My First Things “On the Square” bi-weekly column is up. In this edition, I address eugenic abortion. From the piece:
Scientists recently announced that they are perfecting a maternal blood test that will permit technologists to map the entire genome of the developing fetus. Unlike amniocentesis, which requires the insertion of a needle into the womb to obtain amniotic fluid, the test would come earlier in the pregnancy and put the fetus at no risk—unless that is, it reveals unwanted genetic conditions or propensities. In such cases, the fetus’s very life would suddenly be at material and immediate risk.
In a culture in which all people are valued equally regardless of their health or capacities, fetal genetic testing would be a splendid way to reveal the need for prenatal treatments or to allow parents time to prepare for a child with special needs. That’s precisely how Todd and Sarah Palin reacted when the learned their youngest child Trig has Down syndrome. Long before he was born, they absorbed the emotional shock and then joyfully welcomed their son with open arms. But such unconditional love cuts against the current cultural zeitgeist. Consider: About 90 percent of fetuses testing for genetic conditions such as Down and dwarfism are terminated to the moral support, if not outright cheering, of much of society. It may seem harsh to say, but it is true nonetheless: We are in the midst of a great eugenic cleansing in which diagnosed imperfection often favors abortion.
Can anyone deny it? I discuss the pressure often placed on families from friends, family and society to abort. I get into IVF and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. I note, as I have here often, that increasingly people not only believe they have a right to a baby but to the baby they want.
But our quest for perfection, had the technology come a few hundred years earlier, could have come at a terrible cost:
Missing in the eugenics quest for perfection are the many significant would-have-been contributors to society we might prevent from being born. Indeed, we can easily trace who could have been lost had our contemporary technological prowess been developed a few hundred years earlier. Beethoven might never have born considering his destined deafness. If Lincoln was bi-polar or had the genetic condition known as Marfan’s syndrome, as some have speculated, he might well have been “selected out” in the hope that Tom and Nancy Lincoln’s next baby would have a less troubled nature. For that matter, the embryonic Winston Churchill might have been terminated when his genetic screeners warned his parents that he would have a predisposition for alcoholism. Similarly, Mother Teresa might have never been born had her parents known she would be diminutive and plain. Ditto Toulouse-Lautrec. And what if homosexuality turns out to have a determinable genetic component? There might never have been an Oscar Wilde.
Perhaps more fundamentally are the everyday people we all know who are “imperfect.” Would the world really be better without them in it?
I close with the antidote:
If I were to pick one human attribute to extol above all others, it wouldn’t be high intelligence, good looks, or athletic prowess—the usual targets for human improvement. Rather, I believe the most crucial human attribute is our capacity to love.
Nearly 2000 years ago, St. Paul wrote, “And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Who among us exhibit a greater unconditional love capacity than our brothers and sisters with Down syndrome? To the extent that they and other “defectives” are unwelcome among us can be measured our own deficiencies as a society.
Technology isn’t the problem. We are.