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Iceland isn’t really getting rid of Down syndrome

| Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Iceland isn’t getting rid of Down syndrome. Iceland is getting rid of people with Down syndrome. There’s a difference.

In August, CBS published a report, which has since gone viral, announcing that the island’s abortion rate for babies with Down syndrome is approaching 100 percent. Like most progressive European countries, selective abortion is rampant thanks to pre-natal testing which allows expectant mothers to know nearly any medical condition their child might have. Just one or two children with the genetic disorder are born each year in Iceland — and usually as the result of faulty testing, meaning the parents thought they had a healthy child. In other words, no one in Iceland wants a Down syndrome child. This is both saddening and horrifying.  Saddening, because children with disabilities are people who deserve even more care and protection, not less, and horrifying because of what this says about modern society which so often claims to be fighting for the oppressed, for social justice and for equality. Who could be more oppressed than children targeted and eliminated at a 99 percent death rate?

This phenomenon is just an indicator of the larger problem present in our culture, an attitude St. Pope John Paul II called “the culture of death.” Human life and human dignity are under assault on all fronts, from threats of nuclear attacks, to countries ravaged by war and poverty, to cultural imperialism through abortion, contraception and forced sterilization. Pope Francis has updated this term to what he calls the “throwaway culture,” something he has fiercely critiqued. The throwaway culture is nowhere more blindingly destructive than in the selective abortion rate of children with disabilities. Our country isn’t quite as bad, but the Unites States still aborts anywhere from 65 percent to 90 percent, depending on various reports. As a society, we do not (or at least actively strive to not) discriminate on the basis of race, sex, creed, socioeconomic background and the like, but what makes those with disabilities any different?

Mothers and father who choose to selectively abort children with a disability are afraid of the difficulties and costs that come with such a child. What they fail to realize is the joyful, unlimited love and the unique beauty that only such a child can bring. Such a vast love is infinitely more powerful than any strain, hard though they indeed are, that arises out of raising these children. Pre-natal testing is a technological advance that should be used for good; knowing about a child’s medical condition before he or she is born can allow for pre-emptive surgeries or treatment and for preparation by the parents, both financial and psychological. But when this power is distorted to locate and eliminate the weakest among us, it begins to sound like a dystopian horror story or a utilitarian fantasy.

I empathize with parents facing such a decision because it can be truly crushing to learn of an infant’s illness, whether genetic, terminal or other. I say empathize, and not sympathize, because my own parents faced a similar decision with me. Pre-natal testing indicated signs on my body in the womb of trisomy 18, a crippling developmental genetic disorder which usually results in death in under a year. My parents switched doctors, not even considering anything close to an abortion. They chose life and love, and as it turns out, I was a perfectly healthy baby. My younger sister, too, was diagnosed with a chance of having Down syndrome based on pre-natal testing, but my parents looked forward eagerly to their next daughter regardless of her health. She also ended up born perfectly healthy — but only because she was given the chance to live in the first place, something the Icelandic children in similar circumstances do not have.

Our world needs to choose a culture of life, facing sickness, disease and disabilities with hope, and embracing those who most need it. The beauty of creation is nowhere more manifest than the beauty of the human person, and especially in the shining smile of a person with Down syndrome. This creation we have a duty to respect and to protect, not to throw aside and ignore. Eliminating Down syndrome would be a revolutionary medical breakthrough, but eliminating people with Down syndrome is nothing more than a tragic lack of humanity.

John Paul Ferguson


Sept. 10

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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