In former days, various countries engaged in eugenics through forced sterilization programs of “undesirables.” The United States, Canada, and many other countries adopted laws to enforce the practice in the early 20th century (encouraged by advocates such as Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood). The United Kingdom was prevented from doing so by virtue of the opposition of the writer and lay theologian G. K. Chesterton who wrote Eugenics and Other Evils as a polemic against the policy. The most infamous advocate of eugenics was Nazi Germany, which engaged in sterilization and abortion programs.
The point of all these programs was to prevent the birth of “undesirables.” For at its core, eugenics views the value of a human life in terms of its utility. Those born to poor parents, or those born with disabilities are seen as having less utility, being a greater “burden” on society, and having a lower quality of life. Today, with forced sterilization programs politically untenable, abortion is being promoted as a way to achieve the same ends.
Thus, we come to a story about Iceland where Down syndrome has nearly been “eradicated,” as the article euphemistically states it. For by “eradicated” what is meant is that children in the womb who are believed to have Down syndrome are aborted (Patricia Heaton, among others, quickly noticed this as well). The “eradication” is a result of the high incidence of prenatal tests which look for the genetic markers which indicate the likelihood of Down syndrome.
Defenders of the practice often appeal to the fact that life for the child with Down syndrome will be difficult or “complicated.” What does it say about us as a people when we think that life is only worth living if lived according to our terms? Can we take no joy in, or enjoy the wonder of, life just for the sake of life itself? Can we not recognize that a human life, in and of itself, is valuable and worth living because it is a gift from God?
Indeed, although G. K. Chesterton wrote an entire book against these sorts of evils, perhaps his most profound statement is made through his short poem, “By the Babe Unborn:”
If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,
If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.
In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.
Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.
I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.
They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.