The New York Post ran a story last week titled, "The End of Down Syndrome." It references the release of a new prenatal blood test that screens for Down Syndrome at 10 weeks. Because this is significantly earlier and less-invasive than existing methods, Paul Root Wolpe, the ethics director at Emory University, believes the end result will be a world without Down syndrome—a world where virtually every Down syndrome baby will be identified before birth and aborted. The only question, he says, is whether this is good or bad. Wolpe bases his assessment on a fairly straightforward reading of the data. Right now, only about 2% of pregnant women in America undergo an amniocentesis screening—generally those who are over 35 or have a family history of Down syndrome. When the amniocentesis indicates that the child has Down syndrome, more than 90% of those children are aborted. It's safe to assume that if the new screening method becomes part of the standard prenatal routine for all pregnant women, the number of Down syndrome abortions will reach even more staggering levels—since an estimated 80% of Down syndrome babies are born to women under 35.
Wolpe calls this a "conundrum" but argues that, "Human beings have always tried to fight and cure disease, and this tool, projecting it forward 50 years… will make a difference in eliminating [Down syndrome] in the world." Whatever his intentions, this is a warped and misleading statement. In no way is abortion a cure for Down syndrome. And as someone who's had a lifelong relationship with a Down syndrome family member, it seems perverse to even suggest that Down syndrome is something that should be "cured." It is not a disease; it's a genetic irregularity. To target and abort children with Down syndrome is nothing less than the euthanization of an otherwise healthy and happy group of people. Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, Betsy Hart notes that though "We live in a supposedly humane and tolerant age… [we still have] little tolerance for humanity that might be a little different."
Sequenom, the company responsible for the new blood test (MaterniT21), publicly claims that it won't have a significant impact on the birth rate of Down syndrome babies. Their senior director of research says, "All that this test does is provide a safer alternative to the information that is already available to a woman." The Down syndrome community is less convinced. In an article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Blythe Bernhard writes that families of children with Down syndrome fear that "widespread use of the new test would lead to more abortions, creating a smaller community with fewer resources." In anticipation of MaterniT21's release, the Erie Times-Newsran a story on Matt and Meghan Wilkinson, who have 18-month-old twin boys with Down syndrome. When Meghan first learned of their condition in the recovery room, she prayed the diagnosis was wrong, but "quickly discovered that it really didn't matter; she had already fallen deeply in love with her boys." She calls them her "miracle men." By contrast, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article highlights a family that learned of their son's condition early in the pregnancy. Though they didn't have an abortion, they were filled with "fear and panic" for a week after receiving the news. The family now writes that "it would be devastating if we didn't have children like Dawson," but it's understandable why the news was so hard to deal with when they didn't yet have a smiling newborn in their arms to help quiet their fears.
Dr. Harriet Feick, a neonatologist at Akron Children's Hospital, is the doctor who delivered the news to the Wilkinsons about their twin boys. She notes that families are often upset at first, but "she is usually able to win them over." More times than not, families that are devastated at the initial diagnosis, exhibit "undying love by the time they leave the hospital." And why shouldn't they? Feick notes that people with Down Syndrome have remarkably high social IQs: "Though their total IQ may be low, they often seem smarter because they are so social." A recent article in Brooklyn Ink notes some of the unique challenges parents face in caring for adult children with Down syndrome, but it also points out that their expectations for a long, healthy, and happy life have never been better. Like children, they can't always care for themselves on their own, but also like children, they exhibit more joy and less cynicism than the average grown-up. Many of the stresses that overwhelm adults never quite reach them.
A related story at MedicalXpress.com raises the red flags even higher. For those who have no ethical hang-ups with aborting a baby for having Down syndrome, what would you say about aborting a baby for being a girl, or aborting a baby for not being predisposed to academic or athletic success? MaterniT21 tests for Down syndrome through "a complex form of DNA sequencing." What that means is that these tests will not only be able to identify genetic irregularities, they'll also be able to identify gender and provide a snapshot of "sports ability, physical appearance, (and) intelligence." Peter Benn, professor and director of the Diagnostic Human Genetics Laboratories at the Health Center, warns that the simplicity of the test will make it hard to regulate: “If you can send off a blood sample to a laboratory and find out the sex of the baby and go somewhere else to request a pregnancy termination—no one will ask why.” Their research found that even in America, there is strong indication that sex selection abortions are already taking place after ultrasound-based sex identification. The ability to identify gender even earlier in pregnancy does not bode well for unborn girls around the world.
If there's a silver lining in these otherwise disturbing developments, perhaps it is this. Many people who are indifferent to abortion in the abstract find this growing epidemic of trait-based abortions repulsive—and rightly so. I pray that as they wrestle to explain why it is legitimate to abort a child in general, but not legitimate to abort a child for being a girl or being too short, perhaps their eyes will be opened to the intrinsic depravity of abortion itself. After all, if there is nothing wrong with abortion in general, how can there be anything wrong with trait-based abortion in particular?
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.