From a certain point of view, it speaks well of many in the developed West that they simply cannot face the violence that our culture directs at those with Down syndrome. It may be a hopeful thing that the killing of somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of these children before they are born can still produce the kind of horror that makes it easier to look away than to engage with what is happening.
In France, government censorship ensures that people don’t have to look. The Global Down Syndrome Foundation planned to air a video titled “Dear Future Mom” on French television aimed at reassuring mothers who have been told their child has Down syndrome. Smiling, laughing children with Down syndrome deliver the message that the future mother’s child “can be happy, just like I am – and you’ll be happy, too.” The French Broadcasting Council, however, banned the video as “inappropriate.” In a legal challenge, a court upheld the ban because the video was “likely to disturb the conscience of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices.”
Such a child may be healthy, she may be happy, she may be human. But she is not the child her parents want. And so, with the encouragement of the government, in the vast majority of these cases, such children are discarded, and parents try again.
There could not be a better example of what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” Such a culture reduces God’s creation to products to be used and discarded at will. In such a culture, even children are at risk of becoming things in a marketplace. Reproductive consumers want children because they believe children can give them what they want. Of course, in order for consumers to get what they want, they must demand a certain kind of quality control over their desired products.
Because the market has selected against children with Down syndrome, we are now seeing the gradual elimination of an entire group of people. Sometimes this elimination is a deliberately pursued government policy, as in Iceland, where close to 100 percent of mothers who receive news that they are likely to have Down’s child choose abortion.
At times we are told that such abortion rates are high because of concern for children “suffering” from Down syndrome. Often it’s implied, if not argued outright, that this is some sort of mercy: that a life with Down’s is not worth living. This runs up against reality that people with Down’s are, on average, happier than those who are “normal.”
In an awkward twist, however, a good portion of the pro-lifers who are resisting these reproductive practices generally celebrate the very same attitude towards “freedom of choice” in a market which is responsible for the problem. Self-identified free-market conservatives dominate the pro-life movement, and they have hitched their wagon to a party far more concerned with markets and wealth than they are with vulnerable children.
Indeed, as Juan Williams has pointed out, both parties benefit from keeping our abortion discourse locked in failure. They rarely spend serious political capital to change the game, preferring to nibble around the edges of the issue, yet are quite happy to use the drama and heat surrounding the issue to raise money and voter support, especially around election time.
In another awkward situation, when arguing for laws against abortion, some small-government Republicans find themselves in opposition to others in their own party who are also on a personal level anti-abortion, but who argue that it is worse for laws to limit human choice than it is for women to be legally allowed to kill their children. These libertarian Republicans use the rhetoric of the horror of intrusive government against pro-lifers as they use it against those who argue for a social safety net.
Especially around the time of the March for Life, pro-life people should think hard about any political alliances that place them at odds with a comprehensive vision for supporting mothers and families. This becomes especially important as one thinks about the great financial burden of having a child with Down syndrome. In order to provide for children with special needs, many families rely on Medicaid: the very program so many legislators have been trying to cut. Indeed, the executive director of one disability rights group called a recent GOP proposal to cut Medicaid “the greatest threat the disability community has faced since the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century.”
But we should not let progressives off the hook either. The moment they begin to speak about abortion, pro-choice Democrats often sound a lot like Republicans in claiming they stand against intrusive government meddling in the private choices of individuals.
It is no small irony that, in taking what is essentially a libertarian position, progressives open wide the gate for the infiltration of so many evils they stand against in other contexts. Rather than critique the effect of the market in a throwaway culture, they expand the logic of commodification to include actual people, even disabled people. Autonomy and privacy are important goods, but progressives know that fundamental justice for the most vulnerable comes first, especially when they are threatened with violence. Energetic government must step in and protect those who cannot protect themselves, even if it means curtailing the individual liberty of those who have power over them.
This contradiction in the pro-choice progressive position is often masked with misleading euphemisms. But in the opinion pages of the Washington Post last March, columnist Ruth Marcus turned the discourse on abortion and Down syndrome in a very different direction by offering a direct, euphemism-free defense of the practice.
Marcus, to her credit, acknowledged that most people with Down’s lead fulfilled lives, and that the second trimester abortions generally used to kill them are “ghastly.” Nevertheless Marcus said that had she been forced to confront the possibility of giving birth to a child with this disability she would have had an abortion, grieved the loss, and moved on. Again to her credit, she doesn’t hide behind misleading claims about the supposed suffering of these children. Instead, with unusual candor, she said, “I’m going to be blunt here: That was not the child I wanted. That was not the choice I would have made.”
By now most educated people know that people with Down syndrome can lead flourishing lives. Not only are they generally happier than the rest of us; they are employees, friends, and even heroes – one young man with Down syndrome rescued a girl from drowning. What, then, do those who argue for their death believe about human value? It is worth noting that Marcus made lower IQ scores a key part of her analysis. Many who choose to abort in such circumstances are consumed by a worldview that understands human social life in terms of meritocracy. For a child to be valuable, that child must have the traits that will help him to succeed in a competitive environment: being smart, getting advanced degrees, making enough money to maintain a certain lifestyle. A child with a high IQ, a child with a bright future according to the standards of late capitalism, is an asset to an up-and-coming couple. We have a word for this prejudice: ableism, which privileges those who are able-bodied and able-minded over those who are not. Something important about our abortion politics is revealed when a progressive like Marcus makes ableist claims; were she to offer them in any other political context, a social media campaign would have been immediately organized to get her fired. For progressives, there is nothing worse than bigotry against the weak – unless it is in the context of the abortion debate.
A Way Forward
Are there any signs that the incoherence of the pro-life right and the pro-choice left are being challenged? To their credit, some are trying to work through the tension between the goals of the pro-life movement and its political alliances. Writing in National Review in response to Marcus’s piece and a subsequent piece by a libertarian Republican who personally opposes abortion but also opposes any legal restrictions on it, Alexandra DeSanctis notes that as “a conservative who favors limited government” she understands such views. She goes on to say, however, that if the choice in question is the killing of an innocent person, it is impossible to argue that the government has absolutely no interest in protecting that human life. … Abortion-rights proponents refer constantly to the all-important “right to choose,” but they consistently ignore or deny that the choice being protected is the choice to kill an innocent. If the government isn’t permitted to limit the right to kill an innocent human being, how can the state possibly justify any other infringement on its citizens’ choices?
Of course privacy is a good thing, and there is such a thing as an overly intrusive government. But it is a role of the government to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and our absolute freedom to do as we wish surely should, at the very least, be limited by the requirement that we avoid actively harming another person. When the stakes are as high as they are – when the harm is the systematic extermination of the most vulnerable populations – it is a time for both libertarians and progressives to ask themselves difficult questions about how their principles are working out in the lives of these real children who, though they are not yet born, already exist.
As for me, each time I encounter a person with Down syndrome I’m reminded of why I’m all-in as a pro-life progressive. This happened recently at a panel discussion at St. Catherine’s Parish in Riverside, Connecticut. After my remarks made it clear how important I thought it was to find ways to protect prenatal children with disabilities, a father and his adult son (who has Down syndrome) came over to speak with me. With tears in his eyes, the father explained how much it meant to have a professor stand up for life, and particularly the life of a person like his son. After the father spoke about his son for a minute or two, the younger man, without warning, simply grabbed and hugged me as hard as I’ve been hugged in my life. Gratitude and affection were present in the hug, but so were profound fear and the desire to feel safe and valued.
And given the violence present in our reproductive culture, who could blame him for feeling this way? He is forced to hear about his supposed “suffering” and the “burden” he places on his family and society. He is forced to hear about the huge percentage of parents who kill children like him. He is forced to hear that this is not wrong, and is even a basic human right. Who could endure this without feeling threatened?
Finally, this question comes down to how we regard human beings. The logic that leads to the rejection of a child as an imperfect product or as an ill-timed life experience is the same logic that leads to a devaluing of all children, and grown people, and, ultimately, ourselves. In the market-oriented meritocracy under which we labor, Pope Francis has said, “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” In such a world, our lives become a series of consumer choices. Children with Down’s are gotten rid of, as one discards a coat that’s out of style. When, on the other hand, we come to value children for themselves and not as mere meritocratic baubles for their parents, this will change the way our gaze falls not just on the baby in the ultrasound but on every man and woman we encounter.