By Natalie Scholl ’13
Pre-natal testing opens a range of opportunities to parents. It allows them to see not only the gender of their unborn baby and its developing fingers and toes but also its disabilities and potential genetic diseases. Such information allows parents the chance to prepare for life with their new child- whether that means decorating with blue instead of pink or researching the effects of Down Syndrome. But coupled with another medical option, it also allows them to make a choice. Parents can determine whether or not they want to raise a boy or a girl, a perfectly healthy child or one suffering from a disability.
The number of people with disabilities and genetic diseases is slowly fading in the United States, including such ones as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs. We are gradually progressing towards the possibility of eliminating some genetic strains, as the carriers of these diseases become increasingly cautious of procreating. It would be wonderful if we could achieve a society devoid of disabilities, such as spina bifida, or disorders dormant in our genes that flare up and compromise the health of future generations. We would carelessly worry about just passing on to our children “daddy’s nose” or “mommy’s feet” instead of Down Syndrome or Sickle Cell. But at what cost does such a society come, and what do the means of our pursuit in this matter reveal about us?
The sizeable decrease of those born with disease and disorders, often exemplified in the instance of Down Syndrome, is not due to a new antidote or treatment, but, rather, abortion. Due to technology, parents can determine not only the sex of their baby but also if it is or might be disabled. When faced with the realization that their babies will not have the perfect body or mind, many parents opt to terminate their pregnancies and spare the children and themselves from having to cope with the more challenging lifestyle. According to the “Prenatal Diagnosis,” the percentage of Down Syndrome pregnancies terminated has been placed at over ninety percent.
What message does our society send, especially to those living with disabilities, when we are willing to abort disabled children? It is better to be dead than disabled. It becomes a fast-forwarded, modern survival-of-the-fittest. Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin and the creator of the term “eugenics,” argued that “what nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly.” We destroy the weakest and most vulnerable of our kind, in order to refine humanity to its superior, healthiest form. This should sound familiar. It was part of Hitler’s agenda with the Aryan race. Indeed, some of the first people he ordered eliminated were the disabled; to him, they were subtractions from society.
Today, we do it quickly. Quietly. Cleanly. Today, we couch it in terms of mercy and compassion: we’re sparing the disabled from a difficult life, a life in which the negatives outweigh the positives. We don’t worry about the world being worthy of them but of them being worthy of the world. We tell them their lives aren’t worth living, and we never give them the chance to prove us wrong. But let us consider those who survive and, in many instances thrive, with these disabilities. What are we saying to them by our actions? After all, we don’t want to birth the imperfect children already conceived but would prefer to wait for the perfect babies- the ones that deserve to live. If we are willing to terminate fetuses based on their defects and disabilities, how long until we become a society that views all disabled people as an unnecessary burden and calmly eradicates them? How long until we coldly calculate and quantify the value of each human life– plugging in the variables and solving for the opportunity to emerge alive from the womb or breathe another breath? Perhaps, we are doing that already.
This is not to ignore that living with a disability poses challenges– both to the ones it affects directly and those around them whom it affects indirectly. One woman was diagnosed at a few years of age with severe rheumatoid arthritis. The diagnosis put her life expectancy at early twenties. As she grew, her body twisted to the point that she was confined to a wheelchair with limited mobility, a tiny distorted person in purple. She struggled with the deterioration of her physical abilities, even contemplating suicide at one point. But she did not die. She commissioned a specialty van and learned to drive from her wheelchair with a system of knobs and mirrors; she saw her thirtieth birthday; she married and then was widowed; she saw her fortieth birthday; she lived alone with her cats; she married my uncle. A large portion of her life she navigated with her trusty wheelchair, a no-nonsense attitude, and a dry sense of humor. Around her fiftieth birthday, she passed away from complications of severe rheumatoid arthritis-having doubled her projected lifespan and changed my uncle’s life. No one who knew my aunt would say she had an easy life by any means– but neither would they say it was not a life worth living.
How many people, whether from the fear of dealing with the difficulty or from the pursuit of perfection, have missed the enrichment that their disabled children might have offered them? And, how many parents of disabled children would wish that they had never been born? In fact, according to a New York Times article by Amy Harmon in 2007, over the last several years, the parents of those with Down Syndrome have been speaking out and have had their children do the same. They want potential parents of children with Down Syndrome to know the rich lives the children are capable of leading and how their own lives are affected and enhanced by them. They are afraid knowing that there are some who see the lives of the disabled, of those who would grow up like their own children, as not worth the inconvenience of tending, and so abort their fetuses. Harmon writes that some parents “see themselves as society’s first line of defense against a use of genetic technology that can border on eugenics.”
These are children not aborted because the mother has been raped or because the family situation is rife with poverty and abuse. These are children that by-and-large would have been born. But, prenatal testing showed them as damaged goods, and so they were discarded.
What is truly terrifying is that worth today is not only determined by physical imperfection but also gender. Sexism, something our modern society seeks to eliminate, is alive and well in the abortion industry. The idea of a sort of made-to-order baby means determining both its health and its sex. In places such as China, with its child restrictions, sex-selective abortion, or “gendercide,” is perhaps most prevalent as parents strive to get their pregnancy the way they want. Many times, the parents want a boy, not a girl. This is sexism in the purest sense of the word– a determination of the value of a person on the basis of gender. It has been estimated that millions of girls have been aborted in sex-selective abortions, drastically skewing the gender balance in places, such as India and other parts of Asia.
While many view sex-selective abortion as an over-seas phenomenon, it is unfortunately not foreign to the United States. According to polling, most Americans are against sex-selective abortion. Currently, there are a handful of states that have created laws against sex-selective abortion. However, as determined by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, women may abort for any reason, and discrimination based on gender is legally acceptable. Based on this ruling, it appears that the states’ bans on sex-selective abortion are unconstitutional.
An operation that was supposed to assist in the liberation and empowerment of women has been twisted around and has begun to bring them down. Not only does sex-selective abortion impact women more, but it also declares that in the world today, women are not placed at equal value to men. In a society dedicated to equality and opportunity, let us examine whether we are failing not only ourselves and the victims of sex-selective abortion, but future generations as well, by this precedent. The message that has been voiced, enacted, and protected, is that, yes, worth can be dependent on whether you are male or female.
The combination of the rise of abortions based on health and gender indicates that the worth of an unborn child is determined by want. That is, depending on the desires of the parents, the baby is either valuable or worthless. When approaching abortions based on the pre-natal screening, it is essential to ask: is a person’s potential and significance determined by the feelings and wishes of others? If it is not, should we allow people to terminate pregnancies- these buds of potential-because they have found out their children are not formed according to their preconceptions?