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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > September 2011 > "Reduction to a Singleton" and the Sovereignty of Choice
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“Reduction to a Singleton” and the Sovereignty of Choice

by Rev. Robert Barron

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 few weeks 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 Owellian 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 might 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; 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.

Posted: 9/15/2011 12:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 14 comments
Filed under: abortion

rudraksha beads
couples involved in reductions see a therapis
9/20/2011 1:44:45 AM
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ben dito
The most discusting thing I ever read.this country is going atheistic.our for fathers fought to give us a country under god.we are slowing going under satan.
9/20/2011 6:33:41 AM
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Margaret Simmermacher
Thstories related are horrifying!!
9/20/2011 4:31:42 PM
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Fr. Peter Pomposello
The Supreme Court decision would have been more accurate if it were written: "At the heart of sin is the right to defile one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life."
9/29/2011 9:35:08 AM
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Marie Emmer
My comment: A pregnancy takes two, a father was involved. You only mentioned the female. Surely the male was involved. What was his role, thought, in-put?
9/30/2011 11:28:05 AM
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In the public forum often the weight of the abortion decision seems centered only on the woman and her needs and careers- not so- there was a man involved as well. i have know some cases where the male urged the woman to have an abortion because he didn't want to deal with the responsibility of a child- but- the women would not concent to it- the two did the tango.
9/30/2011 5:39:45 PM
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Pray more fervently and fast for 40 days for life. Some of our brothers and sisters have gone MAD.
10/1/2011 8:43:12 PM
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Twins develop an emotional attachment to each other in utero. Selective reduction doesn't just scar the mother through moral guilt but also the surviving twin through grief and loss of their closest sibling; even before birth. Anyone who has lost a twin knows just what this is like.
10/7/2011 1:08:19 PM
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Thank you for this article, Father Barron because it makes me more committed to the pro-life movement. I feel my work has just begun educating people and praying/fasting for them.
10/9/2011 12:49:50 AM
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Hank Smith
This issue is an abortion issue. Robert, your views are colored by Catholicism, and its view of the body as part of the "Body of Christ" a Catholic idea. Jesus, who was not a Catholic, said "The Flesh in not real." Buddhists say this about re-incarnation "its not recommended." The body is God-like, to be sure, but God is beyond all definition, which you make clear, and so does Catholicism. So any attempts to define the morality of abortion are attempts to say that God can be harmed. Or defined! This is the dilemma of Catholicism - which has an ideology of its own. To build that ideology on Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, or even Jesus is an attempt to define the undefinable.

Jesus started no church, and none is needed. We have his teachings on record, and they are not the same as the teachings of any church. He went one important step beyond Buddhism and introduced us Holy Spirit, the bringer of Love and Truth. Thru Spirit we can transcend teachings made for humans limited to their time.

"You will do things greater than me," And we have. We have ended nazism, racism, sexism, and discovered the source of the Universe (Einstein, Godel, Heisenberg, et al). Few of these apostles were Catholics.
10/10/2011 1:56:03 AM
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Hank Smith
BTW, excellent program that aired on PBS! It goes to the heart of spirituality. However, be prepared for non Catholics like me to find you on the internet and make comments. We live in a most democratic age!
10/10/2011 2:10:29 AM
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Fr. I'm not sure how much more I can take of the people who are completely divorced of any sense of goodness and so obsessed with themselves. It is so disturbing and deeply hurtful that were living amongst evil like this. How long can such people withstand and fight against their memory of participating and having committed murder? How is the man/woman sitting in a prison cell for having killed someone with a gun any different to a woman who allowed her child to be killed with a needle? I pray that these hardened hearts change.
11/26/2011 4:56:57 PM
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I've always found that political movements seek to reduce the truth in each other's positions in order to make ours the perfectly moral and the other's perfectly immoral. Along the way the distortions become so that sometimes we can't see when we are doing something plainly wrong. In my mind, if a woman who says she is going to teach her daughter about having choices when she punted that choice to a doctor in order to make the reduction as ethical "as possible" is proof positive of the morality of abortion.

Having said that, I would say it's legal ban has ethical issues as well and the position can come from distortions. When my wife was pregnant, I was called a father "to be" and she a mother "to be." Do we expect funerals for miscarriages or condemn the DNC's that are performed for stillborn pregnancies? WE don't even treat the unborn as full human beings. And our position is gender selective. I would have no problem with legally banning abortion if it were legal for our government to force me to donate blood as a universal donor. WE would have problems with that violation of control over our bodies. I can respect why women might be circumspect.

I was discussing abortion with a priest and he asked me why I had problems with a total banning abortion even in cases to save the mother's life. My answer was simple, "If she dies, I am party to murder."

You can't fix an evil with evil.
1/14/2012 11:22:39 AM
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As the mother of twins, conceived naturally and very much a surprise to us (especially since we already had a daughter), I find this practice so abhorrent that I feel sick. Yes of course it's a shock, of course it's expensive, of course it's hard - but that's what child-raising is all about. And surely anyone who undergoes artificial insemination KNOWS the risk that there is more than likely going to be a multiple pregnancy?! Why are they not giving thanks for the ability to have two or however many children at once and not have to undergo that trauma / expense again?!! My twins (fraternal boy/girl) have a very special bond - maybe not as strong as those of identical twins, but certainly look to each other for comfort and understanding in a way that we will never be able to comprehend. Here in South Africa, our Multiple Births Association's motto is : "Where God chooses the members" - I have always felt "special" that I was entrusted with them. Was it in our plans? Has it involved sacrifice on our part? Of course it has. But we would not trade them for anything.
3/8/2012 10:55:11 PM
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