In the early 20th century, eugenics became increasingly prominent among geneticists, garnering significant support from renowned institutions and politics figures. Prominent eugenicists such as H.H. Laughlin and Charles Devenport, wished to rid America of the “feeble minded” and “genetically inferior.” Before the American scientific community denounced the research of eugenics in the 1930s, tens of thousands of majority-black Americans living in mental hospitals were sterilized as a consequence of its widespread acceptance. Based in an ideology that prioritizes one immutable characteristic over another, eugenics was not simply selective breeding for “desirable” traits–it was the rooting out of “undesirable” ones.
Most of Western society today acknowledges that eugenics is an abhorrent practice. No one with a sound mind would advocate for the forced sterilization of an individual or people group. While recognizing the sins of the past is important, if we cannot identify the same pattern today, we are no more virtuous than our predecessors.
In the last ten years, an average of two to three babies with Down syndrome are born in Iceland each year. Coupled with the prenatal care offered by the Icelandic government, its nationalized healthcare system grants access to screening tests which calculate the risk for chromosomal disorders. While the screening is entirely voluntary, it has become customary for women. 80 to 85 percent of women in Iceland today are screened. With an accuracy rate of around 85 percent, only 15-20 percent of women decide to carry their child to full term.
Iceland’s official government website displays these statistics as if the eradication of Down syndrome is not only preferred, but expected. However, ridding the population of these children through targeted genocide is anything but admirable. While children with Down syndrome will face difficulties in life, the overwhelming majority live long, fulfilled lives. Their inherent worth is not contingent on subjective measures of value.
If it is truly the case that babies with Down syndrome are valuable because they are made in the image of God, then it is clear that systemically aborting them for the sole reason of risk is a modern-day form of eugenics.
The eugenics of the early 20th century was heavily influenced by white supremacist ideology. While fully equating its motivations to today’s practices is disingenuous, one can contend that like race, chromosomal disorders are an immutable characteristic. Eugenics is still practiced under the guise of ableism.
The potential burden of having a child is a common pro-choice argument for abortion. However, one must ask which is more important: the comfort of an able-bodied mother or the life of a less able-bodied child? This question exposes the hypocrisy of the convenience claim. Taking a screening test likely indicates a wanted pregnancy, especially those performed in the U.S. where such tests are expensive. Abortions prompted by these unverified results are often performed to avoid birthing a child with an immutable, unwanted condition.
While the statistics on chromosomal disorder screenings are from Iceland, one must note that the same test is readily available in the United States. While our healthcare system does not directly encourage these tests, the nationalization of healthcare could normalize them–targeting even more children with Down syndrome. This is not a regional issue. Iceland is highlighted as an example–a warning of what inaction could bring.
In the hope of learning from the past, we must advocate and lobby against the extermination of children possessing an unconfirmed risk of Down syndrome. Even the most ardent pro-choice supporters would not advocate for systemtic abortion based on gender, ethnicity, or some other naturally occurring attribute. These children, created in the image of God, deserve a chance to live.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.