Its been a rough day for many who follow bioethics news. Our vice-President made us all proud by ‘fully understanding’ and ‘not second-guessing’ China’s disturbingly violent and anti-woman one-child policy. After a long and intense battle, the UK may be on the verge of finally legalizing the killing of some of the most vulnerable their culture. Oh, and then there is the horrible story of Denmark attempting to be a “Down syndrome-free perfect society.” Check out the commentary of Margaret Somerville (HT: Elizabeth Schiltz at MOJ):
At least the Danes are raising this issue. In North America, it’s estimated that more than 90 per cent of unborn babies with Down syndrome are aborted….Widespread, publicly endorsed and paid for prenatal screening to eliminate people with Down syndrome implicates values of respect for both individual human life and human life in general, and respect for disabled people. Collectively, these decisions implement negative eugenics regarding disabled people. It’s a “search and destroy” mission to wipe them out.
What kind of society might result from endorsing a belief that a society without disabled people is “perfect?” The use of science in the search for human perfection has been at the root of some of the greatest atrocities.
Offering routine prenatal screening sends a message that a woman is conditionally pregnant, until she’s told there’s “nothing wrong” with the baby – the fetus is certified as “normal” – or, even, is the “right sex.” This contravenes the value that parental love is unconditional – we love our children just because they’re our children.
And love is the key the point here, isn’t it? We are refusing to love the most vulnerable and are instead abandoning them in the most dramatic way possible. When, as Somerville points out, a bioethicst describes the possibility of aborting 100% of all babies with Down Sydrome as a “fantastic achievement”, we have indeed reached ‘the end of love’:
Many people get many different kinds of things from this haunting song, but the feeling I have when listening to it is the inexorable march away from love and toward death. Kind of like the feeling I get when following modern trends in bioethics.
Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I find the combination of the Danish article along with the Selective Reduction article from the NY Times particularly upsetting. If we don’t protect and promote the equal human dignity, the full humanity of every human person – it isn’t protected for anyone. – but then again, when you’re measure is “perfection” not many people will actually count as “persons” in the eyes of Danish society. But, it does sound like a good excuse to cut services and social support for families and children who make the “inadvisable” choice to love their children unconditionally, regardless of ability or diability.
Thanks for this – I think you’re right, it’s a very disturbing, deathly, confluence of events. I’ve often wanted to write a book called “We Will Not Know How to Love” that would say something along the lines of what you point out here. Actually, I think it’s time to start pulling out all those children’s books – Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, maybe some Star Wars, and be reminded that a narrative of perfection is not the same as a narrative of love. Quite the contrary. But maybe we, as a culture, are no longer persuaded by those means.
I just assigned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” to my healthcare ethics class. A fitting narrative to complement these disturbing trends.
Horrible as this may be, it is not eugenics:
It is something very much like what was done in the name of eugenics, but exterminating “undesirables” for the sake of having them gone, instead of for the sake of the gene pool and future generations, is not eugenics.
If some way were found to prevent the genetic anomaly that results in Down syndrome from occurring in newly conceived human beings in the first place, as opposed to detecting the anomaly after it occurs and aborting the babies, it is difficult to imagine there would be any reasonable moral objections to it.
When I first read your post, it seemed horrifying. After all, what sort of people only love the perfect? That sounds monstrous. But the more I thought about it, the more radical the Catholic position seemed.
It’s not just that we are supposed to love children who are different or disabled, but that we should believe that their lives are every bit as valuable as those of “perfect” or “normal” children. Every expecting couple hopes for a healthy baby. I don’t think there’s anything problematic about that hope.
But our faith asks us to trust that the life of a disabled child, who perhaps will never be able to succeed at many of things our culture deems significant, is absolutely still meaningful and good. Because we already see ourselves as flawed (“rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem”), we can embrace imperfection. I don’t think it’s surprising that others often cannot.
Charlie, thanks for an excellent post. The drive for the perfect society by eliminating those with downs syndrome was powerfully critiqued by Hauerwas in a series of essays in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular Should Suffering Be Eliminated?
While David Nickol is correct according to his presented definition of eugenics, this is a case of the inadequacy of the dictionary deflinition. Historically, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, eugenics was practiced by “neo-Malthusianism” (later called “birth control”) and sterilization of the unfit, and periodically by infanticide. Abortion wasn’t used because there was no pre-natal screening. Somerville’s point is that aborting them is just a more effective and “early” form of sterilzation. She is focusing on the outcome rather than the intent, and in that she is surely correct. As a Western society, we may (and typically do) also kill them because we don’t want them around, but that does not undermine the eugenic element that’s effectively realized.
The thing about the eugenics movement with their “scientific” notions of “germ plasm” is their terrifying views about what constituted perfection and who was inferior. You’ll be glad to know that if your ancestors were the one’s getting off the boat at Ellis Island in the late 19th or early 20th C and they weren’t WASP’s, they’d really rather have had your greatgrandparents NOT breeding. While the contemporary prejudices about perfection and inferiority have changed, I don’t believe they are any more accurate or true.
I suppose it sounds cold blooded to insist on the definition of eugenics under the circumstances, but the word does have a real meaning. Men with Down syndrome cannot father children. From 15% to 30% of women with Down syndrome are fertile and have a 50-50 chance of giving birth to a Down syndrome child, but they rarely have children. So you can’t eliminate Down syndrome by eliminating (or sterilizing) all people with Down syndrome. Actually, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that you could eliminate from the gene pool by exterminating everyone stricken with it. Genetics is generally not that simple. So exterminating undesirables is not eugenics unless it is intended to, and actually does, improve the gene pool by eliminating “bad genes” that cause undesirable, inherited conditions. I believe the Nazis made a show of being interested in eugenics, but I think what they were largely up to was exterminating people they didn’t want to have around. They may have done it in the name of eugenics, but it wasn’t eugenics. I think it is only natural to think of the Nazis in connection with eugenics and to consider the dictionary definition inadequate, but I think the dictionary definition is correct, and the Nazis twisted and perverted eugenics and in most cases were intent on achieving their own ends rather than improving the gene pool.
Charles Taylor has long argued that one of the hallmarks of the modern moral order is the imperative to eliminate suffering. It seems to me that this is exactly what is at issue here. In modernity, the argument that some course of action “reduces/eliminates suffering” (especially if the word “needless” is inserted) is taken as a virtual trump card. One of the truly difficult challenges in our situation – and this cuts across many issues, such as stem-cell research – is how we can figure out ways to give an account of the limits on what we should do in order to reduce/eliminate suffering.
Good points, David Cloutier. If I may, building on the connection between Taylor’s work and the specific subject of Charlie’s post, I want to draw attention to a couple of passages from the final chapter of Taylor’s Sources of the Self. There Taylor suggests that the horrors of the Kharkov famine and the Killing Fields were, in part, the result of “an attempt to realize the most lofty goals of human perfection.” (519) This point is situated within his immediate discussion about the janus-faced nature of what he calls the “ethic of benevolence.” It is this ethic and the corresponding “demands of benevolence,” Taylor argues, that not only “can exact a high cost in self-love and self-fulfillment,” but “in the end require payment in self-destruction or even in violence.” (518)
I know that Taylor has long argued for at least three hallmarks of the modern moral order, one being the imperative to eliminate suffering. But I think his work really implies a fourth: the permission or even imperative to eliminate those who cause suffering by falling short of specific institutionalized ideals. These include, but are limited to ideal citizenship and ideal human being.
For those who are interested in exploiting the connections between Taylor’s work and contemporary concerns in moral theology, I think it may be worth someone’s time to pursue how charity’s mixed transformation and deformation into the “ethic of benevolence” underwrote the very “end of love” that Charlie so rightly calls our attention to.