A casually worded CBS News article depicts a horrifying reality. CBS News reported earlier this week that Iceland is leading the world in “eradicating Down syndrome births.” One might be forgiven for assuming that Iceland has developed an innovative treatment for the chromosomal disorder. It turns out Iceland’s solution is much simpler, and much more sinister: using prenatal testing and abortion to systematically exterminate children with Down syndrome. This isn’t progress; it’s eugenics. Prenatal testing is optional in Iceland, but the government mandates that doctors notify women of that option. About 85 percent of expectant mothers undergo the test, and close to 100 percent of those women choose to abort if their child is diagnosed with Down syndrome. Just two children with Down syndrome are born in Iceland each year, often as the result of faulty testing. The CBS article does little to accord this subject the moral gravity it deserves. “Other countries aren’t lagging too far behind in Down syndrome termination rates,” the authors note casually. CBS News’s tweet promoting the story read simply: “Iceland is on pace to virtually eliminate Down syndrome through abortion.” But Iceland isn’t “eliminating Down syndrome” at all. It’s eliminating people. The callous tone of the piece makes selective abortion sound like a technological innovation rather than what it really is: the intentional targeting of “unfit” persons for total elimination. What kind of culture does it require to foster such a mindset, to foster a society in which nearly every mother of a Down-syndrome child chooses to abort? Iceland is at the high end of the spectrum in this regard — and was one of the first countries to normalize widespread prenatal testing, in an effort to identify fetal abnormalities and eliminate them through abortion — but it is far from alone. Ninety percent of women in the United Kingdom who receive a positive Down-syndrome diagnosis choose to abort. In the U.S., that percentage falls somewhere between 67 and 90, according to a recent meta-study of Down-syndrome termination rates over the last few decades. In Europe as a whole, somewhere around 92 percent of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. This targeting of individuals with Down syndrome is borne out not just in astronomical abortion rates, but in a cultural attitude that often regards them as less than human. In France, for example, the State Council banned from the airwaves a video featuring children with Down syndrome talking about their happy lives. The advertisement was meant to comfort mothers who received a prenatal diagnosis and assure them that their children would have beautiful, largely normal lives. The ad was forbidden by the French government because the smiles of the children would “disturb the conscience of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices” — in other words, because seeing them happy would upset women who had aborted their Down syndrome children. Meanwhile, prenatal testing is praised nearly universally for its ability to give women a full array of “options” for their pregnancies, but many women report feeling pressured by their doctors — whether to be tested in the first place or to choose abortion if the test reveals Down syndrome or other abnormalities. It is taken for granted in the medical community that no woman would carry a Down-syndrome pregnancy to term. This pressure reveals the pervasive belief that selective abortion is somehow an actual health-care solution. Instead of seeking real treatment for the ailments that plague people with Down syndrome, or even finding potential cures, we have settled for a false vision of progress that kills people with a disorder rather than treating them. A counselor at an Iceland hospital sees the issue even more starkly. “We don’t look at abortion as a murder,” she said. “We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication . . . preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder — that’s so black and white. Life isn’t black and white. Life is grey.” Too many people today believe it is preferable, and indeed more humane, to murder children rather than allow them to suffer. It is in this supposed gray area that the desire to promote health and well-being morphs into the insidious view that people with Down syndrome are better off dead — and that we will be a more advanced society for having relieved them of the burden of a “limited” life. Too many people today believe it is preferable, and indeed more humane, to murder children rather than allow them to suffer. But what life doesn’t have suffering? Jerome Lejeune, the French geneticist who discovered the chromosomal basis for Down syndrome, once offered this perspective: “It cannot be denied that the price of these diseases is high — in suffering for the individual and in burdens for society. Not to mention what parents suffer! But we can assign a value to that price: It is precisely what a society must pay to remain fully human.” The title of the CBS piece asks, “What kind of society do you want to live in?” The article’s implicit response seems to be, “One dedicated to eliminating abnormality and suffering by any means necessary.” But no admirable society eradicates suffering by eradicating those who suffer. To achieve true moral progress, we must reject the killing of the vulnerable and condemn any backwards society that promotes such a regime as a solution.
One of my cousins was born on the same day as I was. When my family first visited these relatives I was two years old. My older cousins marvelled at how advanced I was compared to their youngest sibling. That’s not because I have ever been anything other than average; it’s because my cousin, Paul, was born with Down Syndrome.
My father’s cousin often wept when she told the story of having given birth to Paul…how the hospital staff did not bring her her newborn but said that it would be better if she did not see her son, and that all she had to do was to sign some papers and that they would ‘take care of him.’ ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘…what’s wrong?’ And when they refused to answer she – a seasoned paralegal – threatened them forcefully with a suit if they did not bring him to her immediately! Her husband, a wounded and decorated naval veteran of the Pacific theatre, never put up with crap from anyone either. They immediately fell in love with him and named him Paul, ‘because like the saint we figured he had some mission in our lives.’ And he did. What a lovely, insightful person. He was one of eleven children born to them (and as my mother used to quip, Yea, those kids were born nine months and one day apart!).
My oldest daughter was two when we first visited these relatives. Great outdoors folk we immediately found ourselves fishing with them. Paul sat at the front of the pontoon boat seemingly unaware of the rest of us. And then my daughter hooked a fish large enough to pull her in or else to make her lose her grip on the rod. And before any of us could even react Paul was right behind her in a gentle hug, his own hand assisting on the rod and the other slowly and softly helping her wind the reel, talking to her in coos and encouragements. And when the fish was finally landed they glowed in the grins that they exchanged with each other for a long time. And that pretty much captured the stories and care that Paul brought to his own family, and ours, down through the years. Wouldn’t have traded it for anything…