Is it better for deformed or handicapped children never to be born?

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.
Down's Syndrome, also called Mongoloidism, is one reason babies are killed before birth. Although this man has this condition and has experienced some physical trials, his life overall is outstandingly happy, loving and contented.
Photo copyrighted, Films for Christ.

Since it is now possible to detect through amniocentesis and other tests whether the unborn entity will turn out to be physically or mentally handicapped,[15] some argue that abortion should remain a choice for women who do not want to take care of such a child.

Another reason cited for advocating the aborting of the defective unborn is that it is better for such children never to be born rather than to live a life burdened with a serious mental or physical handicap. There are several problems with this argument.

  1. This argument, like many of the appeals to “hard cases,” does not really support the pro-choice position—the position that abortion is a fundamental right the pregnant woman can exercise for any reason she deems fit during the entire nine months of pregnancy. In other words, if this argument is successful in showing that abortion is justified in the case of a woman pregnant with a deformed or Mongoloid fetus, it only establishes the right to an abortion in such cases, not "for any reason the pregnant woman deems fit."

  2. Like many of the pro-choice arguments, this argument begs the question by assuming that the unborn entity is not fully human. For if the unborn are fully human, then to promote the aborting of the handicapped unborn is no different morally than promoting the execution of handicapped people who are already born.

    But such a practice is morally reprehensible. Are not adults with deformities human? Then so too are smaller people who have the same deformities. In fact, pro-choice advocates Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse, who argue for their position in other ways, admit that…

    Pro-life groups are right about one thing: the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make such a crucial moral difference… The solution, however, is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite: to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth.[16]

    Although I do not agree with this conclusion, and will argue against it, Singer and Kuhse make an important observation: the question is not whether a handicapped individual is born or unborn, but whether handicapped human life should be protected equally with healthy human life.

  3. Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.It is amazingly presumptuous for mere human beings to say that certain other human beings are better off not existing. Those who make such judgments concerning the handicapped seem to assume that handicapped persons cannot live meaningful and even happy lives. However, this assumption is false.

    Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who worked for years with severely deformed infants as a pediatric surgeon at Philadelphia's Children's Hospital, commented that…

    It has been my constant experience that disability and unhappiness do not necessarily go together.[17]

    He continues:

    Some of the most unhappy children whom I have known have all of their physical and mental faculties, and on the other hand some of the happiest youngsters have borne burdens which I myself would find very difficult to bear. Our obligation in such circumstances is to find alternatives for the problems our patients face. I don't consider death an acceptable alternative. With our technology and creativity, we are merely at the beginning of what we can do educationally and in the field of leisure activities for such youngsters. And who knows what happiness is for another person?[18]

    This is not to deny that there are tragedies in life and that having a handicapped child is often a difficult burden to undertake. But I think it is important to realize that if the unborn entity is fully human, homicide cannot be justified simply because it relieves one of a terrible burden.

    Though it may be hard to accept, I believe the following principle is fundamental to correct moral reasoning:

    Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.


    If this moral precept were not true, all so-called moral dilemmas would be easily soluble by simply appealing to one's own relief from suffering. But in such a world the antidote would be worse than the poison, for people would then have a right to inflict suffering on another if it relieved them of their own. This would be morally intolerable.

    Moreover, it should not be forgotten that a handicapped child can give both society and the family into which it has been born an opportunity to exercise true compassion, love, charity, and kindness. It is an assault upon our common humanity to deny our capacity to attain virtue in the presence of suffering.

    [Editor's note: Caring for the suffering, the ill and handicapped is the right and loving thing to do. They are worthy of our love. Furthermore, in many cases, they contribute joy to a family.]

  4. Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.For obvious reasons many handicapped people are vehemently opposed to this argument for abortion. In fact, there is not a single organization of handicapped people that is on record in favor of abortion of those who may be handicapped.

    Surgeon General Koop cites the following letter, which appeared in the London Daily Telegraph (8 Dec., 1962) at a time when European newspapers were seriously discussing the use of abortion as an effective means by which to avoid the birth of children who became defective in utero due to their mother's use of Thalidomide (a tranquilizer used by European women in the 1950s and 1960s but never approved by the FDA for sale in the U.S.):

    Dec. 8, 1962


    We were disabled from causes other than Thalidomide, the first of us two having useless arms and hands; the second, two useless legs; and the third, the use of neither arms nor legs.

    We were fortunate…in having been allowed to live and we want to say with strong conviction how thankful we are that none took it upon themselves to destroy us as useless cripples.

    Here at the Debarue school of spastics, one of the schools of the National Spastic Society, we have found worthwhile and happy lives and we face our future with confidence. Despite our disability, life still has much to offer and we are more than anxious, if only metaphorically, to reach out toward the future.

    This, we hope will give comfort and hope to the parents of the Thalidomide babies, and at the same time serve to condemn those who would contemplate the destruction of even a limbless baby.

    Yours faithfully,

    Elaine Duckett,
    Glynn Verdon,
    Caryl Hodges.


  5. If there were a negative correlation between happiness and handicap, it would seem natural to find more suicides among the handicapped than the general public. But the opposite is the case. Professor Krason points out that “no study… has found that handicapped persons are more likely than non-handicapped persons to want to be killed or to commit suicide.” Citing a study of the late Dr. Hellegers, Krason writes that “of 200 consecutive suicides at the Baltimore Morgue… none had been committed by people with congenital anomalies.”[21]

    Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

    An uncle with Down's Syndrome enjoying his niece. He is a happy and productive member of society, loved by all.

    His father says, “I understand the issue of having a child with health problems; I have a son with Down's Syndrome (severe mental retardation), but, although most doctors would recommend having him aborted, I would not, even after having him for 26 years, ever have considered having him aborted if I had to make the decision all over again. God does not give us more of a burden than we can bear (with His help).”

    A society whose ethic asserts that certain preborn human beings forfeit their right to life simply because they have a certain physical deformity or mental handicap is a society that will inevitably see those who have already been born with the same features as having lives “not worth living.”

    The chilling logic of this conclusion was played out in a real-life situation in 1982. That year, Infant Doe, an Indiana newborn who was born with Down's syndrome and correctable spina bifida, was permitted to die at the request of her parents who asked the attending physician to withhold food and water from the infant. This parental decision was upheld by an Indiana court. Since her spina bifida was correctable by surgery, if Infant Doe had not been “retarded,” there is no doubt that the parents would have requested the necessary surgery. So it was not the spina bifida that killed Infant Doe, but parents who neglected her simply because she had Down's syndrome.

    Photo Copyrighted.While commenting on the Infant Doe case, columnist George Will writes about his own son, Jonathan, a Down's syndrome citizen:

    When a commentator has a direct personal interest in an issue, it behooves him to say so. Some of my best friends are Down's syndrome citizens. (Citizens are what Down's syndrome children are if they avoid being homicide victims in hospitals.)

    Jonathan Will, 10, fourth-grader and Orioles fan (and the best Wiffle-ball hitter in southern Maryland), has Down's syndrome. He does not “suffer from” (as newspapers are wont to say) Down's syndrome. He suffers from nothing, except anxiety about the Orioles' lousy start. He is doing nicely, thank you. But he is bound to have quite enough problems dealing with society—receiving rights, let alone empathy. He can do without people like Infant Doe's parents, and courts like Indiana's asserting by their actions the principle that people like him are less than fully human. On the evidence, Down's syndrome citizens have little to learn about being human from people responsible for the death of Infant Doe.[22]

  6. Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

    Tertatoma, anencephaly, etc. What about extreme cases in which the entities in the womb are so genetically abnormal as to be arguably nonhuman?

    For example, the tertatoma is simply a tumor with some human genetic material that has gone awry. Sometimes it may contain hair, teeth, skin, or even fingers, but it is not an unborn human entity and does not have the inherent capacity to develop under any conditions into a human infant. The tertatoma is part of the woman's bodily tissue and is not a separate human individual.[23]

    More difficult is the case of the anencephalic baby. According to the American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine, anencephaly is the “absence at birth of the brain, cranial vault (top of the skull), and spinal cord. Most affected infants are stillborn or survive only a few hours.” Anencephaly occurs “due to a failure in development of the neural tube, the nerve tissue in the embryo that eventually develops into the spinal cord and brain.” A woman can know early in pregnancy that she is carrying an anencephalic baby “by measurement of alphafetoprotein, by ultrasound scanning, and by amnio-centesis…”[24]

    We may or may not be dealing with human beings in the case of anencephalic babies. Citing the work of Professor Germain Grisez, Krason argues that "there are two ways we may view the ‘anencephalic monster,’ depending on when the abnormality originates." One way, "when the abnormality or the genetic certainty of it is present from conception, is to view the organism as human in its conception, but incapable of developing beyond a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks." He argues "that in such cases, especially if the specifically human genetic pattern is greatly transformed, we may not consider the conceptus a human individual." [25]

    Relying on Grisez, Krason writes that when the abnormality develops some time after conception we could view the anencephelic as we would an individual who has had his head blown off by a shotgun. "Such a person is human and remains such until he dies." Since "the anencephalic originated as a human and developed normally up to the point when the neural tube failed to close…he thus can be viewed as a human being, albeit a damaged one, whose abnormality will cause his death shortly after birth, like the gunshot-wounded person will die a short while after his wound."[26] A damaged human is not a nonhuman.

    It should be remembered, however, that the anencephalic is a “hard case,” and cannot be used to justify the vast majority of abortions that involve the killing of healthy unborns for any reason the pregnant woman deems fit. Furthermore, the argument from the apparent nonhumanness of the anencephalic implicitly admits what is the main contention of the pro-life position, namely, that unborn human beings should not be killed.


  1. Baruch Brody, Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life: A Philosophical View (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1975), pp. 36-37. [up]
  2. See “Birth Defects,” in The American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine, pp. 172-73. [up]
  3. Peter Singer and Helen Kuhse, “On Letting Handicapped Infants Die,” in James Rachels, editor, The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, (New York: Random House, 1989), p. 146. [up]
  4. Quoted in Bernard Nathanson, M.D., Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979), p. 235. [up]
  5. Ibid., 235-36. [up]
  6. See Peter Kreeft, The Unaborted Socrates (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982), p. 140. [up]
  7. C. Everett Koop, The Right to Live: The Right to Die (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1976), pp. 51-52. [up]
  8. Stephen M. Krason, Abortion: Politics, Morality, and the Constitution (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), p. 295. [up]
  9. George Will, “The Killing Will Not Stop,” in The Zero People, 206-7. Originally published in the Washington Post (22 April 1982). [up]
  10. AMA Encyclopedia, p. 971. [up]
  11. Ibid., p. 104. [up]
  12. Stephen M. Krason, Abortion: Politics, Morality, and the Constitution (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), pp. 386-387. See Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1970), p. 30. [up]

Author: Francis J. Beckwith. Published with permission of Summit Ministries and the author. Minor editing by Paul S. Taylor, Christian Answers.

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