October 6, 2017 // Special

New forms of discrimination against the disabled

By Mary Forr

Before I entered college, I volunteered at the Special Olympics. I helped out in the skills division of tennis. One after another, the athletes made their way through the drills. I congratulated each one as they passed, and each athlete beamed with pride. Finally we got to the last athlete, Ben. I asked Ben if he needed any practice rounds, and he confidently replied, “Nope! I’m ready!” Ben proceeded to tell the other volunteers how he was born ready — joking with them that my question “Are you ready?” was an absurd one. Ben did really well, and at the end, I said to him, “Ben! Awesome job! You’re really good.” He looked up at me — laughed — and said, “I know I’m good. I’m perfect.” Ben had Down syndrome.

Society has reached a point where individuals with disabilities face the highest form of discrimination possible — their very right to live is challenged. This discrimination grows through abortion and in vitro fertilization, practices that advance a culture hostile to individuals who have genetic anomalies. As these practices have become more prevalent, so too have other forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Unless stopped, this discrimination will continue to grow.


A history of discrimination

Throughout history, individuals with disabilities have been treated as less than human. In 340 B.C., Aristotle declared, “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” The child was seen as a burden on the community, and his death was viewed as a greater benefit than his life. In ancient Rome, a city praised for its great civilization, babies born with disabilities were thrown into the Tiber. In Sparta, a city-state where military strength was prized, there was a law that fathers must throw disabled infants over a cliff immediately after birth. In1939, Adolph Hitler ordered the “mercy killing” of those “unworthy of life.” This order, code named Aktion T4, targeted children under the age of three; however, it quickly expanded. Fortunately, these instances of explicit discrimination are seen as horrendous, but the same cannot be said of modern attacks on the dignity of persons with disabilities. Instead of being condemned, these attacks are championed as acts of freedom and disguised as rights. The “right to choose,” the “right to die,” and the “right to have a child” are just a few. Each of these rights discriminates against individuals with disabilities.

For thousands of years, women have chosen to abort children for various reasons; however, in the modern age, people would be outraged if doctors consistently recommended that mothers abort babies of a certain ethnicity or gender. Everyone would recognize this as discrimination. Unfortunately, this is not true for all forms of discriminatory abortions. Early in the 20th century, the eugenics movement — aimed at eliminating individuals with disabilities — gained traction. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, opened her first clinic in 1916. In her own words, Sanger’s mission was “to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the United States, began with the goal of eliminating individuals with disabilities.

Same problem in new forms

Today in the United States, 92 percent of children who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are aborted. Around the world, the situation is even worse. In Iceland, a child prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome has not been born in the last five years. Denmark is expected to be “Down syndrome free” by 2030. The regularity with which women are receiving prenatal testing is increasing, and as a result, more babies are being aborted. Currently, mothers can receive a battery of prenatal genetic tests to identify over 50 conditions that cause intellectual and physical disabilities. The lives of these children are viewed as painful, and abortion is considered the compassionate and loving option. The view that lives of individuals with disabilities are more a burden than a gift leads the world to a systematic effort to prevent the implantation and gestation of babies with disabilities.

The media is filled with advertisements for fertility clinics proclaiming that every couple has the right to a child. This growing sense of entitlement and the prevalence of infertility has led to the steadily increasing use of IVF. Fertilized eggs are screened for disabilities before implantation. Whether parents use preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) or preimplantation genetic screening (PGS), the chromosomes are screened for abnormalities. Those that show signs of genetic defect are discarded. Women trying to conceive are told that after PGD, they may not have any embryos suitable for implantation. The only reason these embryos are unsuitable, or unwanted, is that they contain a chromosomal abnormality.

Because of the high cost of IVF, multiple zygotes are implanted in the mother’s uterus and monitored during the pregnancy. According to a CDC study of assisted reproductive technologies, an average of 1.7 embryos are transferred to mothers under 35 years of age. An average of 2.8 embryos are transferred to women between the ages of 43 and 44. After the zygotes have been implanted in the uterus, the mother typically undergoes the same prenatal testing as naturally pregnant women. While transferring multiple embryos increases the chance of implantation, it also increases the risk for the mother and her children. For example, the risk of premature birth is four to five times greater for twins than for single babies. Consequently, if several of the zygotes implant, doctors frequently recommend that a mother “selectively reduce” the number she is carrying to give one a better chance of survival.

This means that the mother will abort some of her children to give the healthiest child the best chance of being born. These fetal reductions prioritize genetic abnormalities. Though the CDC does not report the number of selective reductions, it does report that just 9.4 percent of IVF cycles for women under 35 years of age result in the live birth of twins, while 41.1 percent of transfers result in implantation. Just 0.3 percent of IVF cycles for women 43 to 44 years of age result in twins, while 5 percent of transfers result in implantation. From this, one can deduce that a large portion of women who undergo IVF are willing to selectively reduce at least one of their children to have a child without disabilities.

‘The Gospel of Life’

In “Evangelium Vitae,” Pope St. John Paul II boldly draws attention to a surprising contradiction in our culture. He points out that on a global level, society now readily acknowledges the dignity of every person. Proclamations promoting human dignity and efforts to protect human rights have become more and more prolific. Simultaneously, however, the most basic right to life is questioned, especially at the beginning and end of life. This contradiction has moved us away from societies that accept each person toward ones that encourages people to reject and oppress those who are weak and cannot fight for their own rights. As John Paul II writes, “How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted?”

Permission to reprint this article is granted by The National Catholic Bioethics Center. This article originally appeared in Ethics & Medics 42.9 (September 2017).

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