Disabilities and Dehumanization

Response by Alexander P.

Dehumanization follows us human beings no matter the era, being a convenient way for some to achieve their own ends when the lives and rights of others stand in their way. This tactic has not disappeared, but has only shifted towards different victims. Today, one of society’s most vulnerable targets for dehumanization is the unborn child diagnosed with Down syndrome.


Dehumanizing the unborn person and denying it life for the sake of reducing suffering has become a commonplace practice, especially for persons with Down syndrome.

Laws in the United States have only in recent times begun to acknowledge the dignity of those with disabilities. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, which affirmed the rights of those with disabilities and ensured that they cannot be discriminated against in the workplace and public institutions on the basis of their impediments. Rather, they should be treated as human beings and accommodated as much as possible. In that law we legally affirmed the humanity of those with disabilities and stated clearly as a society that it is unacceptable to violate the human rights of those with disabilities using the justification of our own benefit or convenience. Yet this protection does not extend to the unborn who are similarly struggling with disabilities, physical or intellectual.


Instead of treating the unborn with disabilities the way we treat the abled or even those born with disabilities, we have chosen instead to dehumanize them, reducing them to little more than a cause and victim of suffering. Across Western countries, unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted almost as a rule. In the United States, the rate of abortion in such diagnoses is around 67%, while in Iceland, nearly 100% of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. At the Landspitali University Hospital in Iceland, counselor Helga Sol Olafsdottir describes why so many opt to abort in such cases. She states that in an abortion, the child is a “thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication... preventing suffering for the child and for the family”. In her view, it was not a person that was eliminated, but a “thing,” and for the cause of preventing the unbearable “suffering” that it is to raise a child with his or her own particular struggles. Dehumanizing the unborn person and denying it life for the sake of reducing suffering has become a commonplace practice, especially for persons with Down syndrome. But why stop with Down syndrome and other fetal anomalies? If taken to its logical extent, such a practice would justify or even demand universal abortion in every pregnancy, as there cannot be found a life without some sort of serious suffering to be had on both the part of the parent and child, whether now or later.


We are arguing with fierce interest over whether a human being (for it cannot be argued that the fetus is not at least part of the human species) has a right to life.

Fortunately, few would seek to implement such a radical notion, yet it points out the moral problem for the measures that we do accept. What makes us different from the unborn, and what makes the born with disabilities different from the unborn with the same conditions? Why is it that we have been allowed life despite its sufferings? Perhaps it is because those of us who are abled did not appear to bring the same burdens, the same so-called “huge complication” that those with disabilities appear to bring, or because the abled are perceived to contribute more to the economy or to society. This is clear from the way we have treated those with disabilities not only who are unborn but who are born. For example, in the Netherlands, a member of The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (DNIPHE) calculated what a person with Down syndrome costs the state in front of a man who has Down syndrome. His “price tag” according to this representative of DNIPHE was about 48,000 euros a year, chillingly reminding viewers of a time when twentieth century regimes would calculate the cost of those innocent human lives that stood in the way of their visions. Here, the stigma against those with disabilities meets the ever-present temptation to dehumanize those that we see as obstacles to our personal and social ideals.


Some who would argue that such abortions are justifiable may attempt to prove that the unborn, particularly the unborn with disabilities, are not human, citing factors such as fetal development, cognitive capabilities, bodily autonomy, and suffering. Yet the stakes of the question at hand should be fully appreciated: we are arguing with fierce interest over whether a human being (for it cannot be argued that the fetus is not at least part of the human species) has a right to life, and we should be aware of the implications if we take the stance against such a human’s right to life. If we make that judgement, we should be prepared to take on the burdens that accompany that stance: that to do so is to adopt a moral system that values life for its economic and social benefit, rather than its inherent dignity.



Sources:

“Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990." Wikipedia. April 19, 2019. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americans_with_Disabilities_Act_of_1990.

Natoli, Jaime L., Deborah L. Ackerman, Suzanne McDermott, and Janice G. Edwards. "Prenatal Diagnosis of Down Syndrome: A Systematic Review of Termination Rates (1995–2011)." Prenatal Diagnosis. March 14, 2012. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pd.2910.

Julian Quinones, Arijeta Lajka. ""What Kind of Society Do You Want to Live In?": Inside the Country Where Down Syndrome Is Disappearing." CBS News. August 14, 2017. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/down-syndrome-iceland/.

De Laatste Downer. March 2016.

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