The Observer— Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Rockford
Publication date: December 2, 2005
By Patricia Pitkus Bainbridge
Director, Respect Life Office
Three weeks ago, media outlets, pundits, and bloggers were buzzing about a study in the November 10, 2005 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine regarding a new pre-natal test for early detection of Down syndrome. The story, “Down Syndrome Now Detectable in 1st Trimester: Earlier Diagnosis Allows More Time for Decisions,” was front-page news in the Washington Post.
“Decisions” is a euphemism for abortion. Rob Stein of the Washington Post admits, “screening women before the second trimester allows those who might opt to terminate a pregnancy to make that decision when doctors say an abortion is safer and less traumatic.” There was no mention that “terminating a pregnancy” is no safer and less traumatic for the pre-born baby.
For people who mistakenly believe that babies with Down syndrome are better off dead, the report about the new screening regimen was welcome news.
Not everyone, however, was pleased. With 80 to 90% of babies diagnosed in utero with Down being aborted, advocates for the disabled are concerned that the new screening will result in even more deaths for those with Down.
Michale Bérubé, co-director of the disabilities studies program at Pennsylvania State University and father of a 14-year-old with Down syndrome, told The New York Times, “The more people who think the condition is grounds for termination of a pregnancy, the more likely it will be that you’ll wind up with a society that doesn’t welcome those people once they’re here.”
Mia Peterson has Down syndrome and is the chief of self-advocacy for the National Down Syndrome Society. Responding to the report about the new tests, she told the Times, “I don’t want to think like we’re being judged against . . . not meeting their expectations.”
But isn’t that exactly the primary purpose of these new pre-natal tests? Are they not designed to make “judgments” about the pre-born? If the baby doesn’t meet “expectations,” he or she may be “eliminated.” Thankfully, some will use the diagnosis only to better prepare for the birth of a child with special needs.
The Catechism of The Catholic Church (no. 2274) teaches, “Prenatal diagnosis is morally licit, ‘if it respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safeguarding or healing as an individual . . . It is gravely opposed to the moral law when this is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion, depending upon the results: a diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence.’”
In many cases, pre-natal diagnosis is a death sentence. A number of studies have shown that women are substantially more likely to abort their babies if they think they are “defective” and polls show people opposed to abortion for the “usual” reasons are quick to say that they favor it for fetal deformity. Rather than accepting babies the way they are and providing loving care, they are implying —whether consciously or unconsciously—that they are better off dead.
In 1978, the U.S. bishops addressed this issue when they wrote, “All too often, abortion and postnatal neglect are promoted by arguing that the infant will survive only to suffer a life of pain and deprivation. We find this reasoning appalling. Society’s frequent indifference to the plight of citizens with disabilities is a problem that cries aloud for solutions based on justice and conscience, not violence. All people have a clear duty to do what lies in their power to improve living conditions for people with disabilities, rather than ignoring them or attempting to eliminate them as a burden not worth dealing with.”
While no one wishes for a child to be born with Down syndrome or any other special needs, we must remember that each and every human being is made in the image of God and as faithful Catholics it is our duty and privilege to respect, love, and affirm their dignity.