The McCaughey Case: Selective Reduction

by Jay Johansen

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As I write this, the "McCaughey Case" is big news. Bobbi McCaughey has just given birth to septuplets -- seven babies at once. Well-wishers are congratulating the parents and showering them with gifts. Praise is being heaped on their doctors for pulling mom and babies through.

But, warns the Chicago Tribune1, the case raises serious ethical questions. The McCaughey's had used fertility drugs and, as sometimes happens in such cases, got more than they bargained for. The article quotes a "health law specialist" from Boston University as saying that women who undergo fertility treatments should be required to "agree in advance not to carry more than three or four fetuses. ... Woman who conceive more than that should agree to selectively reduce the additional fetuses."

The Tribune article goes on to say, "Some argue that 'selective reduction' is another word for abortion. Bobbi McCaughey cited her religious faith as one reason for declining to reduce the number of fetuses she was carrying."

When someone uses a phrase like, "some argue that", this clearly implies that there is a counter-argument. The reference to Mrs McCaughey's religion would seem to indicate that this is some strange superstition. But curiously, the writer of this article never mentions what the rebuttal might be, what the real scientific facts are that those religious kooks are so obviously ignorant of. Perhaps this is because "selective reduction" clearly and obviously is another word for abortion. This is not a strange theory that some religious extremists "argue"; it is a plain medical fact.

But more to the point, the Tribune takes sixteen paragraphs to tell us how concerned various experts are that women with multiple babies in their wombs might not abort some of them, and how the country should really examine this issue, and how we might pressure or force pregnant women to have such abortions. But in all this discussion, there is only one sentence about what would seem the obvious question: Is abortion in such cases a good thing, and if so, why?

That one sentence reads (quoting the "health law expert" again): "If people won't agree in principle ... they're not ready to protect their child and that should be a pre-condition to having medical assistance to have a baby -- that you put your baby's health before your own wishes and ideas".

The logic of this is difficult to follow. Women should have abortions in order to protect their babies? How does killing a baby "protect" him? In what way is a baby's health advanced by killing him?

It is undeniably true that multiple births such as these are dangerous for mother and babies. In most large multiple births, many of the babies do not survive. But it is not at all clear how a child is better off to be deliberately killed by abortion rather than to die of natural causes.

Note how they cavalierly dismiss opposition to abortion by saying that women should "put your baby's health before your own wishes and ideas". Apparently, not wanting to brutally kill her own baby is just a curious whim that some women have, (like impulsively deciding to dye her hair, I suppose) and should not be permitted to interfere with a medical professional's decision that this child is excess and should be "selectively reduced".

I noted a moment ago that the article discussed how women with such multiple pregnancies could be "pressured or forced" to have abortions. That was not an exageration on my part. Again quoting the Tribune article: "[This] case, some health analysts say, points up the need, if not for laws then for a national consensus on strict guidelines governing treatment that go [sic] beyond those recommended by some medical professional societies."

In other words, if some group of doctors or "medical ethicists" decide that you should have an abortion, well, the experts aren't sure whether there should be a law that makes it an actual crime not to get the abortion, or simply "strict guidelines" to insure that no doctor will help you. Right after condemning a mother for failing to put her "baby's health before [her] own wishes and ideas" by refusing an abortion, they say that doctors should refuse to provide her with any care in such a case. So if a mother decides not to kill her baby, this is dangerous to her baby's health and should be condemned. But if a doctor refuses to give a women and her children medical care because he disagrees with her views on abortion, this is ethically responsible and praiseworthy.

One last quote from the Tribune: "Just beneath the euphoria over seven pairs of chubby cheeks, however, roil difficult social policy questions ... It almost becomes awkward to raise questions about whether this was a good thing to do in the face of seven babies and a hectic mom and dad". In other words, when people see happy, healthy babies and joyful parents, they may have a hard time realizing that it would have been so much better if these children had been torn limb from limb or had their brains sucked out. For their own good, of course. Funny how people can let emotions cloud their judgement, this curious idea that life and love and joy are somehow "better" than death and pain and misery. Where do the common people get these bizarre ideas?


1. "Ethical questions raised about births", Cindy Schreuder, reprinted in Dayton Daily News, 23 Nov 1997.

Posted 4 Sep 2000.

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Copyright 1997 by Jay Johansen
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