Eliminating Down Syndrome? Or People with Down Syndrome?
Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are.
– St. Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus, ¶11
A recent report from CBS proclaims that Iceland is, as they put it, “on the verge of eliminating Down syndrome.” But how has Iceland achieved this seeming miracle of modern medicine? Peel back the cheerful headline, and one discovers a true Pandora’s box of horrors.
Imagine this: a country experiences a sudden, widespread outbreak of polio. Thousands are stricken with the horrific disease, which kills up to 30% of its victims, and leaves many more permanently maimed. Concerned by the spread of the disease, the healthcare system systematically rounds up anyone suffering from the disease, and quietly administers him or her a lethal injection.
In the end, there is not a single person with polio left in that country. Then the government issues a press release saying that they have “virtually eliminated polio.”
Well, yes. They have. But surely the method leaves something to be desired.
To CBS’ credit, their report does not shy away from squarely facing the uncomfortable truth beneath Iceland’s seeming-astonishing achievement, and even asks some hard questions that receive distinctly uncomfortable answers.
By now you’ve guessed the reason for the decrease in Down syndrome in Iceland: in that country prenatal screening for Down’s is nearly universal, and nearly 100% of the parents of a child diagnosed with Down syndrome choose to abort. In other words, Iceland has not eliminated Down syndrome, they’ve eliminated people with Down’s.
Sadly and horrifically, Iceland is not alone in its assault against innocent human life. Some studies reveal that 9 out of every 10 children diagnosed with Down’s are aborted – not a statistic to be proud of! Many Western countries like the US, France, and Denmark – Denmark claiming a 98% abortion rate for unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome – are active participants in this atrocious act of discrimination and murder.
The distressing thing is how recently we’ve been here.
The extremely influential eugenics movement in the late 19th and early 20th century reached its logical pragmatic conclusion in the Nazi gas chambers, where – lest we forget – not only millions of Jews were executed merely for having the “wrong” genetic code and heritage, but so also tens of thousands of various people deemed “unfit” – epileptics, schizophrenics, the deaf, the blind, homosexuals, gypsies, and more.
Icelandic sources and the fact-checking site Snopes have shot back at some interpretations of the CBS report, accusing them of being “misleading” by suggesting that Iceland is carrying out a government-mandated eugenics program. While the law in Iceland does mandate that women be told about the tests to detect Down’s, the government does not require women to actually take the test, nor do they tell women what to do with the results.
Small comfort, or rather, no comfort at all. Because, as horrifying as a government-imposed eugenics program is, surely there is something uniquely horrifying in the fact that the eugenic mentality has penetrated so deeply into the public mindset that there is no longer any need for government intervention: so that barely a single mother or father can be found with enough maternal and paternal instinct left to fight the zeitgeist and unconditionally welcome their unborn child with Down’s for the mere fact that he or she is their baby, “imperfections” and all.
The studies are remarkable in their uniformity: for all the physical suffering and apparent privations that accompany Down syndrome, those with the condition are uncannily satisfied with their lives, and their family members uncannily loving towards them. In one study, a full 99% of those living with Down syndrome said that they are “happy” with their lives. (I wonder: In our age of endemic depression and anxiety, how many “normal” people could say the same?)
Another study found that 99% of the parents of children with Down’s said that they love their child, and 97% said they “were proud of them.” And, most telling, 79% “felt their outlook on life was more positive” because of their child.
If this is so, why then are we in the West so hell-bent on eliminating children with Down’s?
In 2009, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the rise of a “new eugenics.” In contrast to the old eugenics, which targeted people based upon race or group, this new eugenics, he said, “tends to privilege the capacity to operate, efficiency, perfection and physical beauty at the expense of other types of existence considered unworthy.”
In response to this phenomenon, Benedict said:
What must be forcefully reemphasized is the equal dignity of every human being according to the fact itself of having life. Biological, psychological or cultural development or state of health can never become an element of discrimination. It is necessary, on the contrary, to consolidate a culture of hospitality and love that concretely testifies to solidarity with those who suffer, razing the barriers that society often erects, discriminating against those who are disabled and affected by pathologies, or worse – selecting and rejecting in the name of an abstract ideal of health and physical perfection. If man is reduced to an object of experimental manipulation from the first stage of development that would mean that biotechnologies would surrender to the will of the stronger.
People nowadays are wary of any comparison whatsoever between a current controversy and the evils of the Nazis. The thinking seems to be that what the Nazis did was so diabolically evil that it ought to remain in its own category, and certainly should not be abused to prematurely end a debate on some current ethical dilemma.
But there is a moment in CBS’ report that takes your breath away. The CBS correspondent, Elaine Quijano, is at the Icelandic hospital where most of the births – and abortions – in Iceland take place. She is looking at a beautiful card that has the imprint of two tiny feet on it, a date, a time, and the words of a prayer. CBS explains: “This is the imprint of the fetus that was terminated.”
Quijano seems somewhat taken aback by the card. “In America,” she explains to Helga Sol Olafsdottir, whose job it is to counsel women in the moments before they decide whether to abort or not, “I think some people would be confused about people calling this ‘our child,’ saying a prayer or saying goodbye or having a priest come in – because to them abortion is murder.”
Olafsdottir bristles. She responds:
We don’t look at abortion as a murder. 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.
And yet, there are those two feet. In black and white!
The CBS report on Iceland includes a heart-rending interview with an Icelandic woman, in her early-30s, with Down’s. The interviewer asks her what she would like to tell those viewing the program about people with Down syndrome.
“It’s hard for me to say. They only see Down syndrome. They don’t see me,” she replies. Asked how that makes her feel, she adds: “It doesn’t feel good. I want people to see that I am just like everybody else.”
In an age that prides itself on its “tolerance,” may we heed Pope Benedict’s exhortations and reject the “new eugenics” in favor of recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, from conception to natural death.
Regardless of any factors or rationale one may offer, the human person has an inherent and an immeasurable dignity flowing from a single reality – the human person is fundamentally a creature of God, created in His likeness and image. The right to life and human rights are not contingent upon the pleasure or will of another person – be it a parent or principality; they are every person’s entitlement by virtue of being human, which is universal, inviolable and inalienable.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.