Building Better Babies

A recent issue of the Weekly Standard featured an article with the ominous title "Building a Better Baby." The article reports that a new screening process, called FASTER, will allow doctors to test an unborn child for Down syndrome as early as ten to thirteen weeks. This would mean that the child's mother "could terminate her pregnancy before it showed," so the article says -- easier and more convenient for everyone. At the same time, some doctors are saying that all pregnant women, not just those whose children are at risk of having birth defects, should routinely be offered potentially dangerous tests like amniocentesis. As the Standard points out, a recent British survey indicates that women are so worried about the possibility of having a genetically abnormal child that they're willing to risk the miscarriage that amniocentesis can cause. This tallies with the statistic that "about 90 percent of women who discover their baby has a chromosomal disorder abort it." Ninety percent! If that figure isn't shocking, I don't know what is. Clearly, there's been a major shift in the way our society thinks about the disabled -- something to which I, as a grandfather of an autistic child, am acutely sensitive. Not that the doctors advocating the testing or the women choosing the abortions would put it that way -- after all, it's not politically correct to discriminate against the disabled, not after they're born anyway. But they would probably say that, in these cases, they were doing the merciful thing by ending a life of suffering before it really began. By using such euphemisms, our culture has bought into the bizarre but seductive idea that the best way to eliminate certain kinds of illnesses is simply to eliminate the people who suffer from those illnesses. We may reach a point, as the author argues, when all mothers of children with genetic abnormalities will be expected to abort them. Already some mothers are feeling the burden of this expectation. Some time ago, I reported on the case of a man whose wife reluctantly aborted after finding out something was wrong with their child -- and after intense pressure from her doctors. When the woman got pregnant again, she didn't want her child tested at all, but she finally gave in "to doctors, friends, and a husband who couldn't bear not knowing." But even the husband had to admit, "It seems to me a plausible fear that eventually these decisions will slip more and more from our hands . . . I can imagine insurers refusing to cover a costly childhood disability that could have been detected in advance and 'prevented' by aborting." Each abortion of a disabled child, besides being a tragedy in itself, brings us one step closer to just this sort of financially coerced eugenics. It's one thing to want a healthy child. But it's another thing to refuse to let an unhealthy child to see the light of day. When we manipulate life in this way and diminish the humanity of the unborn, we become less human ourselves because we end up viewing life -- all life, ours included -- as a commodity that can be rejected by quality control. Christians need to take the lead in educating people that children are gifts, as my autistic grandson most surely is. By going down the path we're currently on, we might one day get rid of genetic diseases, but only at the cost of our own humanity. For further reading and information: Agnes R. Howard, "Building a Better Baby," Weekly Standard, 5 April 2004. (Subscription required, or call 1-877-322-5527 for a copy.) BreakPoint Commentary No. 030528, "Something to Celebrate: Faith That Goes beyond Happy Endings." Bill Keller, "Charlie's Ghost," New York Times, 29 June 2002. Reprinted by Michigan State University. William Saletan, "Face the Fetus,", 29 March 2004. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man(HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). Sign up for the free "Biotech Policy Update" e-newsletter


Chuck Colson


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