This week, The Telegraph commented on a trend that’s been apparent for quite some time: about 90% of pregnancies involving a fetus diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome in Britain are aborted. The statistical picture in the U.S. is a bit more complicated, but even with all the academic qualifications, it’s clear that the majority are aborted.
Some would not consider such a trend problematic, but perhaps they should.
In his Telegraph piece, Tim Stanley rebutted several myths about children with Down’s Syndrome (DS): that they’re “embarrassing,” that they “die young,” that they “remain kids forever.” The first is true only among parents embarrassed by anything less than perfection in their kids. The second was once true, but with well-established and not unusually expensive improvements in treatment, no longer is. And the third is demonstrably false—or at least is true only insofar as one can expect a certain rate of immaturity among adults in general. There is no evidence that said rate is greater among DS adults in particular.
Stanley is rightly appalled by the abortion rate for DS kids, but that’s not because he’s a rabid pro-lifer. He isn’t. Thus:
“I’m not making a case for banning abortion in instances of diagnosis, rather that mothers who discover they are pregnant with a Down’s Syndrome child should be informed of all the options available to them. One is to terminate, which is a woman’s legal right. The other is giving birth and raising a child who can contribute to the world in their own particular way. There will be challenges. But quality of life isn't defined solely by the pain people endure – but how we respond to that pain both as individuals and as a community.”
That is a reasonable position apart from whether one is opposed to abortion in principle or not. But it does not seem to be widely shared. Why not?
Again, Stanley puts it incisively:
“Society, alas, promotes a different ethic. We seem increasingly obsessed with making life as perfect as possible – as if we could control its beginning, middle and end. Advances in genetics hold out the possibility of creating designer babies with no birth defects at all. Euthanasia gives the option of finishing things early when existence gets too much to bear. And implicit in all of this is the view that life isn’t truly valuable unless it is healthy, pain free and contributing to Gross National Product. The sick and the old are a burden. The most helpful thing they could do is go away.
Excuse the cliché, but it’s hard not to see of all this happening and think of the 1930s – when the Western world became hooked on the idea that it could create a cleaner, happier population with the application of medical cruelty. This was barbarism disguised as reason.”
Many forget that such barbarism was not limited to the Nazis, who were just more honest and thorough about it. The eugenics movement of the first third of the 20th century, and its rationale, were powerful throughout the West at the time. Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in part to eliminate children who could be seen as excessive burdens. There’s some dispute about whether she wanted to reduce the “Negro” population through abortion, but there can be no dispute that she supported selective breeding, including abortion, to reduce the incidence of babies born with birth defects. Getting rid of DS kids would be right up her alley.
Do we really want a society that won’t allow people to be born with imperfections that many find discomfiting? Because that’s what we'll get if people act as though the value of the human person consists in how well they live up to standards of appearance and performance.