Recently, a group of New Zealand parents who believe they are fortunate to have a child with Down syndrome petitioned the International Criminal Court to stop their country’s practice of targeting fetuses with Down syndrome for selective abortion. The basis of their argument is that people with Down syndrome share the same physical characteristics and are genetically linked by having the same additional chromosome. Therefore, individuals with Down syndrome can be classified as an identifiable group protected by the Rome Statute. The Rome Statute prohibits “persecution of an identifiable group of the civilian population through measures that prevent their birth.”
In our own country, a more accurate method of prenatal testing for Down syndrome is being developed and is expected to be released by the end of this year. The new test is creating a great deal of excitement among geneticists and physicians who see it as an opportunity to identify fetuses with Down syndrome much earlier, thus paving the way for quicker and easier pregnancy terminations for the nearly 90% of parents who choose this option. Sadly, the majority of medical professionals who are urging prospective parents of children with Down syndrome to abort their pregnancies are grossly misinformed about the reality of what life is actually like for these unique individuals and their families.
In a recent survey of individuals with Down syndrome and their families conducted by Children’s Hospital of Boston, 99% of people with Down syndrome report they are happy with their lives. Nearly 80% of parents felt that their outlook on life was more positive because of their child, and 94% of siblings reported feeling proud of their sibling with Down syndrome.
Contrary to popular perception, Down syndrome is not a disease. It is a genetic difference that has been part of the human gene pool since the beginning of time. As far back as 1500 B.C., a Central American culture created monuments of children with facial features resembling those of children with Down syndrome, and it is believed that these individuals were revered as partial deities. More recently, a medieval painting which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, depicts several angels worshiping the baby Jesus, one of whom appears strikingly as an individual with Down syndrome.
Genetic diversity is essential for human survival. Given our limited understanding of how the natural world works, we cannot possibly predict with any level of accuracy the consequences of eliminating those whom we now view as “undesirable” human beings. Simply put, despite all of our technological advances, we still don’t know as much as we think we do, and our arrogance in attempting to wipe out an entire segment of the population just because we can could end up costing us dearly in the long run.
By systematically targeting and destroying individuals with Down syndrome, we are essentially declaring that only “normal” people—that is, those who look and think like everyone else—are worthy of birth. But should conformity with the norm be the only gauge by which we measure the value of a life? Or could we consider enthusiasm, kindness, tolerance, and good humor—traits observed with remarkable consistency in people with Down syndrome—to be equally valuable attributes?