Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
When Reuters reported that Pope Francis had likened the now-routine practice of aborting children with potential birth defects to the Nazis’ campaign “to pursue the pureness of the race,” Facebook users called for fact checkers to review the story.
The Vatican then confirmed that the pope had indeed made the following remarks during an address to the Italian Family Association: “In the last century the whole world was scandalized by what the Nazis did to pursue the pureness of the race. Today, we are doing the same thing, with white gloves.”
The Nazis' eugentics program has never drawn sufficient scrutiny and condemnation, so it's no surprise that Facebook users failed to grasp the connection between Hitler’s murderous regime and our modern, sanitized practice of destroying unborn children who have been diagnosed with Down syndrome and other serious conditions.
But if you visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s online encyclopedia, you'll be presented with the facts of Germany’s clandestine eugenics program that murdered disabled children and adults, predating the campaign against Jewish victims by two years.
“The program was one of many radical eugenic measures which aimed to restore the racial ‘integrity’ of the German nation,” reads the museum’s encyclopedia.
“It aimed to eliminate what eugenicists and their supporters considered ‘life unworthy of life’: those individuals who — they believed — because of severe psychiatric, neurological or physical disabilities represented both a genetic and a financial burden on German society and the state.”
The secret campaign to eliminate disabled children began in the spring and summer of 1939, under the supervision of Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, among others.
The Reich Ministry of the Interior required “all physicians, nurses, and midwives to report newborn infants and children under the age of three who showed signs of severe mental or physical disability.”
Later, the parents of children with disabilities were directed to admit them to “specially designated pediatric clinics throughout Germany and Austria.”
The parents were told that children would receive treatment.
“In reality, the clinics were children's killing wards. There, specially recruited medical staff murdered their young charges by lethal overdoses of medication or by starvation.”
Within two years, German physicians would also be required to lend a veneer of medical professionalism to Hitler's genocidal war against the Jewish people that culminated with the gas chambers.
The pope linked these brutal practices to our modern regime of prenatal screening and pregnancy termination because we have become morally complacent.
The elimination of “life unworthy of life” — the unborn child with an extra copy of Chromosome 21 — has been de-stigmatized and even endorsed.
In a 2018 column for the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus, deputy senior page editor, defended a woman's “right” to abort a child diagnosed with Down syndrome, and said she would have done the same if one of her two children faced a lifetime of physical and intellectual impairment.
Marcus did not deny the humanity of these unborn children. “Many people with Down syndrome live happy and fulfilled lives,” she said.
But that didn't matter. The important thing was her freedom to choose, to impose her will.
“That was not the child I wanted,” she said. “You can call me selfish, or worse, but I am in good company. The evidence is clear that most women confronted with the same unhappy alternative would make the same decision.”
Pope Francis, our pastor in chief, has witnessed this dark impulse first hand. Some parents are not prepared to care for a child with disabilities. They seek "a more tranquil life," he obsreved, and so "an innocent is done away with.”
The pope is not the only one to make the connection between past and present, between the "children's killing wards" of Hitler's Germany and the death-dealing practices of 21st Century prenatal screening.
Earlier this year, Stephen Camarata , a columnist for Psychology Today, took note of Iceland’s recent boast that it had “cured” Down syndrome through a systematic process of prenatal screening, and pregnancy termination, when needed.
“It is sad to contemplate that a word [‘to cure’] that for centuries meant ‘the care of souls’ has now come to mean ‘making sure that people with Down syndrome are never born.’
“One could argue that ‘eradicate’ or ‘purge’ or even ‘cleanse’ are much more accurate words …”
“Human society has been down this path before — many times — with uniformly horrific consequences,” he said, and pointed to “the Holocaust in Germany” and the role played by Nazi doctors who began by embracing the notion of “life unworthy of life.”
So why don't more Americans know that the destruction of disabled children and adults helped to prepare the way for the Final Solution?
Perhaps we do not want to know. We do not want to make the connection because our modern campaign against "life unworthy of life" has become commonplace, acceptable, and even justifiable.