Documentation: Breaking Ranks on Abortion

How Can We Keep From Sliding the Rest of the Way Down the Slippery Slope?

When the U. S. Department of Health called for a halt in fetal-tissue transplants pending further study of the ethical problems involved, I was sharply reminded that I myself have been evading the most basic of these problems for a long time. By this I mean that I have been reluctant to take a stand either in favor of legalized abortion (“pro-choice,” to use the propagandistic euphemism) or against it (“pro-life”).

For all my reluctance, however, I have recently found myself sliding toward the “pro-life” camp. Or perhaps I should say that I have found myself sliding, in company with everyone already alive, down a slippery slope toward horrors that will soon be upon us if we fail to slam the brakes on and perhaps even scramble our way back up to the secure ground above.

About 15 years ago, I ran into a famous scientist, a Nobel Laureate, who told me that he believed in testing all newborn babies for genetic defects. Infants who passed the test would be permitted to live; all others would be disposed of. The result would be a happier world. Appalled, I lit into this (as it seemed to me then) crackpot idea. What exactly was a genetic defect? Who would decide? What would prevent the authorities, beginning with extreme and therefore “easy” cases, from proceeding to decree that only people with a certain level of intelligences with certain physical attributes, deserved to be kept alive? Remember the Nazi program of eugenics?

All this the great scientist brushed aside with impatient contempt. “Do you have any objection to abortion?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Well, then,” he said, “if you’re willing to dispose of a baby before birth, why not afterward?”

This retort took me completely by surprise. In those days, before abortion was legalized, only people who opposed it held that a fetus was actually a baby—that is, a human being. Yet here was an eminent pro-abortion geneticist using that very argument, albeit not in order to show that abortion was murder but rather to show that infanticide wasn’t.

“If I thought that there was no difference between a fetus and a baby,” I said, “I would be against abortion, not in favor of infanticide.” Hearing this, he turned away with an arrogant smirk—though not before I, convinced that I had won the argument, flashed an answering smirk of my own.

But of course he is now having the last smirk. For while we may not yet have moved from an easy acceptance of abortion to the point of getting rid at our convenience of all less-than-perfect newborn babies, we are surely headed in that direction.

Take the question of fetal tissue. It is all very well for the federal government to call for further study. Yet Richard John Neuhaus, a philosopher and theologian who has made his own study of such matters, suggests that it is a little too late.

Never mind, says Neuhaus, that anxieties have been expressed both by pro- and anti-abortion groups about commercial trafficking in fetal parts, and about women becoming pregnant not to have babies but to produce fetal organs for profit.

In spite of all these considerations, the enthusiasm for fetal-tissue transplants (which seem to be effective in treating Parkinson’s disease and other diseases in adults) is so great that stopping them will be extremely difficult.

A number of infants with severe brain damage have already been put to death so that their organs could be “put to good use” as transplants. In these cases, it is true, the “donors” would not have survived more than a few weeks anyway. But as one doctor who is disturbed by this apparently humane practice points out, there is no “rational way to prevent the extension of the same approach” to other children with less serious defects—or even eventually with “defects” that consist of the “wrong” genetic makeup.

The line that 15 years ago I thought could be drawn at birth is turning out to be no line at all, and it has become less clear that there is indeed a direct connection between the legalization of abortion and the legitimation of infanticide. For it is just as the great geneticist (and, from the other side, the opponents of abortion) insisted: If the objection to killing a fetus is removed, there will soon be no objection to killing a newborn infant.

And so, looking up from approximately halfway down the slippery slope at the bottom of which lies some mutation, so to speak, of the Nazi program of selective human breeding and euthanasia, I see that it was the legalization of abortion that first pushed us over the edge.

There are those who believe that we can keep from sliding down the rest of the way without trying to climb back to the secure footing we were on before abortion was legalized. But can we? If so, how? And if not, how in all conscience can I, or anyone else who recognizes the nature of the pass to which we have come, continue to be neutral in the war between the “pro-choice” and the “pro-life” camps?


  • Norman Podhoretz

    Podhoretz served as Commentary magazine's Editor-in-Chief from 1960 (when he replaced Elliot E. Cohen) until his retirement in 1995. Podhoretz remains Commentary's Editor-at-Large.

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