January 19, 2022

Is abortion for Down Syndrome ‘eugenics’?

One doctor says Yes

Aborting a child because tests show that he will have Down Syndrome is often described by its opponents as “eugenics”. This is fiercely contested. For instance, Mark Joseph Stern, a columnist for Slate, describes this idea as “both illogical and totally detached from reality”.

“Eugenics is the systematic elimination of specific people to alter the human gene pool. … There is no evidence that Americans who terminate pregnancies due to Down syndrome are seeking to systematically eliminate those with the condition from the face of the planet.”

This is a reasonably common idea to defend the decisions of women who choose abortion rather than raise a child with Down Syndrome.

So it’s interesting to counterpoise the opinion of doctors who disagree. Here is Richard Gunderman, a distinguished radiologist at Indiana University, writing in Psychology Today.

Yet those who opt to test and decide to terminate should be clear on one thing: They are tinkering with who is born and who isn’t, and they are doing so based on genes. My wife and I faced a similar choice when we had a child in our 40s, electing not to test. In some cases of Down syndrome, such a life would have been marked by severe disability and early death, but in other cases, the outcome might have been quite different.

The point is not that parents facing perhaps the most difficult decision of their lives should be branded eugenicists, but simply to indicate that despite protests to the contrary, eugenics has not been fully consigned to history’s dustbin. As a society, we are still deciding who is and is not born based on genes, and the decisions we make shape humanity not just into the next generation, but generations to come.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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