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‘Move on’ to what?

A common response to tragedy says a lot about views on life

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An op-ed in The Washington Post in February stirred no small amount of comments (at least 3,000 on the WaPo page, last I looked). The writer, Ruth Marcus, was disturbed about legislative proposals to ban the abortion of babies with Down syndrome. Or, as she put it, “barring women from terminating their pregnancies after the fetus has been determined” to bear the defective gene.

Her arguments should be familiar to all of us by now. The Supreme Court determined that it’s OK to have different views of when life begins, so no one opinion can be imposed upon all. It’s true that parenting always involves risk, but that’s different from demanding that a woman bear a child whose intelligence and life choices will be limited. And where does society get off “demanding” anything from a free woman? Isn’t that tantamount to “hijacking her body”?

Marcus has nothing against Down syndrome sufferers; the new Gerber baby is very cute, and she admires parents who welcome these children into their families. But make no mistake: She wouldn’t do it. “I can say without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been, I would have terminated [my own two] pregnancies had the testing come back positive. I would have grieved the loss and moved on.”

Kudos to her for being so forthright, but what does that even mean?

To bypass vital questions in order to get where you want to go may look like ‘moving on.’ But it’s really standing still.

First of all, what’s to grieve? What was lost? If a potential person who’s better off dead, why be sad? You did him or her a favor. But if an innocent human being, however impaired, then another body was hijacked. Marcus offers no moral justification for such a ghastly act, except a somewhat refined, understated version of survival of the fittest with unmistakable nods toward eugenics.

And if we’re unclear about what was left behind, then what does it mean to “move on”? It seems to me there’s a lot of careless assumption behind that statement. We hear it constantly (and its corollary, “getting on with my life”) in connection with unpleasant experiences—especially unpleasant experiences for which the speaker bears some blame or made some contribution. (Rape victims and parents of murdered children seldom speak glibly about “moving on.” Their very souls cry out for justice.)

Traditional moral theory, both Biblical and ancient, asks us to consider purpose when determining value. In other words, part of understanding how to behave in relation to food, sports, sex, children, education, etc., is to ask ourselves, What are these things for? To bypass vital questions in order to get where you want to go may indeed look like “moving on.” But it’s really standing still. If the purpose of one’s life is to avoid as many unpleasant experiences—or even tragic situations—as possible, there’s no real movement at all. Avoidance is stationary.

To accept and deal with the challenges of life as they come is to ride the current, honing reflexes and chiseling away sharp edges and shouting in triumph at the end. The opposite is to hunker down in the stream like a rock. The waters pass but don’t shape you. Rather than ending the journey a different—and likely better—person than you were at the beginning, you grow hard and inflexible.

What is the purpose of life? One theory—Call it Door #1—is that life is for us to shape to our perceived advantage. The other theory is that life is for shaping us. Most people, I would guess, share the former view if only by default—and life as a rock can be very pleasant, if one is both gifted and lucky. Otherwise it’s likely to disappoint. And for everyone, it ends.

What is your life for? What is a Down syndrome baby’s life for? If Door #1, the answer is plain, and ultimately meaningless. If Door #2, the answer is unfolding, with the best-case scenario of hope that is inexpressible and full of glory. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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