It’s not an exaggeration to think that Margaret Sanger, the 20th century eugenicist, or advocate of improving the human population by controlled breeding, would feel at home in Iceland.
CBS News reported this week that Iceland has all but eliminated Down syndrome from its population. Not through a miraculous, breakthrough “cure” for the genetic disorder, however, but by abortion after genetic-screening.
Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik, where most Icelandic babies are born, says 80 percent to 85 percent of pregnant women get the test, which is optional for the moment, but the government in Reykjavik requires all mothers-to-be to be told the test is available.
Of those who have taken the test over the last decade and a half, “100 percent of pregnant women whose prenatal tests have came back positive for Down syndrome have decided to end their pregnancies.” (In the United States, the rate is about 67 percent.) Only three children were born with Down syndrome last year in the Icelandic population of 350,000.
Many in Iceland regard this success of eugenics, though small, as a positive essentially freeing Iceland of “imperfect” specimens. This prevents “suffering for the child and also for the family,” as one abortion counselor puts it.
This echoes the sentiment of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, who advocated racial eugenics as nothing more than “defending the unborn against their own disabilities,” and in 1934 advocated an “American baby code” of “selective births” that would “protect society against the propagation and increase of the unfit.”
According to CBS News, the genetic testing for Down syndrome is only 85 percent accurate, so an unknown — and unknowable — number of the abortions wrongly take the lives of what would have been perfectly healthy babies. Those with Down syndrome can live into their 60s and lead productive lives, as a coffee shop in Wilmington, N.C., demonstrates. Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, featured on the Food Network’s “Rachael Ray Show,” is named for two of Ben and Amy Wright’s four children. Beau, 13, and Bitty, 7, have Down syndrome, and they and other employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities help operate the shop.
Some Icelandic geneticists seem to harbor moral qualms. “The challenges we are facing are not just technical, scientific challenges,” Icelandic geneticist Kari Stefansson says of his country’s practice. “They are societal, ethical challenges. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aspiring to have healthy children, but how far we should go in seeking those goals, are fairly complicated decisions.”
The French geneticist who discovered the chromosomal basis for Down syndrome, Jerome Lejeune, once offered what may be the last word. “It cannot be denied that the price of these diseases is high, in suffering for the individual and in burdens for society. Not to mention what parents suffer. But we can assign a value for that price. It is precisely what a society must pay to remain fully human.”