Down Syndrome, Dignity, and Ethical Relativism

A recent opinion headline in The New York Times caught my eye: “The Ethical Case for Having a Baby with Down Syndrome.” Initially, I was taken off guard that a piece with such a loaded title would have passed their editorial board to publication. As I began to digest the article’s content, however, my hopeful sense of surprise dissipated.

Dr. Chris Kaposy, a bioethicist from Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, wrote a passionate op-ed about raising Aaron—his seven-year old son prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome—and why parents who receive such a daunting prenatal diagnosis should choose life. He highlights the demands, joys, and challenges of parenting Aaron and asserts the need to embrace persons with disabilities in our families and communities. An eloquent testament of advocacy, to say the least.

Nonetheless, Kaposy is abundantly clear: in his opinion, the abortion of unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome should remain legal. He states: “My wife and I are pro-choice and oppose placing limits like these on abortion…we don’t need new laws; we just need more people to choose to have such children.” In the end, he seeks to argue why children like Aaron should be welcomed into our society, not that we need to legally protect them in the womb.

Before further dissecting Dr. Kaposy’s opinion, I must express how much I am inspired by his family’s courageous example to choose life. Frankly, we need more voices like his in medicine—and in academia, overall—who witness to parenting children with Down Syndrome and call for their recognition and inclusion in our culture. I applaud them and sincerely thank them.

However, it is necessary to call attention to a logical inconsistency here. By legally permitting abortion based on the diagnosis of Down Syndrome, our society asserts that these children’s lives do not have intrinsic value. The baby with this disability, in turn, is viewed as a burden, not a person with dignity. One cannot call for the inclusion of children with Down Syndrome in families and society, while simultaneously insisting that abortion should remain a legal option for parents who receive this news from a neonatologist. Such undermines the very effort to promote the “acceptance, empathy, and unconditional love” of children with Down Syndrome, for which Dr. Kaposy argues.

I do agree that the conversion of hearts and attitudes toward children with Down Syndrome is key to their acceptance in our world. (I actually think it will be impossible to make any strides in preventing abortions if we do not focus on this.) However, our dignity as human beings is not dependent on these dispositions. The moral decision of aborting a child with this prenatal diagnosis is not an issue of personal values, popular opinions, or social norms. Such ethical relativism opens the door for anyone to choose what is right or wrong without consideration of truth or goodness, like the objective right of every person—regardless of his or her abilities or status in the world—to life. An argument for why parents should choose life for their Down Syndrome child must begin with the dignity that is inherent to every human person, not subjective choice and individual attitudes.

Posing legal limits on aborting children with Down Syndrome is essential to advocating for their dignity. Pennsylvanians received the exciting news recently that our House of Representative overwhelming passed a bill that aims to do just this.  To date, the only other limit placed on abortion in the first 24 weeks is that parents cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. House Bill 2050 will expand this limitation to protect children with Down Syndrome. As the bill moves to the Senate floor, our prayers and voices must come together – even in the face of political backlash – in defense of the dignity of the human person. Such a legislative act would be a truly ethical response to affirm children with Down Syndrome.