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?

6 Responses

  1. For those wanting a little bit of perspective, approximately 90% of the time women find out their child will have down syndrome, they choose to abort in the US and UK.

  2. 90% of women in the US and the UK have it right.

    When you set the parameter that “Your decision will cause no financial hardship, no emotional or physical pain”, I think you’re taking a very relevant part of the reality out of the decision. If it really were the case that having the kid wouldn’t cause any financial or emotional hardship well, then, I suppose there’s not much reason to abort it. Might as well enjoy the fruits of having a new blood relative to look after and love.

    However, in reality, the financial and emotional hardship that comes along with raising a down syndrome child is immense, and since it’s a hardship that’s preventable without causing any pain to a conscious creature (since we’re assuming an abortion well before consciousness. I LOVED your post that outlined the biological reality of the process of development and when consciousness was likely to occur btw. I’ve referenced it a number of times in debates I’ve had about this issue) it seems reasonable to me that we ought to prevent unnecessary hardship for both the family and the state by aborting the child.

    As my friends and I often say – abortions save lives.

    One caveat, though; I can technically only speak for myself when I say that the financial and emotional hardship of having to raise a down syndrome child would outweigh the joys and happiness that normally come along with being a parent. If someone told me that, for them, the hardship would be worth going through, then that’s how it is for them and it’s their decision to make.

  3. Taking economic and emotional hardship out of it I would say bring them all to term, but unfortunately it is such a huge part of the reality. But, like you said, eviscerating all that difficult life stuff, and being of the thought that the mother and all involved are ‘robot like’ non autonomous beings with no opinions or wish for decisions of their own, I can’t see why one wouldn’t have them live.

  4. I should be more specific. The financial hardship would only be eliminated for the cost of pregnancy itself. Everything after birth remains the same. That is, eliminate all the financial, physical, and emotional issues that come with pregnancy; don’t consider the hardships of pregnancy itself.

  5. And, alas, those with Down’s syndrome are also often subject to early-onset Alzheimer’s. A horrid double unfairness.

  6. My take is(disregarding the thought experiment for a moment), that decision is for the parents to make. They alone know the circumstances in their lives, as to how well they could deal with this situation. Then they also need to consider the emotional trauma that would inevitably go with allowing this birth, finances is one thing, dealing with what could amount to the equilavent of an elderly dementia patient for the child’s lifetime is something else entirely (Yes I know there are varying degrees of the Down condition, but assuming the worst).

    With that out of the way…If I had to make this choice in my life, I would vote abort. My wife is a smart gal, and I am fairly certain she would agree with my position. Plus there is the whole save the world thing…I know I kinda took this whole thing personally, but I think to make that decision for someone else, I would have to think it through as if it was my personal decision. I could not make a choice like that for someone else, if I could not make it for myself first.

    Incidentally, I am in my 2nd marriage, had 2 kids the first go-round, the wife had 3 on her 1st time around, and together we produced one more. The 1st pregnancy ended in a natural abortion, we dealt with it, moved on, tried again with the result being our youngest son, the Golden Child :) As he is the last, and the best looking (he looks just like me, my clone) he is growing up knowing he is part of a family dynamic that is there for him no matter what. I envy him. Point that I’m just now getting around to is, nature is cause for more abortions than man will ever be. And our fundamentalist friends who so love to attribute natural causes to their gods, leaves us with the notion that god his/her/itself is in favor of abortion…assuming they are right in their assumptions,, which I don’t, just thought I’d point that out.

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