The number of Down’s Syndrome children could well be reduced in the next decade by new pregnancy-testing methods. This is the message of an article from the British journal The Economist which was printed in the Globe & Mail (“Down’s detection gets help – July 16, 1984.)

At present the chromosomal abnormality of Down’s syndrome can be tested by amniocentesis, and the test is routinely given to older women. However, because “amniocentesis is just too risky to be administered indiscriminately to younger women,” about 80% of Down’s syndrome cases are not discovered.

Recently it has been discovered that a high level of an embryonic protein (alpha-fetoprotein) measured around the 16th week of pregnancy may indicate a spinal cord defect called spina bifida, and the finding can be checked by ultrasound. On the other hand, a low level of the protein may indicate Down’s syndrome. Because this test can be given to younger women at an early stage of pregnancy the number of Down’s syndrome babies could be reduced.

The article omits to say that the reduction comes not by curing the babies, but by killing them before birth.

The following letter was published by the Globe and Mail, July, in response to the article mentioned above. The letter is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

You recently reprinted an article from The Economist on the developing technology of pre-natal diagnosis of conditions which are likely to be accompanied by some degree of mental handicap after the child is born (Down’s Detection Gets Help – July 16). There are several things about that article which reinforce negative and discriminatory perceptions of persons who have mental handicaps.

For example, the article refers to “mongoloid children” and says “Down’s syndrome is commonly called mongolism” The terms “mongoloid” and “mongolism” are now generally regarded as in appropriate and demeaning. They imply that the person so labeled properly belongs to some other race or society foreign to our own. Furthermore it is clearly wrong to describe Down’s syndrome as “the birth defect that leads to retarded children.”

There are literally hundreds of causes of mental handicap, most of them active birth or earlier. Down’s syndrome is only one. While there is ordinarily some intellectual impairment associated with Down’s syndrome, it is impossible to predict until well after an affected child is born what the extent of the impairment will be. More and more frequently, people with Down’s syndrome, such as Toronto’s David MacFarlane, the television actor, are achieving rewarding careers and demonstrating the contributions they can make to society.

All persons threatened

More hurtful than the outmoded language and the misleading statement, however, is the pervading message of the article, namely that it is a highly desirable technical advance to be able to “detect many more babies with Down’s syndrome” for the purpose of eliminating them before they are born. The writer proceeds on the assumption that none o the moral and legal issues that surround the controversy over abortion in our society has any relevance in the discussion once it is known that an unborn child has Down’s syndrome. The overriding objective becomes that of ridding society of as many such children as possible. This objective reveals a perception of the value of the lives of persons who have Down’s syndrome in such entirely negative terms that would be better for everyone if they did not exist. Such a view threatens all such persons, not just the unborn.

Regarded as immoral

Articles like the one you reprinted from the Economist help pave the way to a society in which it will be regarded as immoral or perhaps even illegal for an expectant mother not to avail herself of the technology that can determine the existence of handicapping conditions before the child is born, and so prevent its birth. If we ever achieve such a society in which any child considered “flawed” is not wanted, it may well become true to say that the life of a person who has Down’s syndrome will not be worth living. It is certainly not true to say that now.

Marie Gallagher


Canadian Association

For the Mentally Retarded