Should only the "right" Down syndrome kids get born?

By Catherine O'Connell-Cahill| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Freakonomics author Steven Levitt appeared last week on the National Public Radio show "Marketplace."  The show considered the phenomenon of unintended consequences: how, for example, the introduction of ultrasound machines into China allowed parents to determine the gender of their children in utero and make abortion decisions accordingly, which has resulted in "over 160 million females missing from the population in Asia...more than the entire female population of the United States," according to journalist Mara Hvistendahl. 

Too many men results in "more sex-trafficking, more AIDS, and a higher crime rate," said the show. Thus we learn that the ultrasound machine has enabled higher crime rates in Asia.

Now, asks the show, what about the new blood test which can screen for genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome, without requiring risky amniocentesis? 

Levitt says,  "Just because there's an easier test--does not mean everyone will want to use it," because some parents are willing to put into God's hands whether or not they have a Down syndrome child.  Other parents, not so much.  The narrator says that Levitt sees this not simply as a moral decision but as a "sorting mechanism," a chilling term in light of what comes next.

"In a world in which there are two different kinds of people, some who welcome Down syndrome children and some who don't," says Levitt, "it seems to me that if you have a cheap, easy, safe, reliable test, that that's a perfect sorting mechanism to ensure that in some sense the 'right' Down syndrome children get born."

Many thoughtful listeners objected to this heartless view. "Isn’t the true measure of a free society how we treat the weak and vulnerable?" asked one. The Cenla Down Syndrome Association fires back on its Facebook page.