Abortion Has Paved the Way for Rejecting the Fundamental Equality of Those With Profound Disabilities

COMMENTARY: Misleading concepts like ‘reproductive freedom,’ ‘a woman’s right to choose’ and ‘fetal abnormalities’ hide from both personal and public consciousness what is actually going on.

Being human was no longer what mattered. Being human — plus certain desirable abilities is what mattered, the new thinking goes.
Being human was no longer what mattered. Being human — plus certain desirable abilities is what mattered, the new thinking goes. (photo: Tatiana Dyuvbanova / Shutterstock)

I described it as saying the quiet part out loud

In response to Texas’ new law protecting prenatal children after they have a detectable heartbeat, the president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, Richard Hanania, offered the following observation:

“You can’t screen for Down syndrome before about 10 weeks, and something like 80% of Down syndrome fetuses are aborted. If red states ban abortion, we could see a world where they have five times as many children with Down syndrome, and similar numbers for other disabilities. Could be outliers in the whole developed world. There are already negative stereotypes of Americans in these states, one can imagine it getting much more extreme. What if they also ban genetic engineering and embryo selection, while other places go ahead?”

A former scholar at Columbia University, Hanania’s stated views here may seem shocking, but he’s offering a relatively common view (though privately held) for everyone to see. He’s right to note that the overwhelming majority of prenatal children who are thought to have Down syndrome are killed via the violence of abortion. He is also right to note that, though it isn’t generally spoken about in polite company, this rate of slaughter for the disabled is consistent right throughout the developed world.

That’s the way throwaway culture works. Misleading concepts like “reproductive freedom,” “a woman’s right to choose” and “fetal abnormalities” hide from both personal and public consciousness what is actually going on: the violent marginalization of entire groups of disabled people because they don’t have the kinds of lives we find valuable. Indeed, with tests for Down syndrome around 10 weeks and other “abnormalities” at 20 weeks (charmingly named “the genetic consult”), the very structures of health care for pregnant women are shaped by a throwaway culture that considers certain kinds of human beings disposable. 

In my recent book, Losing Our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine Has Undermined Fundamental Human Equality, I tell the story of how we got to this kind of horrific place. 

Originally founded as a country moving toward the goal (however imperfectly) of acting consistently on the fact that all human beings are equal in fundamental dignity simply because they shared a common nature, bearing the image and likeness of God, the United States is now in the process of realizing the implications of rejecting this theological principle. We now consider human beings valuable only because they have a certain kind of rationality, self-awareness, autonomy and productivity. 

My argument is that we started on this path when we said that human beings who were “brain dead” were actually dead — despite being able to do things that living human beings do: like gestate prenatal children to a successful birth, fight off infections, respond to bodily trauma with an increased heart rate and adrenaline and even, perhaps, move on command. Once we established that principle, it was easy to move next to the so-called “permanent vegetative state” and even neurologically devastated toddlers like Alfie Evans and Charlie Gard. 

Being human was no longer what mattered. Being human — plus certain desirable abilities is what mattered. 

In most other contexts (at least those in which throwaway culture isn’t hiding what is actually going on), we have recognized these attitudes and practices as a kind of ableism. That is, as a wrongful discrimination against human beings based on their disabilities. But the difficulty now is that we have established a vision of the good that makes it extremely difficult to condemn such ableism. For we have established that certain abilities (again, rationality, self-awareness, autonomy and productivity) are that which makes us valuable. Ableism is now baked into the cake of our cultural ethos.

Losing Our Dignity is at pains to point out where we are headed next as a throwaway culture that discards people without the relevant traits — and I think the next shoe to drop will be disabled human beings with Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia. After all, as these diseases progress, they often rob the person of his rationality and self-awareness — while making them dependent and needy. 

How long until we apply our (throwaway) cultural views consistently here and include these populations as “human non-persons” who are unworthy of resources and perhaps use violence to kill them “in their own best interests”? If the history I lay out in my book is any guide, this will come sooner than we think. Indeed, many of those who are able-bodied are already neglecting these disabled populations in ways that suggest we do not think of them as our equals. Indeed, one of the silver linings of the pandemic was that it forced us to look at how we treat these populations in ways that not even throwaway culture could hide. 

What to do in response? Losing Our Dignity offers short-, medium- and longer-term approaches to take toward resisting these terrible trends. 

But here’s perhaps the most important overall recommendation: It is time to stand firm in defense of the explicitly theological reason all human beings share fundamental equality with one another. It is because we have a common nature, which bears the image and likeness of God. Period.

Many of us committed to this belief have spent the last several decades retreating from it — and from making theological claims more broadly. We’ve dissembled our way through making the case for human dignity in our public debates. At best, we’ve translated our theological views into a foreign philosophical or political language which doesn’t come close to comparing with the beauty and power of the actual theological truth. 

Enough of this. The stakes are simply too high as next another group of human beings stands on the verge of losing their dignity and fundamental human equality. We must proudly and forcefully assert the fact that all of us share a common human nature, that this nature bears the image and likeness of God, and that our value comes not from what we can do — but from who we are.

Charles Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University.