out the bag. The first attempts’ results should give a rational ape pause.


    Posted by vonleonhardt2 | December 27, 2014, 5:12 am
    • I agree, I think we do have responsibilities toward non-human animals although they don’t themselves possess any rights. However, in this case we are in fact talking about a human being.


      Posted by @failedatheist | December 27, 2014, 5:06 pm
      • I don’t think ethically there is anything to be gained by claiming when someone is our isn’t human as it’s a bad rabbit hole to run down, and I think the issue of vitality makes fetuses a iffy category to try and draw the distinction within. I think it really suffices to say there are moral obligations to fetuses and leave it at that. The personhood argument leaves to much gray area, and people treat other people as disposable so it doesn’t achieve it’s end. I’d rather surrender a battle and win the war.


        Posted by vonleonhardt2 | December 27, 2014, 10:30 pm
  3. I have to say I disagree, some of abortions most ardent defenders such as Peter Singer have no qualms stating that the unborn from conception-fertilization are human. Where he differs is by making the distinction between human beings and human persons and it is only wrong to kill a human person. There is no rabbit hole, every embryology textbook I’ve ever encountered is quite clear that we are always talking about a whole human organism and member of the human species.

    Philosophically I agree that there are a number of problems with the definitions of person offered e.g. Singer, Tooley & Warren etc. But I don’t think we need to throw out the whole idea of being a person. Theologically I think good exegesis leads us to the conclusion that all humans are made in the image of God, and therefore all possess equal dignity, such that it as wrong to kill an unborn human as a born human.


    Posted by @failedatheist | December 30, 2014, 5:53 pm

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