Due to the rise of prenatal screening tests in Europe and the United States, the number of babies born with Down syndrome has begun to diminish significantly. And no one, as CBS News puts it, is “eradicating Down syndrome births” quite like Iceland.
Now, the word “eradication” typically implies that an ailment is being cured or beaten by some technological advancement. That’s not so in this case. Nearly 100 percent of women who receive positive test results for Down syndrome in that small nation end up eradicating their pregnancy. Iceland averages only one or two Down syndrome children per year, and this seems mostly a result of parents receiving inaccurate test results.
It’s just a matter of time until the rest of the world catches up. In the United States, an estimated 67 percent of women who find out their child will be born with Down syndrome opt to have an abortion. In the United Kingdom, it’s 90 percent. More and more women are taking these prenatal tests, and the tests are becoming increasingly accurate.
For now, however, Iceland has completed one of the most successful eugenics programs in the contemporary world. If you think that’s overstated, consider that eugenics — the word itself derived from the Greek word meaning “well-born” — is the effort to control breeding to increase desirable heritable characteristics within a population. This can be done through “positive selection,” as in breeding the “right” kinds of people with each other, or “negative selection,” which is stopping the wrong kinds of people from having children.
The latter was the hallmark of the progressive movement of the 1900s. It was the rationalization behind the coerced sterilization of thousands of the mentally ill, poor and minorities here in America. It is why Nazis required doctors to register all newborns born with Down syndrome, and why the first to be gassed were children under 3 years old with “serious hereditary diseases” like Down syndrome.
Down syndrome usually isn’t hereditary. Most children born with it have moderate cognitive or intellectual disabilities, and many live full lives. But for many, these children are considered undesirable — “inconvenient,” really.
If Iceland’s policy “reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling,” as geneticist Kari Stefansson admits, then what will it mean when we have the science to extrapolate and pinpoint other problematic traits? How about children with congenital heart defects or cleft palates or sickle-cell disease or autism? Eradication?
One day, a DNA test will be able to tell us virtually anything we want to know, including our tendencies. So here’s the best way to frame eradication policies in terms more people might care about: “Iceland has made great strides in eradicating gay births” or “Iceland has made great strides in eradicating low-IQ births” or “Iceland has made great strides in eradicating the birth of those who lean toward obesity” or “Iceland has made great strides in eradicating the birth of mixed-race babies.” Feel free to insert the facet of humankind that gets you most upset.
How about “Iceland has made great strides in eradicating female births”? If your circumstance or inconvenience were a justifiable reason to eradicate a pregnancy, why wouldn’t a sex-selective abortion be OK? Does the act of abortion transform into something less moral if we feel differently about it? Does the act change because it targets a group of people that we feel is being victimized? What is the ethical difference between a sex-selective abortion and plain-old abortion of a female?
One imagines that most women in Iceland who were carrying a baby with a genetic disorder did not opt to have an abortion because they harbor hate or revulsion toward children with Down syndrome. I assume they had other reasons, including the desire to give birth to a healthy child and avoid the complications that the alternative would pose.
A number of U.S. states have passed or want to pass laws that would ban abortions sought due to fetal genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome, or because of the race, sex or ethnicity of the fetus. One such U.S. House bill failed in 2012. Most Democrats involved claimed to be against sex-selective abortion, but not one gave a reason why. That’s probably because once you admit that these theoretical choices equate to real-life consequences like eugenics, you are conceding that these are lives we’re talking about, not blobs. In America, such talk is still frowned upon.
At one hospital in Iceland, “Helga Sol Olafsdottir counsels women who have a pregnancy with a chromosomal abnormality,” explains the CBS article. She says: “We don’t look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended.” A thing? Using an ambiguous noun is a cowardly way to avoid the set of moral questions that pop up when you have to define that “thing.” And science is making it increasingly difficult to circumvent that debate.
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