By Wesley J. Smith
The New York Times’ “The Ethicist” column this week features a would-be father asking if prenatal testing for conditions such as Down syndrome amounts to eugenics. The answer, predictably, is no. From, the column:
None of these scenarios are morally troublesome, in my view, and none are naturally described as a matter of eugenics; they involve nothing like compulsion and aren’t aimed at raising the “quality” of the human gene pool. The same applies to you. You’re not hoping to affect our common genetic stock (people with Down syndrome rarely have children, though the rate of Down syndrome in their children is quite high when they do). What you are considering, then, isn’t a eugenic choice.
This is too narrow a view of what constitutes eugenics. Eugenics is more than trying to control the health or other attributes of a general population. Rather, it reflects an all-too-commonly promoted mindset that some people are better or have greater value than others, and that an acceptable answer is to make sure disfavored persons are never conceived — as in the old eugenics of the early 20th century — or never make it out of the womb as occurs today (or even, serving as a justification for infanticide as justified by utilitarians like Peter Singer).
But certainly, The Ethicist is correct that prenatal testing, per se, is not eugenics. Indeed, it can be a splendid way to reveal the need for prenatal treatments or to allow parents time to prepare for a child with special needs.
Readers may remember that was the approach taken by Todd and Sarah Palin. When they learned their youngest child Trig has Down syndrome, the testing allowed them to absorb the emotional shock and then joyfully welcome their son with open arms. And for that, they were subjected to seething vituperation.
But prenatal testing can also be used for eugenics purposes, such as sex selection abortion or the extinguishment of babies with Down, dwarfism, even cleft palate, in the womb. Indeed, many genetic counselors push parents whose gestating baby tests positive for Down or other genetic conditions to abort. That’s eugenics, at least broadly understood. And it doesn’t matter that the government isn’t forcing the issue.
Some countries push (but do not require) universal prenatal testing at least implicitly for that explicit purpose. In Iceland and Denmark, for example, Down syndrome has been nearly eliminated because almost all such babies are aborted. If that isn’t eugenic cleansing, I don’t know what is.
At least The Ethicist mounted a modest defense of people with Down:
It’s important to distinguish between rational worries about your children’s future and anxieties that reflect prejudice against people with disabilities. It isn’t unreasonable to worry about having a child who can’t have a long and rewarding life. But that’s simply not true of most people with Down syndrome. Parents of children with Down syndrome have written at length, and often hearteningly, about their experiences. Before you decide to terminate a pregnancy on this score, make sure your decision is genuinely informed.
The mass aborting of babies with Down is one of the tragedies of our age. And if you doubt that, consider the difference between the number of people with Down fifty years ago compared with today. We are the poorer as a society that so many of these wonderful, loving people are denied their birth.
Editor’s note. Wesley’s great columns appear at National Review Online and reposted with permission.