Eugenics, Compassion, and the Church

In recent headlines we were treated with a tweet by CBS promoting a news story in which Iceland was celebrated for being ‘on pace to virtually eliminate Down syndrome [sic] through abortion’.

The news story quickly set off a firestorm of responses including one from noted pro-life actress Patricia Heaton in which she opined, “Iceland isn’t actually eliminating Down Syndrome. They’re just killing everybody that has it. Big difference.”

The trend in Iceland and the growing cultural inclination in the West toward such a perspective on Down Syndrome — and the sanctity of life by proxy — is not a new issue with which we’re grappling in today’s body politic.

Proponents of selective abortion, whether in the case of incurable disease, genetic abnormality or in the most extreme cases for sex-selection, are most often conditioned on a criterion of likelihood for ‘happiness’. The argument is that any life deemed to be ‘less than full’ is deserving of an abortive procedure out of ‘compassion’.

Further, this reasoning is not limited to questions of life between conception and birth but also to life’s natural end. It is, therefore, no coincidence that an increase in the legalization of assisted suicide is tracking evenly with that of selective abortion procedures.

Contrary to what this perspective proposes, the telos of life is not a fleeting sense of ‘happiness’. When the founding fathers of our republic proposed and ultimately enshrined in the Declaration of Independence the iconic words ‘pursuit of happiness’, they imbued in that hallowed document the historic understanding of the phrase, that true happiness is derived rightly in the course of pursuing the will of our Creator.

We learn as well of the Aristotelian prescription for life’s purpose that its chief end is not the vaguery of happiness but of the pursuit of virtue.

Further St. Thomas Aquinas continues the theme with the Church’s understanding of virtue as better understood as the pursuit of holiness.

In short, man’s primary aim is eternity with his Maker and that all of life on Earth is preparatory for that end.

Sadly the predominant attitude in Western culture today is one that gives little thought for eternity; the ultimate aim instead is personal fulfillment on Earth. The logic follows then that if a budding life in the womb has little possibility of fulfillment, the noble act is one that spares suffering, namely abortion.

Despite public outcry over the memory of the Holocaust, our culture has already forgotten the animus of that terrible epoch: that human life considered ‘lesser than’, whether due to sex, ethnicity, condition or creed, can or perhaps should be removed.

This was not some far flung ideology in some distant land, nay, not even a foreign concept. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood International, was the forerunner for the American eugenics movement. Just as her writings and speeches played a role in forming the policy of ‘breeding out’ black, poor and migrant Americans through abortion, they also contributed to the policy of extermination by the Third Reich.

Thus the notion of ‘eliminating’ Down Syndrome via abortion isn’t such a novel idea; it’s been tried before. As Catholics we are challenged with the prospect of confronting policies that are promoted as acts of compassion. Throughout history the Church has stood in unwavering defense of life in all its iterations, both in and out of the womb, whether healthy or infirm, young and old. This remains our calling today just as it has been for more than two millennia amid the ebb and flow of nations, cultures and dominions.