Last week, Michael Brendan Dougherty likened the termination of Down syndrome pregnancies to eugenics. But Noah Millman feels that Dougherty’s “fundamental objection … isn’t to eugenics but to abortion”:
[A]ssume that Down Syndrome worked like Tay-Sachs, meaning that you could avoid having a child with the condition by pre-marital screening. Would Dougherty oppose such screening? If so, why? Or, here’s another one: late childbearing significantly increases the risks of your children having Down Syndrome (which is why Down Syndrome births are up in spite of the high abortion rate). Would Dougherty say it’s wrong to take that fact into consideration when deciding at what age to start having children (and at what age to stop)? Would he say it’s wrong for public health authorities to let people know about that fact, and to encourage (via informational campaigns, not physical or financial coercion) women to have children somewhat earlier?
The point he’s trying to make:
Inasmuch as he objects to eugenic motivations, it’s because he worries that by definition any thinking about “better” children makes life into something instrumental, a product, and thereby makes abortion more acceptable. But I don’t think that’s a sustainable view; it makes perfectly normal planning for the future seem corrupt and wrong. Everybody wants their kids to be healthier, including being born healthier. There’s nothing wrong with trying to ensure that—unless there’s something wrong with what you are doing to ensure it, or unless your take your standards of what constitutes “health” to unreasonable extremes.
Meanwhile, a reader merges another thread – the one on child abuse:
Two pieces on the Dish in the past days merged in an uncanny way for me. First, there’s Dougherty trying to make some big broad point about eugenics out of people’s desire to avoid a personal tragedy by aborting Down Syndrome pregnancies. And yes, it is a personal tragedy more than anything else. My Down Syndrome sister is now 46, having lived considerably longer than the doctors in the late 1960s told my mother was the norm. The doctors’ advice then was to “put her in a home and forget about it”. In the end, my parents chose an unsatisfactory middle way of institutionalising my sister but remaining somewhat connected and bringing her home for holidays and such.
My mother, now 78, has never really recovered from that trauma. And trauma does indeed feel like the correct way to describe it. In a devout Baptist home, the sense of God’s wrath was tangible and frightening for an eight-year-old. The view from outside seemed to be that my parents had done something bad physically, spiritually or both, especially as my father was 34 years older than my mother.
If confronted now with the reality of a Down Syndrome pregnancy, I would not hesitate to support termination if my partner agreed. To lump this in with “eugenics”, free of reference to individual circumstances, is a gross distortion of what it’s really like and imputes notions of parental desire for “perfection” that do not enter into consideration.
Second, the extraordinary description of corporal punishment made me gasp, particularly because the “eugenics” claim had reminded me how the trauma of my Down Syndrome sister amplified my mother’s propensity for unrestrained violence. This was the mother that did not detect the repeated sexual abuse of a boy of five and six by a much older step-sibling, in spite of her skill in detecting all other manner of a child’s indiscretions. Indiscretions, real or not, that the mother would address through the delivery of raging, spit-flecked and red-faced beatings with sticks, belts, fists and coat hangers. These would be delivered until the blood appeared or until such time as the breathless howling was deemed to be genuine pain and not merely an attempt to get her to stop. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve achieved something merely by surviving this long.
The way the Dish pulls things together continues to demonstrate that the compartmentalised, neat-and-tidy manner that so much modern pontificating applies to assessing lives and to dispensing counsel is oblivious to the messy and messed-up reality of life. It does no one much good when we treat their choices as the linear outcome of some particular isolatable pathology. Yet that is precisely the way we continue to treat difference and suffering: there always has to be a clean explanation that permits judgments to be made and, on occasion, empathy to be expressed in calibrated doses.