Wrong about what’s right: Down Syndrome and human dignity

May 7, 2018

Human dignity is under attack. In two op-eds published in the Washington Post not too long ago, Ruth Marcus attempted to the make the case for something I’ve referred to elsewhere as a silent genocide—aborting children who’ve tested positive for Down Syndrome. This subject is jarring, and raising it, even to speak in opposition, is immensely difficult.

Though Marcus is just one voice, her ideas are representative of a broader movement that is seeking to sway public opinion on this issue. And it cannot be ignored.

At its core, the argument put forward by Marcus (and others) is simple enough. Down syndrome causes suffering, both for people with the disability and for those who love and care for these individuals. And more importantly, the Supreme Court has determined that abortion is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.

So, after several states recently moved to pass legislation that would restrict access to abortion in certain cases following a positive Down Syndrome diagnosis, Marcus penned an op-ed arguing against these measures. She stated unequivocally that she believes such laws are “unconstitutional, unenforceable — and wrong.”

Defining dignity down

Marcus envisions an ugly society, one where a person’s value is subject to the scrutiny of others. In fairness, I realize that she didn’t suggest abortion is always the right choice in these situations, but even so, she brazenly attempted to normalize the idea of eradicating Down Syndrome through abortion. And she did so for reasons that are utilitarian and cruel.

Set aside for a moment her belief that doing this is lawful, and ask again why she was compelled to argue in support of abortion in these cases. The answer is chilling, but clear—people with Down Syndrome aren’t normal. Because the disability impairs their mental faculties, their lives are “limited,” sometimes significantly, and there is little hope they’ll ever become financially independent or completely self-sufficient. Worst of all, in addition to their own suffering, they often inflict suffering and hardship upon others.

Marcus was bold enough to admit that she supports the idea of aborting children with Down Syndrome because they often live difficult lives and make the lives of those who love them difficult as well. In fact, Marcus found ample justification to end their existence through abortion, so much so that she confidently asserted that if either of her two children had been diagnosed with Down Syndrome while in utero, she would have had an abortion herself: “I would have terminated those pregnancies had the testing come back positive. I would have grieved the loss and moved on.”

One can barely read those words without wincing. But almost before you feel their sting, she deftly moved the discussion along, noting that more than two-thirds of women in the United States actually make that choice when faced with such circumstances. And then, buffered by that statistic, she made an admission that is both honest and stunning. According to Marcus, she would not have carried a Down Syndrome child to term because “that was not the child I wanted.”

Wrong about what is right

We don’t get to choose what kinds of people matter. We don’t get to choose who is worthy of life, or who should live and die.

In her hypothetical, Marcus claimed she would have had an abortion because she didn’t want a child with Down Syndrome. Not only is this a shocking and perverse notion, but it is exactly the point. Her callous regard for human life exposes the devastating flaw in her argument—people with Down Syndrome are people. And we don’t get to choose.

We don’t get to choose what kinds of people matter. We don’t get to choose who is worthy of life, or who should live and die. And even Marcus knows this. She recognized that the line must be drawn somewhere and cautioned her readers about the slippery slope. But that advice is long overdue, because this is the bottom of the slide.

Marcus followed this op-ed with a second, titled “The silenced majority of women who would abort a fetus with Down Syndrome.” And in the piece, she attempted to give voice to the women who believe as she does, yet feel shamed into silence or afraid to speak out. I have enormous concern for mothers experiencing unplanned pregnancies and for families facing the uncertain future of caring for a child with a disability. They deserve sympathy, compassion, and every kind of support imaginable. But I cannot escape the stunning irony here.

Marcus speaks for the “silenced majority” at the expense of a silenced generation.

Every life matters

What is right is not always what is easy. And doing what is good is not the same as doing what is safe. The message being peddled by Ruth Marcus leads down a very dark path. We are talking about erasing our humanity, and it is literally killing us.

There is a reason this subject is difficult. But it isn’t merely awkward or uncomfortable. It’s wrong. And it’s wrong because people matter. The pursuit of human flourishing will inevitably seek to end suffering, cure disease, and remedy disabilities. But not by any means. And not at any cost.

There is nothing brave or courageous about Marcus’ position. If the whole world decided to eliminate Down Syndrome through abortion, it wouldn’t make our world any better. But it would make it worse, because it would make us worse. The brave and courageous among us are the ones willing to stand and say that everyone gets to live.

Ruth Marcus is wrong about what is right. And for a very simple reason: every person bears the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Because of this, every life is sacred and worthy of protection. Any society that denies this is on a road to a desperate future. What we must seek is a society where every life is valued and protected, and neither a person’s worth nor their right to exist is predicated upon anything other than their personhood. A life is a life. A person is a person. And every life matters.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24