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I was delighted to hear that Dorothy Day took a further step towards being declared a saint recently, when the US bishops engaged in a formal consultation about her cause for canonisation at their annual general assembly.

She is already a ‘Servant of God’, which means that the Vatican has agreed that there are no objections to her cause moving forward; and the unanimous vote of the American bishops in her favour gives this movement even greater momentum.

Fr Thomas Rosica, of Salt and Light, writes about her life:

Dorothy Day’s story captivated me as a young high school student and I have never forgotten her. I met her once at a rally in Rochester, New York, along with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. She is a remarkable, prophetic woman of our times. She transmitted the good news by her life and actions, and at times by her words.

Born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, Dorothy was neither baptized nor raised in the church. After dropping out of college in 1916, she pursued the radical causes of her day: women’s suffrage, free love, labour unions, and social revolution. But when a decade of protest and social action failed to produce changes in the values and institutions of society, Dorothy converted to the Catholic Church and the radicalism of Christian love.

Her life was filled with friendships with famous artists and writers. At the same time she experienced failed love affairs, a marriage and a suicide attempt. The triggering event for Dorothy’s conversion was the birth of her daughter, Tamar in 1926. After an earlier abortion, Dorothy had desperately wanted to get pregnant. She viewed the birth of her daughter as a sign of forgiveness from God.

For 50 years, Dorothy lived with the poor, conducted conferences, and published a newspaper, all dependent entirely upon donations. She dedicated her life fighting for justice for the homeless in New York City and was co-founder the Catholic Worker Movement. Seventy-five houses of hospitality were established during her lifetime, where the hungry were fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered, the sick cared for, and the dead buried.

She was put in jail, for the first time, at the age of 20 while marching in support of women’s suffrage. She was put in jail, for the last time, at the age of 75 while marching in support of the United Farm Workers. She was an avid peacemaker and a prolific author. Dorothy died on November 29, 1980, thirty-two years ago at Maryhouse in New York City, where she spent her final months among the poor. She was an average person who read her bible and tried to live and to love like Jesus. She challenges each of us to take seriously the message of the gospel.

In March 2000, the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York City, formally announced the opening of the Beatification Process for this great woman of faith, calling Dorothy a Servant of God. In his letter, he wrote: ‘It has long been my contention that Dorothy Day is a saint – not a ‘gingerbread’ saint or a ‘holy card’ saint, but a modern day devoted daughter of the Church, a daughter who shunned personal aggrandizement and wished that her work, and the work of those who labored at her side on behalf of the poor, might be the hallmark of her life rather than her own self.

Rosica makes a special point about the particular way that Day’s life speaks to us today.

First, it demonstrates the mercy of God, mercy in that a woman who sinned so gravely could find such unity with God upon conversion. Second, it demonstrates that one may turn from the ultimate act of violence against innocent life in the womb to a position of total holiness and pacifism. Her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.

Dorothy Day’s life is a model for each one of us who seeks to understand, love, teach and defend the Catholic faith in our day. She procured an abortion before her conversion to the faith. She regretted it every day of her life. After her conversion from a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo, she proved a stout defender of human life.

May this prophetic woman of our own time give us courage to defend our Catholic faith, especially to uphold the dignity and sacredness of every single human life, from womb to tomb.

DorothyDay, please continue to inspire us. Teach us to love the Word of God and live by it. Move us. Shake us up. Show us how to cherish the gift of human life. May we never forget that we are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us. Lead us to love the poor in our midst. Pray for us!

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When I was reflecting on the Year of Faith in Cardiff, I spoke about the power of witness. I gave the “40 Days for Life” movement as an example of what this can involve, and how effective it can be.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, 40 Days for Life is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. At this very moment, people are keeping vigil. It’s not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.

There are three aspects to the project: prayer and fasting, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.

40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.

So there was a need for another strategy: witness.

First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we’re not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn’t Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.

Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.

And third, and most importantly, there is the witness of charity, of love, in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them possibilities of financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.

40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don’t just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn into conversation, many of whom will have been touched by abortion in some way, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.

Another miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn’t because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.

I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.

[For more information about 40 Days for Life, see the international site here, and the London site here. I shared my own experiences of the vigil in this earlier post.]

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Following on from the Evian pro-life campaign in May, I saw an astonishing poster at Leicester Square tube this afternoon. In a single image, it manages to proclaim the humanity of the unborn child, the vulnerability of this child, and its utter dependence on the goodness of those adults in whose care it finds itself – and on the rest of society.

So there is the tag-line, superimposed on the pregnant mother’s tummy: “Her baby can’t ask you for help, but we can”. A pro-life charity couldn’t have designed a more effective advert.

I wonder if in some small way this will help to change people’s perceptions of the unborn child, to raise consciousness; or at least prod people to join the dots in their moral thinking: Why, as a society, do we want to put money and resources into helping vulnerable children in the womb, when at the same time we are taking away their lives through abortion? Whatever your moral view, it doesn’t make logical sense.

I’d never heard of Sparks, which is running the campaign. So I guess that makes it a successful campaign! It’s a charity ‘For children’s health’, and the vision statement at the top of the website reads, ‘Help more babies be born healthy’. Yes indeed!

You can see their website here. The Bump Campaign page is here. And all the other bump posters of pregnant mothers are here.

I’m not promoting the charity, because I don’t know what its attitude to abortion and selective screening is, or where the money actually goes. Here are the aims from the ‘about’ page:

As a leading children’s medical research charity we are dedicated to funding and championing pioneering research into a range of conditions affecting babies, children and mums-to-be.

Since 1991, we have committed over £23 million into pioneering research projects across a wide spectrum of medical conditions including childhood cancers, cerebral palsy, premature birth and spina bifida. In total, the charity has funded 233 research projects in more than 80 hospitals and universities across the UK.

Through the research we fund, we aim to improve the quality of life for children and families affected by serious illness or disability today, whilst seeking ways to better diagnose, treat and prevent these conditions in the future.

The medical breakthroughs we make possible, make a difference not only across the UK but for thousands of children and families around the world.

The key phrase is: seeking “to better diagnose, treat and prevent these conditions in the future”. Prevention, for many in the UK, means selective termination or embryo screening that results in the destruction of discarded embryos.

If anyone from Sparks ever reads this and can reassure me that the goals of the charity are strictly to help children with medical conditions and not to screen out unhealthy children, then I will be very happy to endorse them! I’m just being cautious because there is so much moral ambiguity in a lot of medical research today.

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When I told a friend I had been at the 40 Days for Life prayer vigil, she told me I should read Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line.

If you haven’t heard of it, here is the blurb:

Abby Johnson quit her job in October 2009. That simple act became a national news story because Abby was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas who, after participating in her first actual abortion procedure, walked across the road to join the Coalition for Life.

Unplanned is a heart stopping personal drama of life-and-death encounters, a courtroom battle, and spiritual transformation that speaks hope and compassion into the political controversy that surrounds this issue. Telling Abby’s story from both sides of the abortion clinic property line, this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the life versus rights debate and helping women who face crisis pregnancies.

In many ways it’s a simple story, simply told. She’s young, idealistic, naive, and a little bit damaged; she ends up working for Planned Parenthood almost by accident; she’s good with people and good at her job; she’s increasingly uneasy about what she is doing and what the organisation stands for; and this is brought to a head when she’s asked to participate directly in an abortion procedure because they need another pair of hands in the theatre.

It’s not a story of a radical pro-abortion campaigner having a sudden conversion; it’s more about how an ordinary person without strong moral convictions and without a habit of reflection can drift into this world and find themselves standing in a place they don’t really want to be. I was struck by her apparent innocence, her naivety; and then by the courageous way she reacted when she knew she was in the wrong place.

You learn a lot about Planned Parenthood and the reality of day-to-day life in an abortion clinic. You see, in a non-judgmental way, how much of this work is motivated by sincerity and misplaced compassion; and it is a credit to Johnson that she writes with kindness and respect for her former colleagues. You also get an insight into the ongoing development of the pro-life movement in the States, and the genuine charity and concern that motivates those involved in the vigil outside the clinic where Johnson worked.

The drama of her final conversion, and her decision to cross the line and seek help from those on the other side is incredibly moving.

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It’s an old trick, and a common childhood game – to cut out an adult head from a magazine photograph and paste it onto the body of a baby. Evian use it on their latest bus-stop advertising campaign.

The first visual message, very boring, is that if you drink a litre of Evian water you will be as stunningly beautiful and alarmingly thin as this model. The second message, slightly tongue-in-cheek, together with the Live Young caption in the corner and the baby’s body T-shirt, is that you will retain the youthfulness, innocence, playfulness and perfect skin that you had when you were a little baby.

The subliminal pro-life message, paid for by Evian, is philosophical: whatever you think about the ‘personhood’ of a baby, this baby is you; you are the same human being; it’s one continuous life; looking backwards – once you were a baby and now you have become an adult; looking forwards – this is the baby who will become (if it survives) an adult.

When I look at a photo of myself at 15 years old, or 5 years, or 5 months, or when I look at an ultrasound scan image of myself at 36 weeks, or 24, or 12 – I say ‘this is me’. It’s a hugely different me, but it’s still me. I ‘identify’ (at a personal level) with this image, with this human being, because there is an ‘identity’ (at a biological and philosophical level) between me today and me back then; just as I identify with the me who existed 2 minutes ago. Identity doesn’t undermine difference – of course there are differences. It just allows you to affirm, at a deeper level, a continuity of existence, and gives you a sound reason for saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘we are the same person’.

The poster reminds you of the continuity between the adult ‘you’ and the infant ‘you’. It doesn’t take much to then make the link between the infant ‘you’ and the ‘you’ in the womb. And that reminds you of the importance of remembering that the human being in the womb is another ‘you’ and not just an ‘it’.

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I’ve managed to get to the 40 Days for Life vigil in central London a couple of times since it started on Ash Wednesday. People gather outside the BPAS abortion clinic in Bedford Square, between Tottenham Court Road station and the British Museum. They pray. They witness peacefully to an alternative vision of life to that offered by the abortion culture. And they offer practical and loving support to women and men who perhaps think they have no alternative to seeking an abortion. It’s non-confrontational and non-judgemental, and it takes place across the street from the clinic so that people visiting there do not have to walk directly past a row of people they would rather avoid. One hour there were two or three people; another time there were about ten.

If you have time, why not try to visit and join the vigil, even if it is just for a few minutes. I know many people will feel uneasy about this – I did myself. There is a natural nervousness about doing anything in public as Christians, and a fear that this could become confrontational, and perhaps a genuine question about whether this kind of witness might be unhelpful and even counter-productive. I had all these questions and all these fears.

In the end, three thoughts persuaded me to go. First, the fact of simply praying must be doing some good. Second, I know not just from reading about it but also from friends involved that this witness has really helped a few people to re-think what they are doing and supported them in keeping their babies; it’s given some people not just a new hope but also the practical support to do what deep down they wanted to do. It’s helped to really change hearts and minds. And third, I am often tempted to go round in circles considering the pros and cons of an argument, and I thought that I should just go and experience for myself what it is all about.

I won’t pretend every moment is easy. Every now and then someone will walk past and make a comment (‘It’s none of your business’, ‘A woman’s right to choose’), and in these moments I feel very awkward, and question what we are doing. But there is a pervading sense of peace and prayerfulness, and a heartfelt charity towards all those involved in the clinic. People at the vigil are not there to judge, but to pray and to offer hope. And you feel the reality of this prayer and hope when you are there, even if it highlights the starkness of the choices many people are facing.

It’s also true that the vigil becomes a small and rare sign in the middle of London, to ordinary passers-by, that abortion is an everyday reality in our city, and that there is another view, another possibility. Abortion is for the most part an unquestioned part of the tapestry of British life. I’m not judging anyone here; I’m judging the culture that normalises abortion and makes it seem strange that people would stand in vigil to offer an alternative voice.

I came away with my faith strengthened, glad to have been able to offer a small witness to life. I also came away encouraged in a very concrete way by the knowledge that when we were there one of the women on the vigil had been able to have a long and much appreciated discussion with someone visiting the clinic. What happened in the end I don’t know, but at least something was offered.

Another strange and unexpected effect on me was the sense of standing with those who are suffering, with those who have no-one else to stand with them – even if it has no ‘practical’ consequence. These innocent human beings who are being aborted have been ‘forgotten’ by their parents, by the doctors, by the nurses; but at least a few people are trying to show that they are not forgotten. It reminded me of the women standing at the foot of the cross – offering their compassion to the crucified Christ, even if this didn’t seem to help him directly.

So the 40 Days for Life vigil seems to me to be about prayer, witness, support and solidarity; things that are undeniably good, even if there remain complex questions about what they mean and how best to express them.

The main website about the London event is here. You can see the international site here. The London Facebook page is here.

This ‘mission statement’ is from the blog.

40 days of peaceful prayer, fasting, and outreach to bring an end to abortion. We will help any person, whether mother, father, relative or friend, facing difficulties and considering an abortion. We also care about those that work at the abortion clinic. We pray for them and hope for their release from the culture of death, recognising that they too are wounded by abortion. We work for a change of hearts and minds, and a culture that defends life from conception.

And this is a summary of what the vigil is all about:

A peaceful and prayerful vigil opposite the abortion facility were countless unborn children are killed everyday. We stand in witness and prayer for the unborn children, their parents, and the people who work in the abortion industry.

Please join us daily anytime between 8am and 8pm, seven days a week.

We ask that each of our participants sign the statement of peace, abide by the law, and remain prayerful.

It is a really great help to the organisers if you could sign-up online and book which times you are able to join us at the vigil. This helps us to know which times are covered and which times need people present. Simply go to this link, sign-up, and choose you days and times.

Location:  North West Corner of Bedford Square, London WC1B 3HP (Directions)
Dates:   February 22, 2012 – April 1, 2012
Time:   STARTS: 8:00 AM     ENDS: 8:00 PM

Here is the ‘statement of peace’ you have to sign if you go as a registered participant:

1. I will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion when volunteering with the 40 Days for Life campaign

2. I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion facility employees, volunteers, and customers

3. I understand that acting in a violent or harmful manner immediately and completely disassociates me from the 40 Days for Life campaign

4. I am in no way associated with the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood or its affiliates by way of employment, informant, volunteer, client, or otherwise

While standing in the city right of way in front of the abortion facility:

5. I will not obstruct the driveways or sidewalk while standing in the public right of way

6. I will not litter on the public right of way

7. I will closely attend to any children I bring to the prayer vigil

8. I will not threaten, physically contact, or verbally abuse the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers, or customers

9. I will not vandalize private property

10. I will cooperate with local city authorities

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I published this piece in Independent Catholic News earlier in the week:

Why is it ‘female infanticide’ to abort a baby girl on the grounds that she is a girl, but not ‘infanticide’ to abort the same baby girl on the grounds that she is just a baby?

The strong and provocative language about ‘female infanticide’ (rather than ‘termination’) and ‘babies’ (rather than ‘fetuses’) isn’t my own, it’s straight from the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

As you have probably heard, undercover reporters working for the paper have found that a number of abortion clinics in this country are willing to arrange terminations on the grounds that the mother or both parents are unhappy about the sex of the baby – which is illegal.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that having an abortion on the grounds of gender is right, or that the abortion law should be changed to include this extra criterion. I’m just perplexed by the selective nature of the moral outrage that has come to the surface in the accompanying comments.

Why is it so wrong to abort this baby on the grounds that she is a baby girl, but not wrong to abort the same baby girl simply on the grounds that she is an unwanted baby? Thousands of baby girls and baby boys are aborted every week, and this doesn’t make the front page of the Telegraph. But the fact that some of them are being aborted because they are baby girls suddenly becomes an issue of national concern – even though if the same baby girls had been aborted for different reasons, this would have gone unquestioned.

I know the possible answers: It’s because one kind of abortion is illegal, but the other is not; it’s because one kind of abortion seems to be chosen for a trivial reason, or a sexist reason, or a reason that arises from an alien culture, etc., but the other seems to be chosen for more weighty and culturally acceptable reasons. It’s because, in the terms of moral philosophy, the motivation behind the decision does in some ways affect the moral character of the act.

But this is what lies at the root of my own perplexity at the selective moral response: the outcome is the same in both cases; the harm done to the ‘baby girl’ (using the language of the Telegraph) is the same in both cases – whether it’s done for apparently trivial reasons (‘she’s the wrong gender’) or apparently more serious reasons (‘we simply can’t cope with another child right now’, etc). The motivation doesn’t make any difference to what actually takes place in each case.

I’m not making a point here about whether abortion is right or wrong (although I do believe that it’s wrong). I’m saying something simpler, in the light of this discussion about sex selection: If it is wrong and morally shocking (because it is wrong to abort a ‘baby girl’ or a ‘baby boy’), then it is still wrong and morally shocking to do it for reasons that are legal, or for reasons that seem more culturally acceptable or serious. It is the same act, the same harm, the same outcome.

Put another way, if we feel moral outrage because a 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the hospital down the road, on the grounds of her sex, why do we not feel a comparable moral outrage because another 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the same hospital on the same day but on different grounds? The selective moral outrage feels a bit narrow, a bit arbitrary – as if there is some kind of wilful blindness.

This is the soundbite from Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, quoted in the same article:

Carrying out an abortion on the grounds of gender alone is in my view morally repugnant.

But why only on these grounds?

And here are some comments from Allison Pearson, also writing in the Telegraph:

Just imagine the idea that babies are being culled because of their gender in the UK today. Unbelievable. Horrifying. Yet, that is precisely what an undercover investigation by this newspaper has revealed – and today, shockingly, we learn that an expert believes the practice is “widespread”. I actually shouted aloud with dismay when I read the stories.

A woman who was 12 weeks pregnant had an appointment with the Calthorpe Clinic and explained to a doctor that she and her partner wished to terminate the pregnancy because they “don’t want a girl”. A certain Dr Raj responded, “That’s not fair. It’s like female infanticide, isn’t it?” He then proceeded calmly to fill out a form for the abortion, casually giving a different reason to the mum and dad simply not fancying a baby girl. “I’ll put too young for pregnancy, yeah?”

Most appalling of all is that the doctor’s response proves he knows that what the woman is proposing is deeply wrong, even criminal, yet he happily suggests another reason to get the abortion done. It’s as though he were penning some excuse for a work sick-note, not aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby when the only thing “wrong” with it is it hasn’t got a willy.

Pearson is so outraged that she ‘shouted aloud with dismay’ when she read the stories. This is a writer who goes on to admit that she supports abortion if it is ‘safe, legal and rare’ (quoting Bill Clinton). I certainly give her credit for writing about the ‘moral coarsening’ that has taken place since abortion became legal in this country, and for reflecting on the “slippery slope leads from guilt-free annual terminations – three for two, anybody? – to a “gender-balancing” service, which helps you plan the perfect family by vacuuming away infants of the wrong sex.”

But Pearson doesn’t shout aloud with dismay if someone else chooses to ‘vacuum away’ a 12 week old ‘infant’ if they are unwanted for another more socially or culturally acceptable reason. That’s what really puzzles me. It could be the same ‘infant’, the same ‘vacuuming away’, the same ‘aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby’ (her language) – but without the outrage.

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There have been various reports recently about a new test for Down’s syndrome that could be offered to pregnant women by the NHS within a few months. Unlike the tests used at present (amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling), the new techniques are non-invasive and low risk; they work by analysing DNA from the foetus in the mother’s blood. The company Sequenom has already introduced such tests in the United States. [See, for example, Mark Henderson's report in The Times, 29 Oct 2011, p3]

In itself, there is nothing morally wrong with pre-natal diagnostic testing, and it can bring a number of benefits. It can help parents to come to terms with a child’s disabilities early on; to prepare (psychologically and practically) for the birth of their child; and in some cases it can alert parents and doctors to the medical support and intervention that might be needed after the birth, and even before it. So there can be good reasons for parents to choose to have different kinds of pre-natal tests.

But the reality is that in most cases (about 90%), a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome in pregnancy becomes not a means to support the unborn child but a reason to abort it. So anyone with a concern for the unborn child, and anyone aware of the various psychological and social pressures on parents to choose to abort their Down’s syndrome child, might feel justifiable unease and even alarm at the advent of this new test. It’s not to be anti-science or anti-progress; it’s to recognise that some scientific advances can bring more harm than good when they are used without moral discrimination.

The reality is that eugenic screening and termination has become an accepted and largely unquestioned part of the British moral landscape, ever since disability became one of the grounds for abortion. It’s one example of how a change in law doesn’t just reflect the mores of a culture, but it actually helps to reshape them. It is now socially acceptable in Britain to think and say that people with Down’s syndrome have no right to be born, and consequently no right to live, simply on the grounds of their disability. (Eugenics: ‘the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics’; Oxford Dictionaries.) The intention of the parents or of the medical establishment may not be strictly eugenic (there are many complicated reasons why parents make these choices); but the background assumptions of a culture which is at ease with selective abortion on the grounds of disability are surely eugenic, in that such a culture has already decided that a certain category of human beings does not have the same dignity or rights as others, and that their exclusion will not harm the common good.

Isn’t it strange that this unacknowledged acceptance of eugenics sits side by side with an increasing social abhorrence of any form of prejudice against disabled people. In the same month that this test was publicised in the British media, which will allow more efficient screening for Down’s syndrome and probably lead to further abortions, Ricky Gervais is vilified for using the word ‘mong’ as a term of abuse, because of its associations (via ‘mongoloid’) with people with Down’s syndrome. (See Joe Public’s Guardian blog here.)

In 2001 the Disability Rights Commission was brave enough to put into words the very obvious link between the disability clauses of the 1967 Abortion Act and public prejudice against disabled people (much to the annoyance of Polly Toynbee):

The Section [1(1)d] is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally.

In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally.

Here are Betsy Hart’s thoughtful comments on the testing issue [people in the US prefer 'Down syndrome' to 'Down's syndrome'; see the explanation here]:

The vast majority of instances of Down syndrome occur in babies carried by women 35 and younger, but that age group has historically been less likely to get tested. Now a simple and accurate blood test for this condition can be safely and routinely administered to virtually anyone who wants it as long as a doctor authorizes it.

So for the math: If more than 90 percent of women who find out they are pregnant with a baby with Down syndrome abort, does this mean we might eventually have almost no babies born with Down syndrome? Will we have gotten rid of a supposedly “undesired” human condition by getting rid of the people themselves who carry it?

And what does that do to the rest of us? I am the first to admit that I’m not signed up on any “adopt a baby with Down syndrome” list. I also didn’t sign up on the “raising four children on my own” list. We never know what challenges life is going to present. Accordingly, what a false sense of security a “no Down syndrome” test result can give parents.

Sure, the new test is just a tool, after all. If used to prepare expectant parents for a baby with Down syndrome so they can learn about the condition before their little one enters the world, great. Maybe they can be assured that life expectancies and outcomes for children with Down syndrome are so much better now.

Early intervention for cognitive development and surgical and other treatments for physical impairments have fundamentally and positively changed the playing field for babies born with Down syndrome today.

But how many minds will change when they have this information? We live in a supposedly humane and tolerant age. I question that. Not when we apparently still have so little tolerance for humanity that might be a little different.

I don’t doubt (and I know from the experience of parents themselves) what a huge shock and a huge challenge it can be when parents discover that their unborn child might have a disability. That’s one reason why it’s so heartening to read various personal stories that have come into the media in the light of the publicity about these new tests; above all from parents who might not have been particularly pro-life, but have had a kind of conversion through learning to love and value their disabled children in ways they never imagined would have been possible at first. Bonnie Rochman reports:

For Amy Julia Becker, who has written a book about life with her daughter, Penny, who has Down syndrome, coming to terms with her daughter’s intellectual limitations has taken time. “I went to Princeton, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, I have always been smart,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I assumed I’d have a daughter just like me. Having Penny really challenged me to rethink what it means to be a whole and full human being.”

In her book, A Good and Perfect Gift, Becker transcribes a journal entry written soon after Penny was born: “Can she live a full life without without ever solving a quadratic equation? Without reading Dostoyevsky? I’m pretty sure she can. Can I live a full life without learning to cherish and welcome those in this world who are different from me? I’m pretty sure I can’t.”

But many expectant parents don’t feel that way. Up to 90% of women who know in advance of a Down syndrome diagnosis choose to end the pregnancy, according to the few studies that have tracked this. The new test is not being marketed only to women who would end a Down syndrome pregnancy, say advocates of testing. Mothers who plan to have the baby may also want to know ahead of time in order to prepare emotionally and medically; half of infants with Down syndrome, for example, are born with heart defects. “I don’t think it’s all search-and-destroy,” says Canick. “That is an awful way of looking at this.”

But parents of children with Down syndrome are skeptical of the intent of early screening. “There is a real disconnect between hospitals, administrators and OB/GYN doctors’ understanding of what has changed for children with Down syndrome over the years,” says Howard, whose daughter, Lydia, starts conversations with strangers and cracks jokes in her inclusive preschool. “There was encouragement to get screened with the understanding that I would terminate because that’s what most people do.”

It’s true that mothers who learn soon after delivery that their babies have Down syndrome describe being overwhelmed with sorrow and disbelief on what they’d presumed would a joyous day. Howard cried every day for nine months after Lydia was born. Perkins McLaughlin says it took her eight hours after her C-section to muster the nerve to go visit her daughter, Gracie, in the neonatal intensive care unit. “There are people out there who feel the test is great,” says Perkins McLaughlin. “In some ways, it is great. But it is scary too. Will more people terminate because it’s earlier in the pregnancy and why not just try again? I don’t know what I would have done if I had found out at 10 weeks.”

Gracie is now 3 1/2. In the two years since Perkins McLaughin, now 44, has served as a parent mentor for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, she’s told the dozen or so conflicted pregnant women who have contacted her that Gracie is bright: she started signing at six months and had accumulated 100 signs by age 2, prompting her grandmother to ask, Are you sure she has Down syndrome? She loves music, dancing and her older brother and sister. Perkins McLaughin tells them how Gracie has added perspective to her life, softening her Type-A edges. “She’s not going to do quantum physics, but I don’t do quantum physics,” says Perkins McLaughin. “Gracie has showed me in a profound way that I am not in control of everything. I have a bumper sticker that says, Grace Happens.”

I wonder if serious reflection on ‘disablist’ prejudices and disability rights in this country will eventually lead us to reconsider the inherently eugenic abortion laws we have at present.

For more information about Down’s syndrome, see the Down’s Syndrome Association website here.

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