A stealthy new age of eugenics

Published by The i paper (27th September, 2021)

Heidi Crowter is 26 years old, married last year and is full of life. She loves music and follows Liverpool Football Club. Yet one thing chips away at her positivity: the law on abortion that permits termination of human beings such as her up to the point of birth simply because they have Down’s syndrome. “It makes me feel like I’m not as valuable as anyone else. It makes me feel like I shouldn’t be here,” she says.

She is right to feel distressed since this is clearly discriminatory. Late abortions on grounds of “severe foetal abnormality” are permitted also for cleft lips and club feet. Yet last week, Heidi and two others failed to persuade High Court judges that such state-sanctioned stigmatisation was wrong.  Lawyers pointed out that Down’s syndrome is the single biggest justification for abortions after 24 weeks, but the bench displayed its own bigotry by arguing that women might be “compelled by the fear of the criminal law to give birth to children who will not be loved or wanted”.

Heidi plans to appeal. Her case is significant since it underlines how our state views people with disabilities as second-class citizens whose lives are not worth living. This is not about a woman’s right to choose, which should be sacrosanct. Nor is it about foetuses so abnormal they would die soon after birth or suffer horribly. It is about having one rule for “normal” people whose lives are protected after 24 weeks in the womb and another for those who are different, thus can be eliminated.

Studies show that people with Down’s syndrome are far happier than the rest of society and that people with disabilities award higher quality to their own lives than seen by those without disabilities. Yet from Britain to China, nations are eliminating this condition with the use of more accurate and less risky tests. I have reported on this from Denmark, which has among the world’s highest termination rates; the number of babies born with Down’s syndrome there has fallen by more than three-quarters in two decades to just 18 survivors in 2019.

This illustrates how scientific advances are shifting us into a stealthy new age of eugenics. “We are moving towards eliminating Down’s syndrome and some other disabilities,” said John Brodersen, a professor in public health at the University of Copenhagen. This is fanned by zealots such as the biologist Richard Dawkins, who claims it is “immoral” to bring infants with disabilities into the world and that blind people – such as my daughter – should be aborted to “increase the amount of happiness in the world”. 

Others call for post-birth terminations, arguing that even if individuals are happy they place an “unbearable burden” on families and governments. The root problem is that societies are so blinkered that they focus on eliminating human beings who are disabled rather than the lack of support that might enable them and their families to live contentedly and productively.

We live in a country, after all, that has a health service incarcerating people with learning disabilities and autistic citizens in psychiatric hellholes due to lack of adequate communal care despite acceptance this is medically and morally wrong. And one that imposed blanket “do not resuscitate” notices on people with learning disabilities in the pandemic.

The casual acceptance of such horrors highlights why I am alarmed by the naive groundswell of demand for euthanasia to be legalised. As an atheist and a liberal, I am intuitively sympathetic to assisted dying for patients with chronic terminal conditions. But we see in Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands that once the door is opened for death on demand, there is pressure to keep pushing it further ajar. If it is acceptable for adults, why not for children as now agreed in Belgium? If permitted for some elderly people, why not make it an option for all of them as demanded in Holland? If allowed for patients in awful physical pain, why not for those suffering acute mental distress – such as the 21-year-old woman I met in Brussels seeking sanction to end her life?

It would be a big move for Britain to permit euthanasia as a pioneer of the amazing hospice movement and having played a key role in the development of palliative care. Yet as one consultant pointed out in a letter to The Times last week (and as I have heard from doctors in nations where euthanasia is legal), people can be put under duress to kill themselves – and some take the option from fear or feeling like a burden. One brain disorder patient in Canada secretly taped health staff pointing out the cost of care and putting him under pressure to die. So how would we protect people with disabilities or autism in a society that is already routinely callous towards their needs?

This is not scaremongering. The first criminal case after assisted dying became legal in Belgium involved a woman with autism, while another notorious case saw deaf twins facing sight loss in their mid-forties allowed to die due to “unbearable suffering”. Earlier this year, United Nations human rights experts raised the alarm over a trend to enact legislation enabling assisted dying based largely on disability. British and Dutch academics have flagged up concerns over autistic people being granted euthanasia on grounds of inability to participate in society while questioning if some cases met the required “voluntary and well-considered request” criteria.

Tim Stainton, a Canadian professor, has also raised “serious concerns” in a medical ethics journal that safeguards can fully protect disabled people from “an unwanted death as a result of subtle pressure, despair at living in a world where their daily existence is seen as one of inevitable suffering or exhaustion from fighting… to live a life of dignity.” He concluded that there was a “risk of uncritically heading to a place where the phrase ‘better dead than disabled’ becomes an underlying, if unspoken, driver of policy and practice”. Until we start to show care and respect for all citizens, from birth to death, we should not unleash such lethally dangerous reform.

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