"Eugenics" or freedom of choice?

The campaign to prevent the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome is well intentioned but misguided.

Published May 11, 2007 12:25PM (EDT)

Several years ago, my ex-wife and I decided to terminate a pregnancy because the 18-week-old fetus she was carrying had tested positive for Down syndrome. It was the most agonizing decision either of us had ever made, but one I know neither of us regrets. We were lucky to have a sympathetic obstetrician to consult, and family and friends to support us, as we groped in the dark for a decision. What I remember from that time is an almost physical sensation that we were "searching ourselves," that we were reaching for the truest, steadiest foothold we could find in ourselves from which we could forge ahead. It was a very quiet, intense, reflective experience. Thank God.

I can't imagine having to go through that experience again without the privacy that made it a productive one. But as Lynn Harris detailed in her Broadsheet post a few days ago, a group of parents of children with Down syndrome have started a campaign to "educate" couples who have been given a prenatal diagnosis by having them meet children with the syndrome. They're convinced that a significant portion of the women who did would choose to not terminate their pregnancies. I'm sure the people behind this campaign have the best intentions, but the premise behind it is a condescending and dangerous one, guilty of the very thing it purports to oppose: helping to create a nightmarish future where our population will be engineered, rather than born of individuals respected enough to make their own decisions.

This group of parents is intruding into a usually private decision by directly pressuring doctors to send their patients to the homes of Down syndrome children (!), in hopes of assuaging the trepidations of those prospective parents. They say they're motivated by a fear that the wide availability of amniocentesis and other new genetic tests will allow people to screen Down syndrome children out of existence, to essentially engage in eugenics, and I'm sure that fear is genuine. But aren't they misdirecting it?

Pregnant women who have already decided to have amniocentesis are probably not, in general, lacking information about issues related to their pregnancy. I'm sure that, again in general, the people who are lacking information, who are uneducated about Down syndrome, are also not well informed about the tests for it or the options available to them after they get the results. They are the people we need to help, and we can help them best by creating a culture that actually values life, not one that sacrifices the quality of the lives of thousands of (mostly poor) young women in the name of "morality."

Is a woman who decides to abort a fetus that would be born into poverty, or addicted to crack, practicing "eugenics"? I don't happen to think so -- I would also exempt screening for genetic diseases and syndromes that significantly impair a person's quality of life from that term, which I think should be reserved for the clearly malign use of genetic testing to screen out undesirable attributes, like gender or hair color or sexual identity -- but my opinion is irrelevant. The only opinion that counts is the opinion of the women making the decision. And if we think leaving it up to those women puts us on a "slippery slope" we need to take a look around us, because we are already on the slope. We always have been. The trick is to keep our feet, and that's what personal ethics are for. The slope toward a dystopian future where life is devalued has unquestionably been greased, but not by mostly poor women making wrenching decisions about what to do with their own bodies and their own lives. It has been greased by a ruling class that, in countless ways, circumscribes the lives of those women while seeking to remove all restraints on their own depravity.

Some of the people who want to educate others about children with Down syndrome freely admit that it's because they don't want resources to be taken away from programs that help their kids. I don't want that either. But couples struggling with the decision to abort a pregnancy are not the enemy in that fight. The enemy is the folks who have been radically defunding health, education and social programs since 1981, when their patron saint started the ball rolling. The fact that Ronald Reagan later suffered from a disease that might be cured by using stem cells garnered from human embryos is an irony that has, thankfully, not been lost on all of them. Maybe that's a reason to hope things will change.

By Peter Birkenhead

Peter Birkenhead’s work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, The Week, NY Daily News, The LA Review of Books, U.S. News, MORE, Marie Claire, The Awl, and other publications.

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