Due to the rise of prenatal screening tests, the number of babies born with Down syndrome in the Western world has begun to significantly diminish. And no one, as CBS News puts it, is “eradicating Down syndrome births” quite like the country of Iceland.
Now, the word “eradication” typically implies that an ailment is being cured or beaten by some technological advancement. Not so in this case. Nearly 100 percent of women who receive positive tests for Down syndrome in that small nation end up eradicating their pregnancies. 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 around 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 around 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 Greek, meaning “well born” — is nothing more than an 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 in “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 mentally ill, poor, and minorities here in America. It is why real-life Nazis required doctors to register all newborns born with Down syndrome. And the first humans they gassed were children under three years old with “serious hereditary diseases” like Down syndrome.
Most often Down syndrome isn’t hereditary, of course, but for many these children are considered undesirable — really, they are considered “inconvenient” — although most are born with moderate cognitive or intellectual disabilities and many live full lives.
If Iceland’s policy “reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling,” as geneticist Kari Stefansson admits in a video, then what will it mean when we have the science to extrapolate on these tests and pinpoint other problematic traits in people? How about children with congenital heart defects or cleft palates or sickle-cell disease or autism? Eradicate?
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 the ugliness of these 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 births of those who lean towards obesity” or “Iceland has made great strides in eradicating births of mixed-race babies.” Feel free to insert the fact of humankind that gets you most upset.
How about, “Iceland has made great strides in eradicating female births”?
From what I could tell — admittedly, this is through social media; I see no polling on the issue — most people, many liberals included, reacted to Iceland’s selective eradication of Down syndrome children negatively. Polling from the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute has found that 77 percent believed abortion should be illegal if “the sole reason for seeking an abortion” was to have a boy or girl.
I don’t understand why. If your circumstance or inconvenience is a justifiable reason to eradicate a pregnancy — who wants to be “punished” with a baby, after all? — why wouldn’t a sex-selective abortion be okay? 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 are being victimized? What is the ethical difference between a sex-selective abortion and plain-old abortion of a girl?
One imagines that most women carrying babies with genetic disorders in Iceland did not opt to have abortions because they harbor hate or revulsion towards Down syndrome children. 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 a fetus. Such a U.S. House bill failed in 2012. Most Democrats involved claimed to be against sex-selective abortion, but not one gave a reason why. 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.
Icelanders, apparently, are more honest:
Over at Landspitali University Hospital, Helga Sol Olafsdottir counsels women who have a pregnancy with a chromosomal abnormality. They speak to her when deciding whether to continue or end their pregnancies. Olafsdottir tells women who are wrestling with the decision or feelings of guilt: ‘This is your life — you have the right to choose how your life will look like.’
Well, not everyone gets to choose what his or her life looks like. Certainly not those who are “eradicated” because they suffer from genetic disorders. Then again, “We don’t look at abortion as a murder,” Olafsdottir explains later. “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.