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Down Syndrome and Eugenics

We live in a society that attempts to meddle in something it can probably never fully understand. Even Plato, who proposed a form of eugenics, admitted that we don’t really know what we’re doing pointing out that even two “gold” parents can give birth to a “bronze” child. The practice of eugenics is not a recent development, by any stretch of the imagination, and it is still being practiced whether we are aware of it or not.

The premise of eugenics is the assumption that we can, and should, breed humans like we do horses and dogs. There are two fundamental problems with this which will be discussed. For one thing, we don’t know how to do it “right,” which is subjective anyway. For another, it really seems to be contrary to universal morality so therefore unethical. We will expand on this by looking at Down syndrome and how our current attitudes about it relate to the larger issue of eugenics.

Not a New Idea

Currently, the belief in Darwinism is rather prevalent. However, the fundamental theories behind the “survival of the fittest” are not a new idea. Many tribes, such as that of ancient Sparta, throughout the world have attempted to keep their gene pool strong by destroying babies who were considered inferior. When it came to leaving children exposed to the elements to be torn apart by wild animals, compassion didn’t even factor into the equation. Beliefs about which children would be a benefit or a burden to society would often override universal morality.

Now, with the added tools of medical screening, advanced abortion techniques, and genetic engineering, eugenics has changed faces but the concept remains the same. Nazi Germany gave the word “eugenics” a “bad name” so that particular term is rarely used by those promoting it at this stage. The writers of Star Trek addressed this in multiple episodes. They usually use the terms “eugenics” to mean “genetic engineering” but that isn’t always the case. In one episode, a scenario was introduced where a Federation planet was cut off from much needed supplies so the leader decided half the colonists needed to survive so that the others could live. He took it upon himself to make the decision on who to eradicate and who to spare based on his beliefs about who was more valuable.

The subject of eugenics within the Star Trek sub-genre is worthy of an essay all of its own.

Today, the technology predicted by science fiction writers has become a reality. The practice of eugenics is alive and well though it is rarely called that by the perpetrators anymore. This is something which should concern us all.

Animal Breeding Fails

When we attempt to selectively breed humans, we call it eugenics but it is nothing more than the application of practices which have been used on animals for untold thousands of years. The way animals have been intentionally bred to screen out certain characteristics in favor of others is often believed to be a positive. However, we often do our livestock and pets a great disservice in the process.

Horses that are bred for racing are faster on the track than wild horses but the way they have been bred creates equines that can have problems with their legs as a result. The way many dog breeds have been produced for a certain shape of the hip which is believed to be desirable can result in life-long severe pain for the pet because we fail to recognize what features are truly beneficial for the animal. Meanwhile, some breeds of dog, like the Chihuahua, suffer from severe skin issues simply because people wanted to create little dogs. Thankfully, with the increased popularity of cross-breeds like the Chiweenie, the problem of genetic drift is addressed, if only as a side-effect, so related problems are minimized.

When we look at the negatives which have manifested as a result of animal breeding practices, we may have to conclude that we don’t even know what we’re doing when it comes to breeding animals. If we can’t even make the proper breeding decisions with other mammals, something we have been doing for millennia, how can we possibly hope to apply the same principals to humans? This is only half the argument but, by itself, it should be enough to raise serious concerns.

Universal Morality

The legendary Socrates is well known for questioning established beliefs of his civilization and for this he was put to death. One of his greatest contributions was popularizing the use of dialectical, strategic questioning, to point out flaws in others' reasoning. What made Socrates’ philosophy distinct from the Sophists he was at odds with was his insistence that, although we may not know what absolute morality is, it doesn’t mean that morals are relative to one’s cultural norms.

Factually, and this has been proven time and time again, relative morality is flawed reasoning and can be foiled using the Socratic Method of dialectical questioning with incredible ease. I’ve found that anytime someone makes a relativistic moral claim, all one has to do is keep bringing up examples of despicable behaviors which are accepted by certain societies as perfectly ethical. I do this until I find one where the subject of my questioning has to admit that the behavior is not wrong because our culture teaches us that it’s wrong but because it is inherently wrong though we might not be able to sufficiently explain why.

To substantiate this, I’d like to provide some practices which are believed to be moral by the societies in which they are practiced but which the subject may have to admit are wrong regardless of society. These are only a few which I can think of off the top of my head. There are many more reprehensible cultural traditions to choose from.

  • The Elephant Crush – this is still used by some communities in India as a way to train elephants. They stick them in a little cage and poke them in the ears with sharp sticks until their will is broken. This is clearly not necessary as there are more human training methods.
  • Female Circumcision – this is practiced by cultures in Africa and the “Middle East.” It usually involved completely cutting out a young girl’s clitoris. Oftentimes pieces of broken glass or whatever else is available are used. This is supposed to keep them faithful by preventing them from experiencing sexual pleasure. Not only is this disgusting on the face of it, it doesn’t even work as intended.
  • Apartheid – specifically, South African apartheid is where blacks were not allowed to use the same facilities reserved for white South Africans. Needless to say, people were pissed so it was brought to an end but the country still has some pretty serious problems.
  • Genocide & Forced Conversion – this is usually justified by assuming one racial, ethnic, or religious group is inferior to another. Examples include the treatment of tribal “Americans” and Australian aborigines. This is all too common but still generally accepted as immoral. One must dehumanize the victim group before people will support the policy.

With most subjects you question you will find an example which, if handled with proper aplomb, will get them to admit that some things are “just wrong.” In cases where the person you’re questioning gets stuck in circular reasoning, the thinking errors should be obvious to onlookers so your time may not have been wasted. Note that, with the Socratic method, no religious dogma is needed to discredit relativistic thinking.

A thoughtful article on the subject of cultural relativism, written by an anthropologist, can be found here: http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/gender/culturalrelativism.html A concern I have about this article is the belief that outsider’s should meddle in the natural development of societies. Even though communities have their shameful traditions, oftentimes outside interference can aggravate the situation and even introduce problems which didn’t exist prior.

Eugenics is Just Wrong

The immorality of eugenics isn’t relative to one’s culture. It is really easy to concede that the concept has merit until one realizes that one’s own self and family could be thought of as inferior. Once this is realized it changes one’s perspectives.

How do we know it’s “just wrong?” We know it because those of us in the majority, who have a complete set of emotions so experience compassion, seem to have an instinctive revulsion when faced with it. It requires societal conditioning to accept eugenics or any other wantonly horrific convention.

If there is any doubt at all, one may look to Nazi Germany. Good ole Nazi Germany! It is the Westerner’s favorite go-to model for a whole host of analogies illustrating the difference between right and wrong. Many, possibly millions, of human beings were rounded up and had grotesque medical experiments performed on them in the attempt to create a “master race.” It should be noted that a lot of the subjects weren’t Jews, although this group seems to be the one most talked about. Homosexuals, communists, and political enemies may have even, collectively, made up the majority of internees.

Medical Screenings

Medical screenings, such as those used to identify a fetus with Down syndrome, can be helpful insofar as that they can help parents prepare for certain possibilities but more often than not they are used as a determinant when considering whether or not an unborn baby should be destroyed with the practice commonly known as induced abortion. This is not to be confused with spontaneous abortion, also known as miscarriage, where the body rejects a fetus on its own. It sounds like a good idea on the surface; determining a child may suffer if it is allowed to live could be considered inhumane. Unfortunately there are serious problems with this philosophy.

For one thing, screenings sometimes require more invasive tests to conclude, definitively, what condition a fetus may have. These more invasive tests can actually cause problems that, otherwise, as I have covered in another article, wouldn’t have even been present in the first place. Also, one should ask oneself if a positive result would change their mind about whether or not to abort. If the answer is no, little good can come of the procedure.

Another thing to consider is that, despite all of their intellect and training, doctors are sometimes wrong. Even when they are right, a health professional may not want to “get your hopes up” which can lead to a let-down. My friend’s new child, who happens to have received a diagnosis of Down syndrome, has exceeded doctor expectations a great deal. There is not guarantee this will happen but it is something to keep in mind.

Genetic Meddling

It is wonderful to think about the potential benefits of artificially altering genes to prevent a child from having to experience debilitating physical and mental challenges. If it can actually be established that this can be done with competence, it would certainly be tempting. Even in the world of Star Trek (obviously it's getting about time for another Star Trek-based essay) genetic engineering was still acceptable so long as one was not intending to do more than correct what can clearly be defined deficiencies such as a crooked spine.

Three Reasons

In her article “Three Reasons Why We Might Not Want to Cure Down Syndrome,” Amy Julia Becker of Patheos.com gives us reason to question the validity of this line of thinking.1) First she questions the assumption that the problem with Down syndrome, sometimes referred to as “DS,” is an internal problem with a person’s genetics or an external issue with societal values an attitudes. Next she questions the assumption that DS is “categorically negative,” providing us with examples to gain a different perspective. Finally, she makes a spiritual case for why we may want to consider not curing DS, which she maintains is not a disease.

I would like to provide my own take on each of her three arguments.

In regard to the first point, though sometimes conditions can be thought of as being clearly negative, it isn’t always a “black-and-white” scenario. Perhaps there are no truly “black-and-white” scenarios. With Down syndrome I’ve noticed that, while there are often medical complications and reduced mental competence, people with the condition are usually quite happy and delightful to be around. If the child is happy and, with the right attitude, the parents receive a net effect of receiving additional happiness in their lives as well, what exactly is the problem? Is the problem an extra number twenty-one chromosome or is it with our perception of DS as a society?

As for her second point, not only does the inclusion of happiness indicate DS may not be entirely and “categorically” negative, there may be other aspects of Down syndrome which could be positive. For evolutionists, we have to wonder if it is possible that it may be a sort of transitionary phase we have yet to go through. This might seem like a stretch but it is worth considering. It is unclear whether we actually know how evolution works, anyway. There is also the matter of challenges being potentially positive. Challenges are what allow us to learn and grow. Just as a story cannot be compelling unless it includes at least one major complication in the plot line (indeed a story cannot exist without problems included), life itself cannot be compelling without its difficulties as well.

Surly, Down syndrome has it’s challenges; sometimes considerably more than others.

The third point Ms. Becker makes relies on a religious point of view for her argument. However, it must be stated that the Bible doesn’t say anything specifically on this subject. There are some passages which can be interpreted in that way, the same can be said about any opinion which one chooses to use the Bible to argue. The author’s take on “playing God” has everything to do with her belief in a higher power though some may believe in a higher purpose or “meant to be” way of thinking which would agree with her general line of thought. She also points out that, in many dystopic science fiction stories, a future where people strive for some abstract notion of “perfection” is undesirable. Even though Gattica, and other such tales, are certainly just fiction, literature explores the human condition. In this case we can get a feel for “right” and “wrong” within the greater context of universal morality which does not rely on any particular religious or necessarily even spiritual, beliefs, depending on how one may define the word “spiritual.”

As we have seen, the “Three Reasons” article does provide “food for thought,” so to speak. The author challenges us to examine our attitudes about Down syndrome so that we may have a different, perhaps more enlightened, perspective. It is just one writer’s opinion, but one with which I tend to concur.

My Opinion

In life, though some things may be clearly bad or good, there seem to be a lot more “gray areas.” That having been said, it seems to me that aborting children with DS and attempting to “fix” their condition in utero may be nothing more than another form of eugenics so we should be wary. Arrogance in assuming we know what is best for our species and what to do about it is fraught with peril. The problem with Down syndrome may not be with the individual’s genetic peculiarities but with our way of looking at things.

Health | Philosophy | Sociology


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