Grassroots Eugenics


By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. This post appeared in the July 2004 issue of National Right to Life News. Unfortunately the ability to target real/potential/imaginary fetal anomalies has only grown more precise. And because this story is just as fresh (we have two other stories about this today), it is part of our year-long “Roe at 40” series where we are reposting stories from NRL News that go all the way back to 1973.

EugenicsbookFrom the June 20 New York Times, “In New Tests for Fetal Defects, Agonizing Choices.”

“There’s a lot of kids born into the world that have severe problems and that doesn’t stop them from having a life or having a lot of love to give,” said Mr. DeMaria, citing his adult cousin with Down syndrome as an example. “If my aunt and uncle would have terminated that pregnancy we would never have known Suzi.”

“The wider range and earlier timing of prenatal tests are raising concern among some bioethicists and advocates for disability rights who argue that the medical establishment is sending a message to patients that the goal is to guard against the birth of children with disabilities.”

Amy Harmon’s overview of the increasingly available–and intrusive—battery of prenatal diagnostic tools paints a grim picture for babies found to have an anomaly or even the potential for anomaly. And I say anomaly rather than something far more devastating because the “defect” need not be a severe one, judging by Harmon’s June 20, 2004, article in the New York Times.

Babies are aborted because they have a 50-50 chance of being born with an extra finger, which could have been surgically removed. Other luckless children are eliminated because one or another screening technology reveals the child would have poor vision, “or a cleft palate, which they [the parents] worried would affect the quality of their child’s life.” Inevitably, female babies are obliterated because their mothers want a boy.

You get a real feel for the raw emotions involved as you read Harmon’s extraordinary article. There’s the woman who aborted her child when tests confirmed that he/she would have Down syndrome. It was the “hardest decision I ever had to make,” she said, one in which she weighed the child’s “quality of life” and effect on the family.

In perhaps the saddest, and certainly most revealing comment in the entire article, she told Harmon, “I don’t look at it as though I had an abortion, even though that is technically what it is.” She added, “There’s a difference. I wanted this baby.”

Others, predictably, grow defensive and angry. One self-described “pro-choice” child psychologist was enraged that some people would tell her, “If you have to have a perfect baby, you shouldn’t be a parent.”

“I’ve always been pro-choice, but now I’m pro-choice with a vengeance,” she angrily told Harmon. “Don’t tell me I have to have a baby with Down syndrome just because you say so.”

The decision to abort these babies doesn’t necessarily fall strictly along pro-life/pro-abortion lines. There is the example of one self-described pro-choice couple who both tested positive as carriers for cystic fibrosis.

The wife “was sure she wanted to have an amniocentesis, and perhaps terminate the pregnancy,” Harmon writes. But after “much soul-searching,” they chose against the test which would have increased the risk of miscarriage.

“There’s a lot of kids born into the world that have severe problems and that doesn’t stop them from having a life or having a lot of love to give,” said the husband, citing his adult cousin with Down syndrome as an example. “If my aunt and uncle would have terminated that pregnancy we would never have known Suzi.”

Let me be clear: I would never cavalierly dismiss the incredible shock to parents when a high-resolution sonogram or a blood test or an amniocentesis or a chorionic villus sampling, or any of a myriad of other tests suggests a child will, or might, be born with a severe, life-shortening or life-threatening illness or disease. I have witnessed this first-hand. I know how even deeply religious people can be rocked back on their heels by a revelation that sometimes literally drops them to their knees.

But what’s exacerbated the situation is the arrival of a vast array of new diagnostic tools that have come down the pike, including many in just the past three years. The result is that pressure on women, especially older women, to avail themselves of these tests grows and grows.

As mentioned yesterday, deafness, dwarfism, skin disease, and another 450 or so conditions “can be diagnosed by testing fetal cells, with more than 100 tests added in the last year alone.” Moreover, according to Harmon, “about a dozen tests for genetic mutations that could cause diseases or disabilities in a child are now regularly offered to pregnant women and their partners, depending on their ethnicity and conditions that run in their families.”

The reductio ad absurdum (for now) is that the Baylor College of Medicine plans to introduce a pilot program in which “for $2,000, a pregnant woman will be able to have her fetus tested for some 50 conditions that cause mental retardation.” Harmon tells us that tests for prenatal and genetic mutations are one of the fastest-growing parts of Quest Diagnostics’ business.

“People are going to the doctor and saying, ‘I don’t want to have a handicapped child, what can you do for me?’ ” said Charles Strom, medical director of Quest’s genetic testing center.

And although the aforementioned child psychologist sees the decision in purely individualistic terms, in truth eugenic abortion is freighted with enormous social weight. If certain kinds of diseases can be virtually “wiped out” if only parents in certain categories have the tests and abort all the “imperfect” babies, you don’t have to conjure up images of slippery slopes to appreciate that the pressure to abort will be enormous.

Second thoughts and regrets are not uncommon. One woman who suffered months of depression following her abortion is “thrilled to be adopting an infant boy from Asia.” But then there MTV’s “Real World” with a “20-something woman with cystic fibrosis” who is “dating and getting body piercings.”

Harmon writes, “Amy D. says she cannot help wondering if her daughter, who would have been named Sydney Frances, would have been like that — at least for a while.”

Something I didn’t know is that in the fall of 2001, “the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that a blood test for the gene mutations that cause the disease be offered in all pregnancies when either the man or woman is Caucasian.’ As more and more women undergo these tests, the number of eugenic abortions will likely increase dramatically. Tolerance for “imperfect” people, never in great supply to begin with, could easily drain away.

“By putting them out there as something everyone must do, the profession communicates that these are conditions that everyone must avoid,” Adrienne Asch, a bioethicist at Wellesley College, told Harmon. “And the earlier you can get it done the more you can get away with because you never have to tell anybody.”

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