Why the Debate about Aborting Down Syndrome Babies Matters

Iceland aborts about 98% of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome and averages under 2 babies born with Down’s a year. CBS recently featured Iceland as “the country where Down syndrome is disappearing,” and lauded how they have “virtually eliminate[d] Down syndrome.”

Many pro-life groups quickly shot back that Iceland was boasting of no medical advance to accompany that statistic, only a death option.

Jeanne F. Mancini wrote an op-ed that was picked up by the Washington Post. In it, she pointed out that although the doctors claim they’re killing Down syndrome babies to “prevent suffering”, those with Down’s have a very happy life and rank above average on personal fulfillment. Is that suffering now?

Mancini quotes Sally Phillips, an actress famous for leading roles in several British sketch comedy shows and sitcoms who’s also the mother of a child with Down syndrome. Phillips is proposing we adapt a different perspective on Down’s: “If you stop thinking of Down syndrome as a disease, then the way you treat mothers is entirely different: you perhaps wouldn’t say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Breaking the news with the phrase ‘I’m sorry.’ There’s nothing to be sorry about. You’re lucky, actually.”

Beyond the obvious pro-life cause to prevent all abortion, I think there are three more important points for Catholics to consider regarding the Iceland story and the fact that in America the vast majority of babies testing positive for Down’s are aborted, too.

First, we are seeing vast development in genetic testing and Down syndrome is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sequencing a genome has gone from costing millions to being provided in ancestry tests which, for your own entertainment, you can buy for under $100. This means labs can sequence the DNA thousands of individuals with conditions to find common genetics. Down syndrome is easy to identify as it is one extra chromosome, but there are many other conditions that are largely genetic but with more complicated markers.

Autism is estimated to be 60-90% genetic but doesn’t have a single genetic marker.  Currently, the DNA of 50,000 autistic individuals and their families are being compiled in a single study. Let’s suppose that this study identifies specific markers that predict a strong chance of autism. Will we see a rush to abort babies who, tests strongly indicate, may fall somewhere “on the spectrum”?

The dangerous precedent of disposing of infants who, through genetic testing, are identified as “potential imperfects” can open an abyss humanity may not be able to climb out from as we consider how identifying genetic markers in utero could potentially predict what fetus may eventually experience type-1 diabetes, schizophrenia, Graves’ disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, speech disorders, ADHD, Epilepsy, COPD, Alzheimer’s, Celiac, Anorexia, Tourette’s, or obesity? All these are estimated to be over 60% genetic, and could easily become part of pre-natal scanning. Almost every one of us has someone who we love or who loves us but has one of these conditions.

Just imagine if we as a society eliminated most of these people: all of us would lose somebody.

Or since intelligence is also largely inherited, wouldn’t eliminating low-IQ babies be next? At some point, nobody is safe from not being killed eugenically as they don’t have the desired genetic traits.

Second, gene-editing is on the horizon and is another eugenic threat.

CRISPR has shown we can edit human genes. So instead of killing via surgical abortion, we’ll just edit genes.

But this presents its own set of problems. First, once a baby starts developing, editing gets more difficult so if you want to do this it would generally be done through in vitro fertilization – producing babies in a petri dish rather than a loving act.

Furthermore, it would only increase the number of humans killed since (human nature has shown), in taking all of this effort, people will clearly prefer “perfect” babies and dispose of the rest. As CRISPR is far from perfect, multiple human beings could potentially be created and destroyed in pursuit of “perfection.”

Finally, we face the deeper issue of reducing being human to what he does.

The movement of eugenics against Down syndrome diminishes human dignity by valuing people not for who they are, but what they can do. Or not do. A person with Down’s is viewed as a life not worth living because they can’t contribute much economically and because we’ll feel sorry for them.

This flies in the face of everything Catholicism stands for when it argues for honoring the innate dignity of the human person.

If we base human nature on anything other than nature, objective morality disappears.

Sure, a philosopher can argue it is based on the amount of happiness a person can provide or receive, or based on the fact they have certain capabilities, but both of these ultimately come down to “Because I say so.” How do you compare happiness and how can we know another’s true happiness now yet alone years down the line? “Because I a utilitarian philosopher say so.” How do we determine at what line of capabilities killing is immoral? “Because, it’s where I Peter Singer, say so.” Peter Singer, in fact, argues for killing babies born with such conditions.

Once objective morality is gone, essentially might make right. The strong have more power to affirm their version of morality over the weak so their affirmations will overpower others’. That is the opposite of Christian morality.

Instead, affirming that these people who seem like “others” are really of the same dignity, we protect all from oppression.

Although a genetically perfect society at first seems utopian, we quickly realize it is dystopian because it loses acceptance for anything outside a very restrictive rule of perfection. It is a society where you are no longer a miracle but a product: thus humans can be used for some grand plan rather than have the freedom to each live their own life.

By affirming that human beings who seem like imperfect “others” possess the same intrinsic dignity as any other human being, just as entitled to his or her life, and to live it, we protect all from oppression.