The abortion of as many as 90 percent of unborn American children diagnosed with Down syndrome and the destruction of thousands of such embryos through in vitro fertilization (IVF) are heavily influenced by the biased medical information and advice that parents are given.

Many medical professionals purposefully mislead, ignore options, and influence parents to end the lives of children with Down syndrome. Convincing evidence of a program of eugenics targeting persons with Down syndrome was presented in my recent article “Medical Professionals as Agents of Eugenics: Abortion Counseling for Down Syndrome,” published in the Summer 2018 issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.

The article argues that eugenics is, in fact, resurgent in America, with Down syndrome as one target. The eugenic agenda is driven by an ideology that not only devalues certain minority populations identified by their genetic characteristics, but also seeks to remove or prevent them from existence. Abortion and IVF are legally sanctioned methods of accomplishing these aims in the United States, and medical professionals have a privileged role in steering parents toward killing unborn persons with Down syndrome.

Mounting evidence published by researchers in peer-reviewed journals demonstrates that certain medical professionals express extraordinarily negative expectations about the potential happiness of parents and their children with Down syndrome. While only a small minority of mothers and nurses held such negative views prior to being exposed to the advice of genetic counselors, half of those counselors made such negative appraisals.

Parents of unborn children with Down syndrome rarely receive helpful counseling and adequate information about services and opportunities to joyfully raise such a child. Studies indicate that nearly 90 percent of women reported that genetic counselors failed to provide any information about quality-of-life issues, and a third of mothers were never presented with the option to continue their pregnancy. When maternal-fetal medical specialists were significantly more likely than other specialists to support abortion as an option for children with Down syndrome, their patients were more than twice as likely to abort than the patients of other pediatric specialists. 

The negative attitudes of medical professionals fly in the face of the actual experiences of parents. Brian Skotko and colleagues have shown that almost 100 percent of parents of children with Down syndrome say they love their offspring, and nearly all siblings claim to be better people because of their brother or sister with Down syndrome.

Such a nearly universal positive attitude between siblings of any condition is extraordinary.

Genetic testing can influence parents in favor of abortion. The tests are marketed and pressed upon pregnant women, and even those mothers most favorably disposed toward parenting a child with Down syndrome overwhelmingly choose to undergo genetic screening.

In a 2012 study by Hyunkyung Choi and colleagues, a small portion of nonpregnant women initially said they would abort a child with Down syndrome, yet nearly all chose abortion when tests were positive for the trait. Medical professionals have publicly advocated for enhanced screening technologies because persons with Down syndrome are considered to be public health problems and unwarranted financial drains on society.

IVF is a procedure for intentionally creating and then selecting a new child from among a number of living embryos. Preimplantation genetic screening or diagnosis during IVF includes the analysis of embryos for a variety of possible genetic characteristics, including Down syndrome. The choice of the embryo to be implanted and rejection of unwanted embryos is based in a highly subjective definition of “health.” Embryos that are not selected for birth are discarded, frozen, or destroyed in research.

The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology reports that, in 2016 alone, there were at least 242,000 IVF cycles initiated in the US. If three embryos on average are destroyed or frozen in these IVF cycles, there may be over 700,000 casualties of IVF per year, and an unknown portion of those casualties are diagnosed with a disability, abnormality, or other perceived defect, including Down syndrome.

The role of medical, scientific, and sociological “experts” in the encouragement of eugenics is not new. While the German Nazis in the 20th century officially kicked off their race “purification” with government programs to kill thousands of disabled Germans, it was the independent enthusiasm of physicians and researchers that drove a subsequent killing spree of many hundreds of thousands of persons thought to be afflicted with genetic abnormalities. The Nazis followed the example of Americans’ forcible sterilization of 60,000 “defective” individuals, sanctioned by the US Supreme Court and state laws, and the official intentions of such groups as the American Breeders Association to kill up to 10 percent of the American population that had the perceived misfortune of inherited afflictions.

According to author Edwin Black in War Against the Weak, this American group included a Nobel Prize winner and experts from prominent universities.  Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory reports that eugenics was once taught in nearly 400 college courses to approximately 20,000 students.

In the 21st century, parents engage in killing unborn human beings with Down syndrome as a form of euthanasia. In a 2007 study of the reasons for aborting children that tested positive for Down syndrome, concern for the quality of life of the child was the most frequently mentioned. While the rhetoric in favor of abortion rights for women often claims a warrant for devaluing the unborn human being, parents are aborting children with Down syndrome based on their valuation of the quality of life of the future, born child and adult.

The euthanasia of unborn human beings is grossly inconsistent with near universal horror at the killing of born persons. Genetic counselors and bioethicists should be alerting parents to this deadly inconsistency, as well as the distortions of a eugenic agenda, rather than depriving parents of opportunities to experience the unconditional love and joyfulness characteristic of persons with Down syndrome.  

Christopher M. Reilly holds a Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and is a graduate student in theology and bioethics at Holy Apostles Seminary.  

Christopher M. Reilly holds a Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and is a graduate student in theology and bioethics at Holy Apostles Seminary.