Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Last week, there was a story running through the news.

One which I'm a little surprised hasn't demanded more attention, more discussion, more controversy, especially given the fact that it's an election year.

I'd venture a guess that the reason it hasn't had more media coverage is a simple one.  It makes people uncomfortable.  It makes you squirm in your seat.  Makes you question your belief systems if you can tease out the deeper ethical questions that come from a situation like this.

It doesn't sit well with anyone, really, no matter where you line up on the larger issue.

What happened is this:  A pregnant woman and her husband were reassured several times during her pregnancy that the baby was healthy.  The baby, a girl, was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome shortly after her birth.  Her parents initiated a lawsuit, claiming wrongful life.  They asserted that they would have aborted her, given the correct information, and they were denied that opportunity through negligence of the physicians.  They requested monetary damages to help cover the cost of her care over her lifetime.

They won, and were awarded $2.9 million dollars.

For the sake of simplicity, I will concede the fact that the doctors had five instances of where they "should have known" and didn't, or did and didn't tell the parents was agreed to by the court.  Whether any of that is actual fact, I'm not sure.  Nor am I convinced that there were indeed five separate occasions of negligence.

In any medical test, there is a range of result values.  There are occasionally going to be outlying values, and those values may or may not possibly be indicators of an issue.  Whether something that represents only a "chance" of a condition is required to be conveyed to the patient at every opportunity isn't a decision that should be made in a courtroom to be honest.

I look at it this way....I was deferred from giving blood yesterday because my hemoglobin level was too low.  It could indicate a huge number of serious, life threatening medical conditions.  Or it could just mean I need to up my iron intake.  Should a physician be required to tell you what every symptom or test result could possibly mean?  I'd argue not for the simple fact that the average person does not possess the ability to differentiate the conditions on their own, and should not be burdened with worrying about conditions that most likely will never manifest. This is the same reason that hypochondriacs shouldn't google their symptoms.

But I digress.

Let's assume that the doctors here knew, with 100% certainty that this child did indeed have Down's Syndrome, and did not tell the parents.

Did they have the right to know?  Yes.
Did they have the right to elect an abortion if armed with that knowledge?  Yes.

Did those things happen?  No.

The baby was born, and will live her entire life with this condition. And her parents successfully won a lawsuit alleging she should have never been allowed to live in the first place.  The child is now four years old, and as I understand, otherwise healthy.

I have many problems with this scenario.

First, there is absolutely no way for this couple to surmise what they may have done had they actually been given the information.  They can look back in time and assert they would have elected termination, but there is no way to know that.  There is no such thing as time travel.  We don't get do-overs.  What if's are dangerous and hardly ever productive.

They may very well have chosen to continue the pregnancy.  Period.

Second, the lawsuit implies that medical information is a perfect system.  That test results are never accidentally mixed up.  That testing is black and white in the first place.  That a definitive diagnosis can always be made.  It simply is not that way.  This suit requires physicians to be right, every time, with every diagnosis, or they are at the mercy of the legal system.

Medicine is called a practice for a reason. Every patient is different. Every test result and symptom different. Rarely are there ever absolutes, and verdicts like this assume that there can be.

Third, I take issue with the parents claim here that they love their child, and only took action here for financial reasons.  You can't say you would have killed her on one hand, then profess love for her on the other.  It's morally repugnant and an insult to her as a basic human being.  Fortunately for their daughter, she will probably never be fully able to comprehend the fact that her parents wish they could have aborted her.

Fourth, this outcome essentially assigns a monetary guarantee to the right to an abortion.  I am pro-choice, but I cannot support it to this extreme.

Fifth, this verdict is unfair to the parents of all children, healthy or not, impaired or intact, handicapped or fully capable.  It places a numeric value on one condition, determines it is a burden which deserves to be paid for.  What about all the parents out there with babies born with conditions that could have been diagnosed, that should have been diagnosed?  What about children with conditions that aren't quite so distinguishable?  Are they also therefore entitled to allege they would have aborted their children had they been given the option so that they may collect millions of dollars?

I'd make the argument that they are not, obviously.

The choice to have a child is the choice to have a child.  Period.  There are no guarantees in life.  All children have flaws and imperfections, but that doesn't make them less worthy.  That child could grow up to find the cure for cancer or be a serial killer.  You don't get a refund if it doesn't work out the way you hoped, and there shouldn't be a payday for having a child with a chromosomal abnormality.

There should not be a legal action known as wrongful life.

I have to assume this verdict is being appealed, and hope that a higher court will overturn it.

More than that, though, I hope this sweet little girl never learns what her parents have done.


  1. The whole thing is awful. Glad you stated your feeling so well...and I think I back you up 100%. One of the reasons we have chosen to stop at 2 kids is that every time you have a child it is like rolling the dice. Is this one going to be healthy and "normal?" Am I going to be healthy and get through this okay? If I was to get pregnant again, we'd welcome the baby, but be scared to death about the what ifs. Being pregnant is wonderful and it is also scary. Having to make the choice to have those tests, having to make the brave choice on what to do based on those test results is even harder and an individual's and couple's right. These people are going to make it hard for anyone to have one of those tests, they are making it hard on those who have had children with disabilities. Shame on them.

  2. Thank you for addressing this. I have struggled with the case since I learned about it. As a pro-choice women I could see all the sides but the ultimate outcome didn't sit right. I think you hit all the important points.


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