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Volume 70, Issue 23, Thursday, September 23, 2004

Opinion
 

Lawsuits an insult to disabled children

Geoffrey Josefy
Opinion Columnist

"Does your child suffer from birth defects such as spina bifida, sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis or Down's syndrome? If so, you may be entitled to a multimillion dollar cash settlement since you did not have an abortion."

Although the above is not currently a TV commercial interspersed between midday soap operas and trash talk shows, it certainly may be soon. An increasingly common twist on the abortion debate is parents who successfully sue their obstetricians for failing to inform them about the option of abortion.

These so-called "wrongful-birth" or "wrongful-life" lawsuits have become increasingly common because of advances in neonatal birth-defect testing and climbing healthcare costs, which financially strain parents of children with birth defects.

However, as the number of successful lawsuits and resultant large cash awards mount, the ethical issues that should accompany the debate are lost. Lawsuits like these only amplify the perception that every child has a right to be born perfect, and anything less is cause for legal action.

This "perfect child" perception and the threat of legal responsibility for birth defects put obstetricians in the uncomfortable position of recommending -- if not insisting on -- abortion where there exists even the slightest doubt.

Dr. T. Murphy Goodwin, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine puts it bluntly:

"On one side you have a liability mess that puts you on the hook for the rest of the child's life. The other side, you have carte blanche to avoid the potential for these kinds of problems by shading the discussion to advocate abortion. There's almost no adverse reaction if a doctor tells someone to terminate a pregnancy based on faulty information."

What is completely ignored in all of this is the mental well being of the child. By filing lawsuits, parents have effectively reduced their children to commodities to be argued over in court. Plaintiff's lawyers argue the life of the child in the same way they argue the purchase of a house: If the housing defects had been known prior to purchase, the home would have never been bought.

What parents can truly claim to love their child when they testify in court that they would have killed their child prior to birth had they known that he were to be born with a defect?

And what additional strain is placed on the mental health of the child, already burdened with a birth defect, when he finds out his parents would have killed him prior to birth?

In a country that tends to place value on human life and equality, why do we continue to turn our heads away from the important issues by allowing such inhumane cases to flood our legal system?

When human life is devalued in such a way that people with disabilities and imperfections are seen as worthless (as evidenced by the size of awards parents receive to "compensate" them for their child's defect), we must stop and ask ourselves in what direction our society is headed.

Josefy, a columnist for The Daily Cougar, 
can be reached at gtjosefy@central.uh.edu

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