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“Reduction to a Singleton” and the Sovereignty of Choice

by Bishop Robert BarronSeptember 15, 2011

In my capacity as theologian, teacher, and culture commentator, I’ve been reading articles on ethical matters for years and have grown relatively inured to the expression of even the most outrageous points of view. But a couple years ago, I came across a piece that was so shocking and so egregious that I was compelled, as I read it, to put the magazine down several times and just shake my head in disbelief. It was an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine called “The Two Minus One Pregnancy,” dealing with the phenomenon of “reducing” (love the Orwellian language) a pregnancy from two children to one. Evidently for years obstetricians had been willing to eliminate one or more children if a woman was pregnant with triplets or quadruplets, but now, at the behest of an increasing number of mothers, doctors are commencing to (again, I’m using the dreadfully antiseptic language from the article) “reduce to a singlet,” which is to say, to eliminate one of two unborn and perfectly healthy twins. 

The piece begins with the story of “Jenny,” a forty-five year woman, who had, for years, been taking fertility drugs and enduring ovulation injections in order to have a child. To her chagrin, she found herself, as a result, pregnant with twins and decided that, given her age and precarious financial situation, she just couldn’t cope with two infants at once. And so she found herself one day on the examination table, turning her head away as the obstetrician approached her abdomen with a long needle, aiming it arbitrarily at one of the two developing babies. Her justification for this procedure is breathtaking in its irrationality: “If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn’t have rejected this pregnancy, because you feel like there’s a natural order…But we created this child in such an artificial manner…and somehow making a decision about how many to carry seemed to be just another choice.” 

Another woman, carrying a boy and a girl, decided to eliminate the male because “she already had a son.” This sort of discrimination based on gender is, apparently, common among those seeking reductions, calling to mind the gender specific abortion practices in China, a country now experiencing a serious imbalance between men and women. 

“Shelby,” a woman from Savannah, Georgia, submitted to artificial insemination with her husband’s sperm while he was deployed with the Army in Iraq. To her dismay, she conceived triplets. Frantically, she complained to her doctor: “This is not an option for us! I want only one!” Her regular physician referred her to a doctor in Atlanta who “did reductions” but that doctor told her that he wouldn’t reduce “below two.” She finally found a doctor who would destroy two of her babies. The only instruction she gave him was to choose one child who would be healthy. She didn’t want to make the decision based on gender because she wanted to make things “as ethically okay for me as I could.” Big of her, of course. The daughter to whom she gave birth is now two and half years old, and Shelby assures us that, when her daughter is old enough, she will tell her about the reduction so as teach her little girl that “women have choices, even if they’re sometimes difficult.” I would love to be a fly on the wall for that little conversation: “Honey, I chose to have two of your siblings murdered so that I could have an easier time raising you. And I hope that you will feel empowered one day to do the same, if you so choose.” I’m sure that will lead to some tender mother-daughter bonding. 

The article also references the therapists who help women deal with the pesky feelings of guilt that this “Sophie’s choice” induces. Dr. Stone, a Mt. Sinai doctor, says that she often recommends that couples involved in reductions see a therapist, “so they can be at peace with whatever they decide.” And Dr. Donna Steinberg, a Manhattan based psychologist, specializing in treating infertility patients, blithely explains that the guilt that some couples feel flows from “outsiders” who don’t appreciate the complexity of the struggle and wonder “how is that possible?” Well, yes, Dr. Steinberg, outsiders might just imagine how the murder of a perfectly healthy unborn child for the flimsiest of reasons is possible.

What one notices from beginning to end of this article is the absolute primacy of choice that our society increasingly takes for granted. There must be no limit set to a woman’s capacity for self-expression or self-creation, even if that choice involves the casual putting to death of her own children. We see here the playing out of Casey v. Planned Parenthood principle. I’m referring to the notorious 1992 judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court in an abortion-related case, which was articulated in part as follows: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.” The objective utterly gives way to the prerogatives of the subject, for sovereign choice determines the meaning of existence itself! The words of the Supreme Court justices may have sounded harmlessly abstract in 1992, but we see the concrete application of those words in the dreadful stories I’ve just rehearsed. Inconvenient babies? Babies of the wrong gender? Babies that just don’t fit into Mom’s career plans? One more baby than Mom can possibly handle? No problem: just choose to dispose of them.

I might suggest to some of the women interviewed in the article that their feelings of guilt are much more than annoying sensations, flowing from ignorant outsiders; they are actually the indications of a properly functioning conscience, which is to say, an instinct for what is objectively right and wrong, for those values that ought to shape choice and not be trumped by it.