A thought experiment on Down Syndrome

I’ve written about thought experiments quite a few times on FTSOS. I think they’re one of the most powerful tools we have in philosophy, yet people unfortunately have a distaste for their occasional inconvenience. That is, thought experiments lay out a host of parameters, generally, and it is often difficult for people to accept them all. This tends to betray a misunderstanding of the entire point of a thought experiment.

I want to present a thought experiment on Down Syndrome, but I need to emphasize the importance of the parameters I’m going to lay out. They are not meant to be realistic at all. They are simply a method for isolating one or two factors in a situation. It’s like someone asking, “If we had flying cars, do you think we would have traffic signals like we do for the roads or would it all be radar?” There are many appropriate ways to answer this, however, one of those ways does not include saying, “Cars don’t fly.” Yes, we know cars don’t fly. This is a hypothetical thought experiment with the key parameter being that cars do fly. Noting that they do not, in fact, fly is the type of comment that should be saved for lazy sitcoms.

So here is my thought experiment. Suppose it is up to you to decide whether or not pregnant women with Down Syndrome fetuses will get abortions. This is your decision, whether you’re a man or a woman. You can say, “Yes, abort them all”, or you can say, “No, don’t abort any”, or you can say, “Abort some given percentage.” An explanation is needed for any answer, but the last one especially requires explaining.

Now, I want to be sure the parameters are clear. This is your decision. Whatever you choose, it will hurt no one. The women involved will take a pill that causes an abortion (provided that’s your choice). They will agree with your decision no matter what you choose. The same goes for the father of the fetus. And the sister. And brother. And cousin. And grandmother and grandfather. And everyone else in the world. Your decision will cause no financial hardship, no emotional or physical pain, and it will take place in a developed nation like the US. EDIT: I should be clear on this point: the lack of financial/emotional/physical hardship only applies during pregnancy, not after. That is, the hardship of pregnancy itself shouldn’t be considered a factor here. Assume all the women are of equal socioeconomic standing. You cannot ask them anything and you don’t know any of them. If you don’t make a choice, the entire planet will be destroyed immediately (and for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that you do no want that to happen). (Some philosophies argue that passive and active decisions are one and the same, but for this thought experiment, you must make an active decision. You cannot stand by idly and let nature take its course; if you stand by, Earth is immediately destroyed.) All the fetuses are no more than 4 weeks along.

Again, let me emphasize: This is your decision to make for every woman. Personal autonomy, liberty, freedom, etc are all irrelevant here. (And if it helps you to recognize that this isn’t an issue having anything to do with women’s rights, pretend this all takes place 100 million years into the future at a time when we’ve somehow evolved into an asexual species, so there are no males or females, but Down Syndrome or the asexual genetic equivalent still exists.)

Finally, if you’re of the position that abortion is always wrong in every situation, then your answer is already known and not especially interesting in this context.

So, what is it? Do you choose to abort (a decision with which everyone, including those taking the pill, will agree) or do you choose not to abort (a decision with which everyone will also agree)? Or do you choose some percentage between 0 and 100?