Inferior life?

By Henning Köhler, September 2012

A debate was held in Philosophie-Magazin 04/12 on the question: “Is it morally defensible to abort a child with Down’s syndrome because of his or her disability?” Dieter Birnbacher, a specialist in medical ethics, thought it was. Peter Radtke, a member of the German Ethics Council, disagreed.

If there is a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome, ninety percent of affected parents today decide against having the child. Many report that they were put under pressure. People with Down’s syndrome are seen as a burden to society. Of course the argument today is no longer framed in terms of racial hygiene but it is a utilitarian one. Either way, the human beings concerned are branded as living abominations. Abortion is permitted in Germany to the delivery date if giving birth to and raising the child were to place the – physical and psychological – health of the mother at great risk. So let us begin by asking: do children with Down’s syndrome really place the health of the mother at serious risk? 

I had a lot to do with affected parents in a professional capacity. The conclusion: they were not psychological wrecks. On the contrary, I was often surprised by their inner strength. Almost all of them responded positively to my question whether they would make the same decision to have the child again. Such a “yes” spoken in love was also a retroactive “yes” to the stressful consequences of the decision. But the positive experiences predominated. “Life in a family with Down’s syndrome [is] by no means only characterised by suffering,” Radtke confirms. “And if you ask the people with Down’s syndrome themselves, you will hardly ever hear them say that they did not want to be born.”

Birnbacher holds the view that the moral rights of the parents take precedence over the rights of the foetus. Foetuses could not yet be considered as a full person. Hence the right to life of the unborn child was subordinate to the right of parents to a self-determined life. That applied in particular with regard to unborn children with disabilities. I make no judgement here about abortion in general but am arguing against the contempt for life with disabilities. Mothers would only be able to make a truly free decision if people in need of special care were accepted in our society without reservation and received all conceivable support. That is what specialists in medical ethics like Birnbacher should be campaigning for. A child with Down’s syndrome does not pose a risk to anyone’s health or happiness just because he or she has a disability! The parents need material as well as moral support. That is a question of awareness.

“Soon researchers will be able to examine the genetic material of foetuses for defects as a matter of routine. The number of abortions will rise,” the news magazine Spiegel reported on 18 June, concluding its report with the question whether it might not be necessary to “rethink how we view those who are different.” I think that is urgently necessary!

Link: Designerbabys und die Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses


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