It’s Eugenics, Plain and Simple

With the latest asinine thing Richard Dawkins has said, I think it’s time to revisit something I wrote nearly three years ago. At that time, the new prenatal testing for Down syndrome was being touted as a medical advancement that would save many from suffering and allow mothers the opportunity to abort. It seems we are still fighting this fight, and will continue to for many years to come. Maybe if Mr. Dawkins had said something about aborting a female baby in order to try again for a male, people would see it for what it was – selective breeding. Or, aborting a baby with a same-sex tendency that was detected early on. Or a baby of a certain ethnic background. Down syndrome, though, is fair game apparently. 

It is believed that approximately 90-93% of pregnancies where the fetus (baby) has been prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are terminated. Read that again. Ninety to ninety-three percent … more than 9 out of 10. Because of Down syndrome. Not because of an unwanted pregnancy, but because of a triplicate of the 21st chromosome. Because what the future *might* be like. Some try to make this a pro-choice versus pro-life issue. I believe that is only a smoke-screen designed to ignore the real issue: eugenics.

eugenics |yo͞oˈjeniks| plural noun [ treated as sing. ]  the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means of discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable, undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable, desirable traits (positive eugenics).

Yes, that word carries horrible connotations. And it should. And we should not forget the lessons of history where groups of people were deemed less worthy (or completely unworthy) of life due to race, religion, sexual orientation, genetic makeup, or any other “defect.” And yet, in the 21st century, we find ourselves still at a medical, ethical, and moral crossroads. This is not about religion. This is not about when the unborn becomes “human.” This is about deeming whether one (potential) life has more or less worth than another. Maybe I can illustrate …

Take Woman A and Woman B. Woman A is a young college student on an athletic scholarship, working towards a degree in hopes of a fulfilling career. Woman B might already have that degree. She is also in a steady, longterm relationship. Woman A has a boyfriend, but knows they are not in it for the long haul, yet for now she is enjoying the relationship.

They both, though, have one thing in common: they find themselves pregnant. Woman A, accidentally, as either the birth control that night failed or the birth control was forgotten. Woman B, though, is purposely pregnant. Though she and her partner may not have fully planned on it at this moment, they knew this was something they wanted and are excited. Woman A, knowing that an unwanted pregnancy would jeopardize her scholarship, and thus potentially jeopardize her future, sees termination as her only choice. She more than likely does not go to the OBGYN for prenatal screening and an ultrasound, or any other testing. She confirms the pregnancy and then makes an appointment to terminate. Woman A is an example of pro-choice versus pro-life.

Woman B, on the other hand, is carrying a wanted pregnancy. She goes to her OBGYN and does the recommended screening. Her initial blood screens come back with an elevated risk for Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome). Her doctor highly recommends one of two things: scheduling a termination now or more invasive testing. [I am going on anecdotal information here … it is hard to find hard stats, but I have heard from more than one source that termination was urged following only the old blood screenings without any concrete confirmation from amniocentesis.] She is scared, especially given the stats from her doctor: mild to moderate mental retardation [yes, that word is still used by some], very short life expectancy, probable multiple health problems … but since this pregnancy is desired and the baby wanted, she agrees to more invasive testing even though it carries a risk for miscarriage. Her doctor has her come in for the results, which confirm a diagnosis of Down syndrome, and again the doctor counsels termination. She says she needs to talk with her partner and will get back with the doctor.

Woman B’s situation is not about pro-life versus pro-choice. For this particular pregnancy, Woman B was pro-life up until the Down syndrome diagnosis. She wanted the pregnancy. She was planning on carrying it to term and was more than likely looking forward to welcoming a new member to the family. Once Down syndrome entered the equation and her doctor recommended termination, it became squarely about eugenics. It was now a question of whether this baby is worthy of life now that it is known something is “wrong.”

Eugenics strives to eliminate unwanted characteristics in the human race. To many, Down syndrome is seen as an unwanted characteristic. Children that otherwise would have been welcomed and cherished are instead being aborted because they are not worthy of coming into this world, based purely on the number of chromosomes they have.

Everything about this new test scares me. It has the potential of doing good … many people like to know things ahead of time to prepare. Having an early diagnosis of Down syndrome could mean more time to research what that means, could be a time to help the pregnant woman increase her intake of key nutrients known to improve brain function, could be a time to have specialists monitor the developing baby for potential heart or intestinal problems. It could be a time to help educate the family on what Down syndrome *might* look like. It could be a wonderful time for a family expecting a child with Down syndrome to meet up with families raising children with Down syndrome, to line up support from those who have walked this path already.

But, based on the advice given to so many women, based on the insanely high termination rate already, based on erroneous information given to families upon receiving a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, I do not hold out much hope. Because the test is done so early in pregnancy, and does not involve invasive testing like amnio or CVS, more women, and younger women, may also begin terminating their pregnancies. When scared women and scared partners are given only negative information, and often outdated information, regarding raising a child with Down syndrome, I cannot see the termination rate going down.

Raising a child with Down syndrome is not always “rainbows and unicorns.” I am reminded often how blessed we are with Miss K and her health, development, and overall well being.

But, you know what? There are absolutely no guarantees in life, regardless of the number of chromosomes you sport. “Typical” children, children with 46 chromosomes, “normal” children … they can also get sick. They can also be in serious accidents. They can also grow up and have a hard or difficult life. It is not guaranteed that if you are born with the normal 46 chromosomes that you will have an easy, pain-free life. Nor is it guaranteed that if you are born with 47 chromosomes, you’ll have a hard, painful life.

So, why are so many potential lives being thrown away before they even have a chance to show us all they can become? Why are some lives deemed more worthy of living than others? What happens when there are non-invasive, prenatal tests for Juvenile Diabetes, childhood cancer, autism? Where do we draw the ethical and moral line determining the value of a person, especially an unborn one who has done nothing wrong except be created a little differently? When can we really see this for what it is … not an issue of “choice” but an issue of worth?

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