Life Unworthy of Life: On the Relationship Between Eugenics and Down Syndrom Abortion

This was a rough draft of a final project due for my sociology class. In it I try to demonstrate the relationship between eugenics and Down syndrome abortion, the moral problem that it presents, and a Christian response.

What if human life could be genetically improved? Imagine a world that is free of disease, disability, poverty, prostitution, and crime. Would not such a world be a utopia? It even sounds a lot like what Christians describe as heaven. How could science help? What would it look like? These are the questions that eugenicists were asking at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries and are still pertinent to us today. In this paper we will look at the history of the eugenics movement and its unfortunate consequences in support of the thesis that the purposes and outcomes of current-day prenatal screening for Down syndrome parallel important facets of eugenic thinking, and that the issue of abortion is central to the debate as it is being used as a eugenic tool. At the end I will attempt to give a Christian response.

In the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, thinkers were lead to believe that biological inequality within humanity was a scientific fact, and the struggle for racial survival was predicated on human “fitness” (Friedlander, 1995:1). The word “eugenics” was coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883 which means “good birth.” Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, was a mathematician who believed that the human race could be improved in the same way plant and animals are improved by selective breeding. His fundamental belief was that heredity not only directed a person’s physical traits, but also their ability and character (Kevles, 1985:3-4).

Paying little to no attention to social environment, this idea allowed for almost anything to be reduced to heredity including things like laziness, sexual deviance, or criminal behavior. Even the offspring of clergymen were thought to be at risk on the basis of a heritable trait of instability that resulted in “riotous living” (everyone knows a bad preacher’s kid) (Kevles, 1985:71-72). All of these traits were thought of along the same lines as eye color that could be inherited in a completely Mendelian fashion. One such trait that was applied liberally to those deemed “unfit” was “feeblemindedness”—a catchall term used to denote a wide variety of mental deficiencies ranging from severe mental retardation to those which tended towards immoral behavior (Kevles, 1985:46).

Eugenics went hand in hand with what is called “Social Darwinism,” the idea that nations (or races) are in competition with one another, and that those poised to win the struggle for survival are the most fit. To celebrate the idea of fitness, “fitter family” contests and “better baby” competitions were contrived depicting the ideal human stock. Upon reflecting on these social ideas one eugenicist commented that the day was coming when society would consider “the production of the weakling a crime against itself” (Kevles, 1985:86). This prediction would come true as laws were enacted to protect society from things like feeblemindedness and other genetic maladies. Legislators passed discriminating immigration laws and drafted involuntary sterilization bills where the state was granted the right to sterilize those deemed a threat to the biological purity of its people (Kevles, 1985:97, 100).

The most famous case of eugenic enactment was in the 1927 US Supreme Court Case Buck v. Bell that upheld a Virginia statute authorizing the involuntary sterilization of a “feebleminded” woman. Carrie Buck was the daughter of a “feebleminded” mother, and was declared “feebleminded” herself after scoring low on an intelligence test. After being committed she had a child out of wedlock, which was considered to be further evidence of “feeblemindedness.” The baby was also declared to be “feebleminded” after an intelligence test designed for a six-month old “proved” she was below average. The conclusion of the “expert testimony” was that the Buck line belonged “to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South” and the Court agreed upholding the sterilization order 8 to 1. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded in the majority opinion:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices… It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

In reality Carrie Buck was not mentally retarded and was committed to cover up the fact that she had been raped by a relative of the foster family she was living with. Her daughter Vivian, though she died at the age of eight, even did well in school getting A’s and B’s on her report cards in a number of subjects (Gould, 1985:317).

These enactments coupled with restrictions on immigration were attractive to social thinkers in Germany in the 1920s and 30s (Friedlander, 1995:9, 15). In the wake of World War I two German scholars wrote,

If one thinks of a battlefield covered with thousands of dead youth… and contrasts this with our institutions for the feebleminded with their solicitude for their living patients—then one would be deeply shocked by the disjunction between the sacrifice of the most valuable possession of humanity on the one side and on the other the greatest care of beings who are not only worthless but even manifest negative value” (Quoted in Friedlander, 1995:15).

When the Nazis came to power they applied the term “racial hygiene” to their eugenics to purify the Aryan race from Jewish blood, and passed laws mandating the sterilizations of the handicapped (Friedlander, 1995:11, 23). In 1939 Hitler authorized the execution of handicapped children and then extended it to include handicapped adults. The methods used to dispatch the handicapped served as a model for the so-called “final solution” to the “Jewish question” because they convinced Nazi leadership that mass killing was a feasible enterprise (Friedlander, 1995:39, 62, 284). The historian Henry Friedlander concluded after his study of the origin of Nazi genocide that “Auschwitz was only the last, most perfect Nazi killing center. The entire killing enterprise had started in January 1940 with the murder of the most helpless human beings, institutionalized handicapped patients” (Friedlander, 1995:302).

In our day, eugenics is thought to be a discarded relic of the pseudoscientific past. The barbarousness of the Nazis showed the world how eugenics failed certain moral tests, namely that insidious prejudices were read into scientific reasoning, and that human rights were denied to the genetically inferior. This ethical outrage seems to have carried over into today as evidenced by the public outcry against a conservative radio host who made the ill-conceived remark that the crime-rate would go down if black babies were aborted (Sorkin, 2005).

Yet there seems to remain one class of people consistently deemed inferior and unworthy of life, those who are born with trisomy 21 or “Down syndrome.” Studies show that after prenatal testing some 90% of women elect to have an abortion if evidence is presented demonstrating the fetus has the disability. To disability-rights activists these are thought to be the discriminatory results of prejudice towards the handicapped. They believe the lives of Down syndrome children are stigmatized by the medical community as being characteristic of human suffering and having lives not worth living. Such a stigma is deeply discrediting and reduces the worth of living persons with Down syndrome in the eyes of society (for more on stigma and prejudice see Ferrante, 2007: 255-58). Thus an effort is being made to raise awareness that having a Down syndrome child is a rewarding and life-affirming experience. According to the New York Times the prenatal tests may be “heralding a broader cultural skirmish over where to draw the line between preventing disability and accepting diversity” (Harmon, 2007).

To be sure the parallel between Down syndrome and Nazi eugenics is not exact. There is no legislation compelling the abortions of Down syndrome fetuses, nor is there any concern over the biological purity of the nation. Such ideas are considered to be an affront to individual rights and scientifically specious. However, there are similarities in two important areas, the first of which being that handicapped persons are deemed burdensome whether it is in financial terms or to the overall goodness of life; secondly, the handicapped do not have the right to life. The former seems clear to see, but the latter is obscured by the same ambiguities that beset the abortion debate. Since it has been decided that the unborn do not have a right to life, that even healthy fetuses can be aborted at any time, there is no reason why a handicapped fetus would enjoy more tolerance. Nevertheless, the general undesirability of a Down syndrome child coupled with the legal recourse to terminate a Down syndrome pregnancy results in a “life unworthy of life” mentality that is fully compatible with Nazi eugenic ideas.

In response to these problems, disability-rights activists wage their campaign on the first prong of the issue wanting to persuade potential parents that a Down syndrome child is a blessing rather than a curse. The second prong of the issue, the discussion over the morality of abortion in general, and the use of it to “prevent disease” in particular is cast aside.

As a Christian who firmly believes in the sanctity of human life in and outside the womb, handicapped or healthy I believe this a flawed approach. As long as killing the unborn handicapped is disguised in the euphemism of “preventing disease” there can be no moral discussion about the value of human life in a handicapped baby. Without addressing the ambiguities in the abortion debate it cannot be adequately urged that the life of a Down syndrome child is valuable if it cannot be argued that its prenatal life is valuable.

Washington Post writer Patricia Bauer considers this “the abortion debate no one wants to have.” She writes, “I have to think there are many pro-choicers who, while paying obeisance to the rights of people with disabilities, want at the same time to preserve their right to ensure that no one with disabilities will be born into their own families.” Thus, according to Bauer, the “abortion debate is not just about a woman’s right to choose whether to have a baby; it’s also about a woman’s right to choose which baby she wants to have” (Bauer, 2005).

With this in mind I can only agree with the Catholic geneticist who helped discover trisomy 21 that the reason why he continues to work on finding a cure for Down syndrome is that it is a symptom of a disease—not a symptom of death (Kevles, 1985:287). When the Christian sees the burdens of sickness on a human being she extends the hands that work to comfort and heal, they do not embrace social stigmas that lead to death. In Christianity death is never the “final solution” to our problems and that is precisely what separates a society built on Christian principles rather than Darwinian ones.


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