Donor Child

by Jay Johansen
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Completely missing the point

I just read a review by Roger Ebert of the movie Sister's Keeper. Ebert makes a statement that demonstrates such a complete mis-reading of the pro-life philosophy that I found it rather jarring. I certainly comprehend that there are prople out there who disagree with me. But it surprises me when I learn that they don't even know the most basic elements of what we're saying. Don't these people even bother to listen to what their opponents say before they begin their rebuttals?

Let me clarify that I am not commenting here about the movie itself. I haven't seen it; I haven't read the book. I have no idea if I'd like it or hate it. I'm talking here about the review, not about the movie.

Apparently the gist of the movie is that a girl has leukemia and needs blood, bone marrow, and stem cell transplants. So her parents have another child, using in vitro fertilization techniques to insure that this child will be a suitable donor for her older sister. The little sister comes to resent the endless operations. When she reaches the age of 11 and her parents plan to take one of her kidneys for her older sister, she rebels and gets a lawyer to block the operation.

At this point the reviewer writes:

The movie never says so, but itís a practical parable about the debate between pro-choice and pro-life. If youíre pro-life, you would require Anna to donate her kidney, although there is a chance she could die, and her sister doesnít have a good prognosis. If youíre pro-choice, you would support Annaís lawsuit.

Wow. Has this guy been paying attention to the debate? He has the pro-life position completely backward.

Remember the whole embryonic stem cell debate and cloning debates? Pro-lifers said we were against children being conceived just to serve as organ donors for others. Pro-choicers defended this idea. George Bush, the pro-life president, put restrictions on funding of embryonic stem cell research and pushed through a ban on cloning. Barack Obama, the pro-choice president, lifted both. Pro-lifers fought against letting children be conceived to be used as stem cell or organ donors. Pro-choicers fought in favor of not only allowing it, but paying for it with tax dollars. Perhaps Ebert has not only the pro-life position wrong, but also the pro-choice position. While I've never heard pro-choicers say they would be in favor of forcing an 11-year-old child to donate an organ, they have clearly said they are in favor of forcing an 11-week-old unborn child to do so.

The essence of the pro-life position has always been that no human being, and especially a helpless child, should ever be used as an object for the convenience of others. If a month ago you wanted a baby and so you deliberately got yourself pregnant, but now your boyfriend has left you and you don't want to be pregnant anymore, that's too bad, we understand that this can be a huge burden, but you cannot dispose of a human life simply because it has become inconvenient to you. Children are not toys to be picked up when they are fun and thrown away when they no longer amuse you. If you had no desire or intention to become pregnant to begin with, but just wanted some quick and fun sex and condoms ruin the pleasure for you, again, sorry, too bad. You knew that was a possibility when you had sex. Now there's another human life involved. You do not have the right to kill another human being to make up for your poor planning.

Maybe he was thinking of this argument?

The only sense I can make out of Ebert's thinking is that perhaps he has an old straw-man pro-abortion argument in mind. It goes like this: By forbidding an abortion, you are forcing the pregnant woman to donate her uterus -- her bodily organs -- to preserve the life of another person. Would you do this in any other case? Suppose that person A has kidney failure. The only suitable donor we can find is person B. Would it be right to force person B to donate a kidney to person A? If not -- and most would agree it is not right -- then how is forcing a woman to donate her uterus to keep a baby alive right?

We discuss this analogy in some detail in our article, The Kidney Patient Analogy. But briefly put, the analogy fails on a number of points. To use the scenario from the movie:

  1. First and most important: Despite what you read in a lot of pro-abortion literature, a woman does not "find herself pregnant" one day. Getting pregnant requires engaging in certain specific, deliberate actions. Barring the rare case of rape, the woman engaged in these actions voluntarily. Unless she is incredibly ignorant, she knew that pregnancy was a possible result. Even if the pregnancy was unintended, she knew it could happen. If you caused a problem through your own deliberate behavior, it is fair to say that you should take responsibility for your actions and see it through. The little sister in this movie did not cause her older sister to have leukemia. She did not cause the situation, so she is not responsible to fix it.
  2. While pregnancy is uncomfortable, it does not normally cause permanent physical injury. In the rare cases when it does, like ectopic pregnancy, pro-lifers have always recognized exceptions to their general principles. This little girl is expected to go through multiple surgeries, and surgery is always risky. She is expected to give up a kidney, which will put her at seriously increased risk of kidney failure for the rest of her life.
  3. There is a vast difference between asking an adult to make extreme sacrifices and asking an 11-year-old child to make extreme sacrifices.
  4. Abortion is the deliberate killing of a baby. If this girl does not donate her kidney, she is only "killing her sister" in a figurative sense. Indeed, while her donated kidney may be the sister's best hope, there are many other things that doctors could do for her. There is a big difference between holding someone under water until he drowns, and standing on the beach doing nothing while someone drowns. Especially if you are not a good swimmer and would put yourself at extreme risk to help this other person, and there are others on the beach who could help.

Summing Up

Pro-lifers would not say that this little girl should be forced to give up her kidney for her sister. While I haven't taken a survey on the subject, I suspect that most pro-lifers would be against it: She's just a child, and no one has the right to ask this of her. If someone asked the parents to donate a kidney to save their daughter, I -- and I think most pro-lifers -- would say that they should, but that the law should not require them to do so.

Logical conclusion

I have never heard pro-choicers discuss this particlar issue, so I don't presume to know what they would say. But if you take their arguments for stem cell research and cloning to their logical conclusion, they should say that they are in favor of such forced organ donations. After all, the whole point of their defense of this research is that "saving lives" is a great and noble thing, and if we can save lives by creating a new human life for the sole purpose of killing him and then "harvesting" his stem cells or body organs to help someone else, that is a great technical and moral advance. Of course they always talk in terms of killing the person before birth. But suppose that the developing baby could be kept alive in an artificial womb in a laboratory -- whether it's some big glass tube filled with clear bubbling liquid and the baby floating in the middle like you see in the science fiction movies, or whatever. Clearly the advocates of embryonic stem cell research would have no ethical problem with keeping this baby growing for 8 months and then killing him and harvesting his organs for transplant. Would it make a difference if it was 10 months? As long as he is never "born", i.e. removed from the tube, what difference would another two months make? What about 11 months? Two years? At what point would it cease to be "medical research" and become "murder"?

July 4, 2009.

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