Disposing of Those with Down Syndrome

Chris Burke, American actor with Down syndrome (Photo credit: Christopher Voelker)

Chris Burke, American actor with Down syndrome (Photo credit: Christopher Voelker)

In today’s culture we are constantly cajoled about the need to concern ourselves with “niche interests” and to demonstrate acceptance for those who choose to live “outside the norm.” It is a mainstay of the politically correct that we must bend over backwards to embrace the self-determined “identity” of non-mainstream individuals. The mantra used to be to “be tolerant”, but we are long past that. Now we are required celebrate their differences. Unless, that is, the different characteristic is Down syndrome.

You see, those with Down syndrome require the help of others, and requiring the help of others may be the second biggest sin in our culture (after being intolerant). The person with Down syndrome may prevent their family or friends from living a completely self-determined life, and that is unacceptable.

Tragically, the person with Down syndrome is seen as lacking some amount of humanness. Statistics back this up - the vast majority of pre-born babies (over 90%) diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. That this is far greater than the abortion rate in non-Down pregnancies (roughly 21%).

Organizations like the National Down Syndrome Society and the National Down Syndrome Congress work to advance the interests of those with Down syndrome and their families. They are trying to increase acceptance of and respect for people with Down syndrome, but sadly, despite their work, the specter of abortion for those within this group looms large. Matthew Hennessey shared recently about the controversy that arose when these two organizations teamed up with the National Society of Genetic Counselors and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to “produce an informational pamphlet that could be distributed to expectant mothers whose babies had been given a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.”

Unfortunately, the pamphlet included this reminder about the possibility of aborting their unborn child: “After receiving a prenatal diagnosis and learning more about Down syndrome, some families opt to terminate a pregnancy.” This line led both Down syndrome advocacy groups to abandon the project and work on a separate pamphlet without the abortion language.

The other medical groups lamented the breakdown of “consensus”, but how can there be consensus when killing unborn people with Down syndrome is presented as a viable medical option with equal moral standing to that of giving birth? Of course the advocacy groups could not support this project! Abortion is about killing, not curing, plain and simple. Presenting this option within a pamphlet on caring for a new child with Down syndrome presents the baby as inferior to a “regular” child, and lacking in the same human value.

The adoption of a sliding scale of human dignity is a dangerous process. If those with Down syndrome are less worthy of life because of their diminished faculties, what about those suffering from Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, or the regular deterioration that comes with aging? No one is safe. All become at increased risk of disposal as time exacts its toll.

Or what about the person with ALS? The “Ice Bucket Challenge” has raised a lot of money to help those with ALS, but why should we bother to care for them? Once they’ve been diagnosed with the disease, why not help them to end their own lives? Imagine if a “Dealing with ALS” pamphlet had similar language to that adopted above: “After finding out their loved one has been diagnosed with ALS, some families or spouses opt to terminate their life.” This would horrify most people today!

Sadly, in our increasingly self-centered culture, it’s not hard to imagine seeing a pamphlet to this affect in the near future. The language would just be tweaked a bit. Instead of “terminate their life”, it would read something like “some families opt to help their loved one to avoid the difficulties of continuing to live with ALS by helping them to die with dignity.”

We either accept this sliding scale of human dignity or we reject it entirely. There is no middle ground. If we accept it, we will find more and more reasons to justify getting rid of the nuisance of the weak and infirm. If we reject it, we must respect the life and dignity of all people, even those with significant physical or mental difficulties, no matter how inconvenient.

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