Abortion of children with Down syndrome hints at eugenics

Written by Ryan Neuhaus

February 6, 2019

Originally published in Deseret News.

The philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We must remember the past when considering abortions of unborn children with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. People with this syndrome or other intellectual and developmental disabilities were key targets of the eugenics movement in the United States. We must not forget this dark chapter of our history. Otherwise we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

Utah Rep. Karianne Lisonbee is sponsoring legislation she initiated last year to protect unborn children with Down syndrome. I urge the House and Senate to take thoughtful consideration. Supporting this bill underscores a commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. We must not forget to prioritize the most vulnerable lives and future lives in our society.

Eugenics — a term coined by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin known for his anthropological studies, in his essay “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aim” — aims to “improve the inborn qualities of a race” by controlling “breeding” to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

While abortion per se is not eugenic, as not everyone who has an abortion is seeking to improve or eliminate certain characteristics of the human race, abortion can be utilized and manipulated as a tool to achieve the goal of eugenics. The late Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, made this known in “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control,” where she wrote, “The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”

This attitude is a direct attack on the sanctity and value of life and can lead to an increase in the practice of euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and abortion. In doing so, mankind justifies the killing of the most vulnerable among us, stripping the right to life from them. I believe it is one of the great tragedies in recent human history.

Abortion discriminating against the Down syndrome community is wrong. In 2012, statistics showed that between 67-85 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted in the United States. The result? The number of babies born with Down syndrome has dropped 30 percent in the United States. In Iceland, where the abortion of babies with Down syndrome is encouraged, Down syndrome has been almost completely eliminated; only one or two children are born with Down syndrome per year there.

While raising a child with Down syndrome is challenging, it doesn’t need to be viewed as a catastrophe. A survey conducted by Dr. Brian Skotko, a board-certified medical geneticist and co-director of the Down Syndrome Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that people who have Down syndrome may be among the happiest in the world. Of 3,150 individuals surveyed, including mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and people with Down syndrome:

Ninety-nine percent of people with Down syndrome said they were happy with their lives. Ninety-seven percent of people with Down syndrome liked who they are. Ninety-nine percent of parents said they love their child with Down syndrome. Five percent of parents felt embarrassed by their child. Ninety-seven percent of brothers or sisters, ages 9-11, said they love their sibling.

Organizations like Hope Story have created an uplifting perspective and fostered the ability to bring hope to the lives of, 1) those who have recently received news that their unborn child has Down syndrome, 2) parents of children who have Down syndrome, and 3) medical professionals who desire to be better prepared in delivering the diagnosis to parents. In 2018, Gerber announced that the Gerber baby of the year was a baby with Down syndrome. These organizations have begun to shift the narrative around the syndrome from negative to positive.

Due to advances in technology and new medical treatments, the quality of life of people with Down syndrome has improved, and their life expectancy has drastically increased. Today, the life expectancy of an individual with Down syndrome is 60 years. In 1960, the average lifespan of such a person was 10 years.

State and federal legislators can continue to help by enacting legislation that discourages the abortion of Down syndrome babies after parents are aware of the condition. If a parent believes the responsibility of providing for a child with Down syndrome is too much to handle, a more compassionate approach would be to arrange for the child to be adopted by a willing family. Organizations like the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network make this possible.

Simply because a person may struggle with disabilities in life does not justify death.

There is value and sanctity in all life.

Ryan Neuhaus is a policy intern at Sutherland Institute.

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