Eugenics Reborn: Devaluing Down Syndrome Births (Part 2)
Did eugenics ever die?
A new movement says it hasn’t!
by Jerry Bergman, PhD
My last report covered an article in The Atlantic magazine (November 2020) titled, “The Last Children of Down Syndrome,” by Sarah Zhang, in which she explores the eugenic results of prenatal testing in Denmark. She reported that Denmark and other Nordic countries provide taxpayer-paid prenatal testing for Down syndrome and certain other genetic anomalies. As a result, over 95 percent of those who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis in Denmark choose to abort their child. As expected, in 2019 a mere 18 Down syndrome [DS] children were born in the entire country; the rest had been aborted. Evita Duffy, writer for The Federalist, reports that
While Zhang claims to present readers what she calls an “emotional ground truth” by giving pros and cons to the DS abortion debate and “humanizing” all choices, her real underlying goals are clear: to give her readers the justification for modern-day eugenics and to dismantle society’s natural aversion to selective breeding.
The Darwin Connection
The person most responsible for this trend is none other than Darwin himself. One of the most important thinkers of the last century was Charles Robert Darwin, who established the view that the evolution of all life, from mice to man, was a result of billions of chance variations. His book, On the Origin of Species, is widely considered one of the most important books ever written. One often reads claims such as ‘Mutation discovered that enabled humans to use language,’ explaining how “Two tiny changes in the sequence of one gene could have helped install the mechanisms of speech and language in humans.” Similar claims are common, alleging that mutations that produce favorable traits will be preserved by positive selection, while unfavorable mutations will be eliminated from the human gene pool by negative selection. They overlook the fact that 99+ percent of all mutations are harmful. Mutations cause disease including cancer and are the leading cause of aging.
Ignoring this reality, evolutionists continue to deify Darwin. Tufts University Professor Daniel Dennett opined that Darwin was one of the greatest scientists that ever lived, and his theory was extremely influential in Western society. Dennett’s exact words were, “If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else.” Darwin has changed the world so much that civilization has been divided by some historians into Before Darwin and After Darwin as it was once divided into Before Christ (BC) and After Christ[‘s birth] (AD), “in the year of our Lord” [Latin: Anno Domini]. Darwin, extending his survival-of-the-fittest ethic to humanity, wrote in his Descent of Man book, that
savages, the weak in body or mind, are soon eliminated…. [but in contrast] We civilised men, … do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
In Darwinism, for every species—whether man or microbe—only those forms of life best adapted to a specific environment survive while all others die. Darwin felt that it was natural for humans with weak dispositions to be eliminated, but he recognized that our Judeo-Christian heritage would not let us follow the law of the jungle (survival of the fittest). This tension was critically important in birthing the eugenics movement. Over time, advocates of eugenics became more outspoken in their view that the weak should perish and only the strongest should survive. Some adamantly stated that it was unnatural and even immoral to help the weak because it degraded the human gene pool. This anti-Christian position was carried to its extreme by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NAZI). Inflamed by the racist rhetoric of Hitler, it resulted in 12 million Jewish and Slavic people murdered in the Holocaust based on their presumed inferiority. Have we not learned our lesson?
Author Sarah Zhang shows that the Danish program is based squarely on eugenics:
That word, eugenics, today evokes images that are specific and heinous: forced sterilization of the “feebleminded” in early-20th-century America, which in turn inspired the racial hygiene of the Nazis, who gassed or otherwise killed tens of thousands of people with disabilities, many of them children. But eugenics was once a mainstream scientific pursuit, and eugenicists believed that they were bettering humanity. Denmark, too, drew inspiration from the U.S., and it passed a sterilization law in 1929. Over the next 21 years, 5,940 people were sterilized in Denmark, the majority because they were “mentally retarded.” Those who resisted sterilization were threatened with institutionalization.
The goal of aborting children with Down syndrome is more like eugenics than it first appears. Judgments are being made on the basis of a label, “Down syndrome,” as opposed to “non-Down syndrome.” Let me explain. The more severe cases of Down syndrome are spontaneously aborted (i.e., miscarried). This syndrome occurs in one in every 1,000 live births but accounts for a much larger percent of abortions, around 2 per cent of all spontaneous abortions. The rate is thus 20 times greater than all non-Down children. This means that those children that the mother’s body allows to develop to full term are the healthiest of all the Down children conceived.
What Is Down Syndrome Genetically?
There are also many different forms of Down syndrome. The worst is trisomy 21 where the child has three complete number-21 chromosomes. It is not caused directly by heredity because the cause is nondisjunction, a mistake that occurs during meiosis cell division when the egg is in the mother’s womb. The error occurs when the 46 chromosomes are divided in half during meiosis. An egg, or occasionally a sperm cell, may retain both copies of chromosome number 21, instead of just one copy as required. If this egg or sperm is fertilized, then the baby will have a total of three copies of chromosome number 21. This is called trisomy 21.
In women, sex cell chromosomal division begins when they themselves are fetuses in their mother’s womb. The chromosomes are stored as the fetus becomes a baby, a girl, and a woman. The cycle finishes when the egg is fertilized. During the intervening years, the proteins holding chromosomes together can degrade, resulting in eggs with too many or too few chromosomes. Those with too few, or too many, are not viable—except trisomy 13, 24 and 21. Trisomy 21 is the only trisomy that usually survives to adulthood.
This is the biological mechanism causing most Down syndrome cases— and 95 percent of people born with an extra copy of chromosome 21 inherited it from their mother. And this is why the syndrome is often linked to the mother’s age. The mother has her lifetime supply of eggs before she was born; thus, if she conceives when she is age 50, the egg is 50 years old when it divides. Consequently, the egg suffers from deterioration due to age. Chromosome 21 is the smallest somatic chromosome in the body, consequently some trisomy children can survive.
The other cause of Down syndrome is translocation. This is where the child has two normal #21 chromosomes and only part of another 21 which becomes attached to a different chromosome. The result is, it is inherited as a passenger on that other chromosome. This condition causes fewer problems, depending how much of the #21 chromosome adhered to the other chromosome. If a mother and her doctor decide to abort that the full third chromosome (trisomy 21) child, they are making judgments about only a small part of the third chromosome that was added. In this case the child will have the trait, but how much of it justifies aborting the baby? The more of the extra piece of chromosome 21 has been added, the more serious the Down condition will be. But many other factors are also involved. The most problematic fact is that “scientists are still trying to understand the exact mechanisms behind the disorder and research is ongoing.”
Rationalizing Ethical Decisions on Questionable Knowledge
Some Down children do very well and have few problems aside from the obvious physical effects of the syndrome. Physical effects involve characteristics such as certain facial features, including slanting eyes, small ears, and a small nose. Some traits, such as an open mouth with a protruding tongue, can be dealt with by surgery or dietary modifications. Some Down children, as is true of other children, do very poorly. Heart and respiratory issues, though, afflict both Down and non-Down children.
Another problem is that the tests used are not 100% accurate. The 2004 guidelines administered to all pregnant women in Denmark use a combined screening in the first trimester, including blood tests and an ultrasound. This data, along with maternal age, are used to calculate the odds of a Down syndrome child, not the certainty of it. There can be false positives (e.g., the test indicated the child was a Down, was aborted, and found to be normal). Conversely, there can be false negatives (e.g., the test was negative and the child born was a Down child). Accurate numbers of these mistakes are hard to come by, but they are not trivial. Zhang claims “a fair number of babies born with Down syndrome are born to parents who essentially got a false negative.”
To reduce the problem of false positives and false negatives, high-probability patients are
offered a more invasive diagnostic test using DNA either from the fetal cells floating in the amniotic fluid (amniocentesis) or from placental tissue (chorionic villus sampling). Both require sticking a needle or catheter into the womb and come with a small risk of miscarriage. More recently, hospitals have started offering noninvasive prenatal testing, which uses fragments of fetal DNA floating in the mother’s blood. That option has not become popular in Denmark, though, probably because the invasive tests can pick up a suite of genetic disorders in addition to Down syndrome. More diseases ruled out, more peace of mind.
And more eugenics. This policy moves Denmark that much closer towards a full eugenics program. A study of 21 women who chose abortion after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome based their decisions on worst-case scenarios. An extra copy of chromosome 21 can cause a wide variety of symptoms, the severity of which is unknown until the child is born or sometimes even later. The “women who chose abortion feared the worst possible outcomes. Some even grieved the possibility of aborting a child who might have had a mild form of Down syndrome.”
Here is the ethical lapse. Prenatal testing tends to reduce an unborn child to a single aspect—Down syndrome—and parents then judge the child’s worth on this single aspect alone. When parents interviewed who had made the unusual choice to continue a pregnancy after a Down syndrome diagnosis, it was found they were more willing to embrace uncertainty.
Eugenics in Denmark
Although eugenics in Denmark is not anywhere as violent as it was in Nazi Germany, the policies have
similar underlying goals: improving the health of a nation by preventing the birth of those deemed to be burdens on society. The term eugenics eventually fell out of favor, but in the 1970s, when Denmark began offering prenatal testing for Down syndrome to mothers over the age of 35, it was discussed in the context of saving money—as in, the testing cost was less than that of institutionalizing a child with a disability for life. The stated purpose was “to prevent birth of children with severe, lifelong disability.”
In 1994, the purpose of the testing became “to offer women a choice” which sounds non-violent and echoes the goals of the American abortion movement. The National Down Syndrome Association has worked with doctors to better describe Down syndrome by changing the language used with patients. Examples include “probability” instead of “risk,” “chromosome aberration” instead of “chromosome error.” Most women have an inborn maternal instinct. As an illustration, Zhang described one Danish woman who
told me how terrible it was to feel her baby inside her once she’d made the decision to terminate. In the hospital bed, she began sobbing so hard, the staff had difficulty sedating her. The depth of her emotions surprised her, because she was so sure of her decision. The abortion was two years ago … But recounting it on the phone, she began crying again.
The Slippery Slope Begins with Worldview
If we learned anything from early 20th century eugenics, it should be that wrong ideas about human value accelerate in practice and end in horror. Aborting babies with “unwanted” conditions is a slippery slope that will likely be expanded beyond Down syndrome in the future. We may someday know what kind of future diseases an embryo may have, and abort children in the womb for those reasons as well.
Jordan Davidson is a staff writer at The Federalist. A graduate from Baylor University, she wrote the following in The Federalist about the resurgent creep towards eugenics:
We live in an increasingly “non-judgmental” world, which is why more and more women, including celebrities, are trying to break taboos about abortion by publicly saying they are proud of their abortions. In Denmark, the culture is far more open and accepting of abortion than the United States. Their culture is even more secular and there are far fewer moral stigmas around the decision to abort…. there is nothing “humane” about the pro-eugenics side of the argument. Lest we forget, the greatest human rights causes in history, such as slavery, were fought and won by people willing to draw a line in the sand and call evil by its name.
According to Davidson, Zhang rationalized
for a real-time genocide of arguably the weakest and least powerful population in the world. Not only has Zhang not been criticized for her moral ambivalence towards eugenics, she has been applauded by countless blue check-marked liberal elites for her “humanity’ in handling this moral issue.
In short, regardless if the justification is to spare potential suffering and
decrease strain on a universal health care system, or on public taxes, or you want to have a career, or you are worried about potential health concerns for your child, killing a disabled child is still wrong. There is no “humanity” in killing a child. There is no “humanity” in targeting the weak. There is no “humanity” in eugenics.
 Duffy, Evita. 2020. “It Is Not ‘Humane’ For The Atlantic To Sympathize With Killing Babies With Down Syndrome, Like My Little Sister.” Atlantic author Sarah Zhang uses a rhetorical trick to create sympathy and understanding for eugenics and a modern-day genocide. The Federalist, November 30. https://thefederalist.com/2020/11/30/it-is-not-humane-for-the-atlantic-to-sympathize-with-killing-babies-with-down-syndrome-like-my-little-sister/
 Moyer, Justin Wm. 2015. Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ tops list of most important academic books. The Washington Post, November 11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/11/11/darwins-origin-of-species-tops-list-of-most-important-academic-books/ “The 50 Most Influential Books of All Time.” Open Education Database (OEDb). https://oedb.org/ilibrarian/50_books_that_changed_the_world/
 Smith, Kerri. 2009. Evolution of a single gene linked to language. Nature. doi:10.1038, November 11. https://www.nature.com/news/2009/091111/full/news.2009.1079.html
 Dennett, Daniel C. 1996. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 21.
 Darwin, Charles. 1871. The Descent of Man. Volume one. London. John Murray, p. 168.
 Zhang, Sarah. 2020. “The Last Children of Down Syndrome. Prenatal testing is changing who gets born and who doesn’t. This is just the beginning.” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/the-last-children-of-down-syndrome/616928/ In the December 2020 issue, print edition.
 “What is Down’s syndrome?” https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-downs-syndrome. (Updated on June 19, 2015).
 Zhang, 2020.
 Zhang, 2020.
 Zhang, 2020.
 Zhang, 2020.
 Zhang, 2020.
 Zhang, 2020.
 Duffy, 2020.
 Duffy, 2020.
 Duffy, 2020.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.