Prenatal Diagnosis, Personal Identity, and Disability
Nelson, James Lindemann
Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 2000 September; 10(3): 213- 228
A fascinating criticism of abortion occasioned by prenatal diagnosis of potentially disabling traits is that the complex of test-and-abortion sends a morally disparaging message to people living with disabilities. I have argued that available versions of this "expressivist" argument are inadequate on two grounds. The most fundamental is that, considered as a practice, abortions prompted by prenatal testing are not semantically well-behaved enough to send any particular message; they do not function as signs in a rule-governed symbol system. Further, even granting, for the sake of argument, the expressive power of testing and aborting, it would not be possible, contra the argument's proponents, to distinguish between abortions undertaken because of beliefs about the disabling conditions the fetus might face as a child and abortions undertaken for many other possible reasons -- e.g., because of the poverty the fetus would face or the increase in family size that the birth of a new child would occasion. Here, I respond to criticisms of those arguments, and propose and defend another: the expressivist argument cannot, in general, distinguish successfully between abortion and therapy as modalities for responding to disabilities.
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