It was a glorious Sydney autumn afternoon: brilliant blue skies, gentle breeze with the sounds of children laughing and playing in the background. I was at a party, and I had just met a radiographer. Apparently they do things with X-rays, not radios! As we got talking, she told me about her work doing ultrasounds for pregnant women. Then all of a sudden, without even realizing it, she led us into some very deep water—although, strangely, I was the only one who was drowning; she floated along quite happily.
She explained that things have changed again in the baby industry. In the last decade or two, women in the ‘at risk’ group for foetal abnormality (i.e. those over 40) have been routinely offered an amniocentesis to determine if their baby has any abnormalities (e.g. Down syndrome). The effect of this has been that in recent years, the proportion of babies with disabilities born to younger women has increased. I didn’t need to ask why, and inside, I felt a deep sadness.
But the conversation didn’t end there; the radiographer went on to explain that there was now a much less invasive procedure—a simple blood test that can pick up many disabilities. It is now being offered to all women. “Hopefully we will soon solve the problem for these younger women as well”, she said.
I really didn’t know quite what to do. I wasn’t sure whether to be more upset by the reality of what was happening to these disabled babies or the completely casual way in which we were talking about it, as if the world was about to be rid of yet another problem. I was at a total loss about how to respond. Fortunately, my wife chipped in to say that we had decided not to ever have any of those kinds of tests because we thought life was precious. The conversation ended very quickly.
I went away feeling very flat for a number of reasons. Firstly, I felt like I had nothing to say. Secondly, I realized that it hadn’t even occurred to this woman to question what she was saying. She has grown up in a world where this is just what you do. The question of morality is entirely irrelevant.
On Monday at work, God provided a possible solution for future conversations. One of my colleagues commented that he had seen an episode of Boston Legal recently that touched on the issue of abortion, and he had been surprised to find that it hadn’t been as thoughtlessly liberal as he was expecting. The episode had raised the moral issue of whether sex selection was a valid reason for abortion. This is a line of argument that allows us back on the playing field, I think. Let me show you what I mean.
The normal arguments for ‘terminating’ a foetal life involve the fact that it is just a scrap of tissue, not a person. It is best to get rid of scraps of tissue that are going to cause everyone problems. But here’s the rub: what if the scrap of tissue happens to be female, not male? Would it be okay then to ‘terminate’ the pregnancy? I suspect that many people who would happily accept the decision to abort a Down baby would not so happily abort a female baby. But if that is the case, it allows us to gently say something about how the arguments about the foetus just being a scrap of tissue are, in fact, arguments of convenience. When it is a perfectly healthy scrap of female tissue whom someone wants to get rid of because it doesn’t suit them (maybe for cultural reasons), we start to realize that we don’t think of it so much as a scrap of tissue after all. (In fact, if you ask someone who has been trying to fall pregnant for a while about that scrap of tissue, they will tell you another story as well.)
But let me clarify: the point isn’t so much to win the argument; it is to allow us to gently question the accepted moral status quo. Maybe our treatment of the foetus with disabilities isn’t a very humane position after all. On further reflection, I think it also gives us an opportunity to turn to Jesus’ acceptance of social outcasts. In a society where some people were thought of as being more valuable than others, Jesus loved and accepted everyone because he saw them as having been made in the image of God. We can point out that however our society chooses to construct the ‘value’ of a human being, Christianity actually has something important to say about loving and caring for all. And we can do it in a way that involves a conversation, rather than the relational equivalent of punching someone in the nose.