Santorum and Prenatal Testing: Read Tucker Carlson’s Classic Essay on the Abortion of Down Syndrome Babies

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Feb. 21 2012 2:45 PM

Eugenics, American Style

Santorum says prenatal testing leads to abortions. Read Tucker Carlson’s classic essay on prenatal testing and the abortion of Down syndrome babies.

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In fact, infants with Down Syndrome are routinely starved to death in Dutch hospitals—a practice that has been resoundingly affirmed by both that country's supreme court and its Council for Children's Protection. Nor are such practices restricted to the Netherlands. A 1975 poll found that 77 percent of American pediatric surgeons favored withholding food and medical treatment from infants with Down Syndrome and leaving them to die. Seven years later, in the well-publicized Baby Doe case, a Bloomington, Indiana, couple asked their doctor to do just that to their child born with Down Syndrome. The infant, who needed only simple surgery to correct a blocked esophagus, died after six days of neglect. In a strikingly similar incident several years later in Montreal, a Down Syndrome child died after 11 days without food or water. "The presence of Down Syndrome," said a local coroner, "was another element [in the decision to kill the child] since mongolism implies a quasi-vegetative life or severely diminished quality of life."

Given these stories and the evidence that an entire population of retarded people may be wiped clean from this country, one would expect organizations that represent the disabled to be up in arms.

One would expect wrong.

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"We have a clear position not to take a position on the issue of abortion," says Paul Marchand, head lobbyist at The Arc (formerly known as the Association for Retarded Citizens), one of the country's largest such groups. The National Down Syndrome Congress, in its "Position Statement on Prenatal Testing and Eugenics," is equally explicit: "These positions ... in no way involve the movement in the debate over whether a woman should have a legal right to abortion."

Disability groups tend to be on edge when it comes to public perceptions of the mentally retarded (Al Gore learned this the hard way when he referred to Oliver North's political supporters as "the extra-chromosome right wing," drawing roars of protest from Down Syndrome groups). They are quick to spot even the most subtle forms of discrimination—The Arc actually has an official policy demanding equal access to dental treatment. So it is puzzling that so few groups have seen fit to comment on the growth of state-endorsed eugenics targeted—in the most discriminatory, dehumanizing way imaginable—at their own constituents. It's a little like the NAACP refusing to come out against slavery.

In 1978, the Delaware chapter of the Association for Retarded Citizens did take a position: It passed a resolution demanding that the federal government pay for abortions for poor women who learn they are carrying potential retarded citizens. The resolution prompted The Arc's national organization to convene a task force on the issue. After months of work, the group produced a 60-page report declaring that, although a majority of its members supported government funding for the abortion of retarded children, a unanimous decision could not be reached. And that, says lobbyist Marchand, was that: "I don't think anything on abortion has crossed my desk in the last ten years." The only comparable issue today, he says, is the debate within the "disability community" over whether it is valid to search for a cure for mental retardation. "It can be a touchy subject," he explains without a hint of irony, because when you seek a cure, "what you're doing de facto is devaluing people with mental retardation."

Not that The Arc spends a lot of time pondering existential questions like these. The group's real concern nowadays, says Marchand, is "the federal role in the future of mental retardation"—i.e., getting more money from the government. He rattles off a list of programs his organization is lobbying to maintain and expand: Medicaid, Social Security, disability insurance, job training, special education. "We are extremely occupied with a myriad of federal policy issues that are before us," Marchand says. "Our plate is more than overflowing."

Meanwhile, as The Arc concerned itself with its "myriad of federal policy issues," another issue was being decided on Capitol Hill, one from which the voice of the disability lobby was noticeably absent: partial-birth abortion. The vast majority of Down Syndrome children identified in utero are diagnosed using amniocentesis, which is not even performed until the sixteenth week of pregnancy. The abortions that result are of the grisly variety, some of them performed by the skull-crushing partial-birth technique on infants capable of living outside the womb.

During the debate over the procedure, the Clinton administration cited the record of abortion doctor James McMahon as evidence that a ban on partial-birth abortions would be unacceptably rigid. The pregnant women McMahon had treated, the administration argued, had received abortions to alleviate the sort of "serious health problems" that should be exempted under the ban. And what were these problems? According to data the doctor himself provided to Congress, the single most common "serious fetal defect" McMahon" treated" was Down Syndrome.

It would be unfair to single out organized Down Syndrome groups for their unwillingness to confront the subject of abortion, since the willful blindness runs much deeper. In Life As We Know It, his recent book about raising a son with Down Syndrome, Michael Berube describes the typical response on an Internet discussion group when the subject of prenatal testing and abortion arises: "Every time someone brings up the question on the listserv, he or she is met with dozens of e-mail responses reading, "NO! NO! NOT ON THIS LIST! Please don't have this discussion here! There are plenty of other newsgroups for this debate. This is about children with disabilities.'"