Eleventh Week Eugenics: On killing children with Down syndrome

By Joe Carter
Oct 24, 2013

“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it nor will I make a suggestion to this effect,” states the Oath of Hippocrates, “Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.” For centuries the ancient physician’s Oath, including his admonition against euthanasia, abortion, and assisted suicide, formed the core of medical ethics and one of the most enduring traditions in Western medicine. But late in the nineteenth century a subtle shift began to occur. The view that a human being had a natural right to live began to erode under the corrosive ideals of the eugenics movement.

As physicians, scientists, and other elites began to determine what qualities of life made life worth living, it became a humanitarian duty to end the lives of those who didn’t possess the necessary traits. “Chloroform unfit children,” said the famed Scopes trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, “show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.”

Eugenics, a term first coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, popularized the notion that humanity could be improved by encouraging the “most fit” to reproduce more often and discouraging the least fit members of society from procreating at all. From this premise followed the logical necessity of putting to death those who, like people with Down syndrome, lack the requisite “quality of life.”

The influential ethicist Peter Singer has been the most vocal proponent of this form of eugenics, even arguing that parents should be allowed to “swiftly and humanely” kill a child who has a “serious disability.” He claims that is it is ethical to kill a child suffering from Down syndrome because “the quality of life of someone with Down syndrome [is] below the standard at which medical treatment to sustain the life of an infant becomes obligatory.” (It should be noted that to Singer “treatment to sustain life” refers not only to extraordinary medical intervention but also to general care and feeding of the infant.)

What provides the moral basis for killing an infant with this malady, according to Singer, is that “the future prospects of life may be so bleak” and that they will never be able “to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.” (Singer, Rethinking Life and Death, p. 211-213)

If Singer were teaching high school he would be unemployable. But the Ivory Tower is more tolerant of such creative thinking and so the Australian philosopher has been able to secure positions at some of the most elite universities on three continents. He currently holds the title of DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, a position he was appointed to by Harold Shapiro, the former chair of Bill Clinton’s bioethics panel. While it might be tempting to dismiss Singer’s views as self-evidently wrong, he is taken very seriously as an influential voice in bioethics. He cannot be ignored.

The reason I highlight Singer’s view is to provide context for a recent article in the New York Times on prenatal screening:

“More than 30 years ago, a 37-year-old friend of mine with an unplanned fourth pregnancy was told by her obstetrician that an amniocentesis was “too dangerous” and could cause a miscarriage. She ultimately bore a child severely affected by Down syndrome, which could have been detected with the test.

“Today, my friend’s story would have a different trajectory. She would have a series of screening tests, and if the results suggested a high risk of Down syndrome, then an amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (C.V.S.) to make the diagnosis. She’d be given the option to abort the pregnancy.”

The underlying assumption is that a woman should want to have an abortion if she is carrying a child with Down syndrome. Following the logic of Singer, the common view today is that it is perfectly understandable, perhaps even to be expected, if a woman were to kill her child because it had such bleak “future prospects.”

But do such people truly lack “quality of life?” Barbara Curtis not only has a son with the disability but also adopted three other boys with Down syndrome. She notes that instead of being institutionalized, such children are now raised at home, attend class with their peers, and even become homecoming kings and queens:

“How could these people who our society so fears that it spends vast amounts of money researching and testing to eliminate end up being number one in the hearts of their classmates?

“My simple answer is this: because that’s what they’re all about. God is in the business of changing hearts, and a sprinkling of people with Down syndrome among us is one way he uses.”

In his study on the concept of “love”, the philosopher Josef Pieper said that loving someone is a way of saying, “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in the world!” Society, though, is sending the exact opposite message to these homecoming kings and queens. Children who have Down syndrome are encouraged to be discarded, never to exist outside the womb. In essence, they are being told that since they cannot “chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie” that they have no right to live.

Fortunately, our culture doesn’t have Darrow’s courage so we won’t be chloroforming children anytime soon. But who needs to practice that sort of late-stage eugenics when we can do it at the eleventh week of a child’s life?

Other posts in this series:
Why Christians should care about bioethics
How Christians should think about bioethics
Bioethics: 38 ways to make a baby

Further Learning

Learn more about: Life, Abortion, End-of-Life Issues, Science, Bioethics,

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