Ethics & Morality

A World Without Down’s Syndrome – let the abortion/eugenics debate begin

They shoot horses, don’t they? Much better to put them out of their misery than suffer a broken leg. If it’s compassionate to kill horses to end their pain, why not humans in the womb who are destined for a life of bitterness and squalid misery? After all, some lives just aren’t worth living. If the thing in your womb won’t be able to dance a marathon, why bother bringing it into the world at all, especially if it’s going to have a funny face, as well? That’s just not the sort of life a reasonable, loving parent would want for their child, is it?

You don’t often get TV programmes which deal with the ethics of abortion and the logical end-game of the pro-choice lobby, which is basically eugenics: screening out the deficient, deformed, brown-eyed, female or gay. Sally Phillips’ ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?‘ focused on the love and laughter in her relationship with Olly, her 12-year-old son, who happens to have Down’s, which is, she kept on saying, “a type of person”.

And therein lies the debate we must have: the nature of human identity and the meaning of personhood; what makes a foetus in the womb a baby? What makes that baby a person? It isn’t simply an icy matter of scientific medical ethics: it is about warm feelings, smiley faces and play-paint splattered all over. Sally Phillips discovered her son had Down’s soon after his birth. That’s too late. We don’t shoot them, but the age of after-birth (‘fourth trimester’) abortion is fast approaching. “Why does everybody behave like it’s a catastrophe?” she asks, telling the world that her life with Olly is far more comedy than tragedy. The reason, of course, is that we abort perfectly healthy babies foetuses up to 24 weeks of gestation, and the disabled can be aborted right up until the day of their natural birth. And Down’s babies foetuses are classified as having a ‘severe handicap’, so they can be summarily sliced up, have their brains sucked out and be vacuumed from the womb without a second question. If society permits abortion for a cleft palate or the lack of a Y chromosome, why not the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21?

Once abortion becomes a legitimate ‘treatment’ for certain prenatal conditions, there really isn’t a lot of reason to consider other treatments. An abortion costs a few hundred pounds. Down’s over a lifetime can cost £100,000s, and an awful lot of emotional trauma. The economic case is unarguable. Love and laughter don’t come into it. Unless, of course, Olly is yours, and you love him to bits, and there’s a lot of laughter in your house.

Apparently, 90 per cent of women who are told there’s a high chance that their baby has Down’s choose to abort. That’s when their baby conveniently reverts to being a foetus, and the mother becomes a woman with rights over her womb. In Iceland, it’s 100 per cent. They have systematically screened out an entire “type of person” because of the obligations they place on others. Why bother burdening ourselves with people like Olly? We can’t morally talk about terminating the disabled because they are vulnerable and have a right to life and can win Olympic medals. But the ethics surrounding the abortion of “types of person” in the womb are far more elastic, not least because, for very many, if not the vast majority, they are not any type of person at all.

Sally Phillips has done the nation a great service with this documentary, and we must thank her for her honesty, courage and compassion. For an actress, whose life depends on public adoration, to delve into the ethical bear-pit of women’s rights, autonomy, choice, and the right to life of the unborn, is truly admirable. No doubt it will cost her – reputationally if not financially. But she needs to go further: she needs to follow this up with another documentary asking the sorts of questions which might make her hated in the Guardian and loathed by Harriet Harman.

When she sat on the sofa with Kate, a woman who had aborted her Down’s baby foetus because that wasn’t the sort of life she wanted for her daughter (she knew its sex), deeper questions could and should have been asked. “Even the best-case scenario is not what I wanted for my child,” Kate said.

“Do you mind if I ask you the really difficult question?” Phillips ventured, in what thousands of viewers must have hoped would be a bite at the jugular. “So, you think her life would have been better not happening?” There is a pause, but Kate thinks it should be up to each woman to decide. There was no “really difficult” probing into the nature of shame and selfish interests, and what or who gave her the right to judge the unworthy life. Granted, that’s hard to do with a nice, actressy smile. It’s impossible to do without the risk of being scorned, intensely disliked, or stirring deep feelings of judgmentalism. But that’s what a documentary demands.

“Kate didn’t want a child like mine,” we heard on voice-over. The rightness of that ‘want’ wasn’t questioned: it was left undisturbed in her heart.

But if Sally Phillips believes – as she plainly does – that it’s wrong to screen out Down’s babies because they are “a type of person”, then she needs to reflect on why it’s justifiable to screen out babies foetuses with any developmental abnormality; why it’s justifiable to terminate some pregnancies right up to birth. Not to mention why it’s permissible for women to abort perfectly healthy babies foetuses up to 24 weeks for no reason at all, other than the desire not to have them. The issue is not one of the ethics of screening, but the morality of choice. If that isn’t a documentary she wants to make, or it isn’t a debate the BBC wants to have, then the NHS’s proposed roll out of a new prenatal test, which will raise Down’s diagnostic accuracy from 85 to 99 per cent, will surely do for Down’s in the UK what has been achieved in Iceland.

Imagine that: a Utopian Kingdom without Down’s. How marvellous it is that medical professionals can make everyone perfectly in God’s image, just as He intended. Goodbye, Olly, my son.