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

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.

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