By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Humankind has grappled with the ethics of eugenics for millennia. The practice can be traced, famously, back to ancient Sparta, which was revered for its military prowess and position as one of the most powerful city-states in all of Greece. The philosophy of selective breeding was promoted by the philosopher Plato, who suggested in The Republic that human reproduction should be overseen and controlled by the state, which would institute a system that would pair “high-numbered” people (or people with conventionally desired or advantageous characteristics) with other high-numbered people. He believed this would lead to the improvement of the human race. The Spartans, who valued human strength required for their militias, embraced this notion. In Sparta the city elders would inspect newborn babies, deciding whether they were worthy of life or death. Often, the babies who were deemed unfit for life would be the disabled or “weaker” children who were typically left out to die, exposed to the elements. (Plutarch wrote that these infants were left at the foot of the Taygetus mountain range, whose peak was dedicated to Zeus. Other civilizations (most notably the Roman Republic) also followed a similar system, but the Spartans are the most well-known for it. Adolf Hitler considered Sparta the first “Völkisch state” and praised it for the practice of infanticide.
In the December issue of The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang published an article entitled, “The Last Children of Down Syndrome.” This piece discusses prenatal testing for Down Syndrome, among other genetic “defects,” in Denmark and its relation to abortion. According to Zheng’s article, over 95 percent of parents who receive a positive Down Syndrome diagnosis elect to abort their children, resulting in a very disturbing statistic from 2019 that only 18 children with Down Syndrome were born in Denmark that year (a country with a population of about 5.8 million in 2019).
Although Zhang attempts to be somewhat non-partisan in her presentation of what is happening in Denmark, giving both pros and cons to the debate surrounding this type of abortion, it is undeniable that her piece ultimately serves as a justification for what the country is doing to unborn children with Down Syndrome and may be regarded simply as supportive of modern-day eugenics and selective-breeding.
Zhang’s piece includes interviews with parents from both sides of the spectrum: those who chose to let their children with Down Syndrome live, and those who chose abortion. Admittedly, Zhang does say that many people who have had, or support having, an abortion due to a disability are uncomfortable coming forward and saying so. She attributes this hesitation to the sensitivity Europeans have to past histories of “experimentation,” particularly that of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. She also reflects on the views of bioethicists who discuss morality in regard to abortion and take into consideration genetic abnormalities. On the whole, though, Zhang seems to be more sympathetic to the point of view that this type of eugenics, in the context of abortion, is for the greater good. She illustrates this point by saying that for many, abortion is a decision that will not only eliminate hardships and struggles for the to-be parents of a child with special needs (like Down Syndrome), but also will prevent the pain and obstacles a child would face if born with a disability.
These views are simply preposterous. Humanizing abortion is an impossible feat, and there is simply nothing that is humane about eugenics. The rationalization of what can be considered a widespread and unabashed genocide of a “scientifically” weaker portion of the population is reprehensible; but, unfortunately, it is tolerated. How can this be? Looking back at history, it is easy to recognize that what the Spartans, the Nazis, and even what racially-motivated eugenicist turned “feminist icon” Margaret Sanger did was incredibly and morally wrong. Leaving a newborn out to die because of the “difficulty” they may pose to society is not ethical, so why is abortion based on prenatal disability testing any different?
My Uncle Hippocrates was born with severe cerebral palsy. As a son of two Greek immigrants, he has had to face countless challenges throughout his life. Unable to walk, use his hands, or even speak remotely clearly, he has been constantly put down by others who do not understand—or do not wish to understand— the great suffering he must endure. While he was growing up, my grandparents made limitless sacrifices to support him with therapy, doctor’s appointments, and handicap-accessible schools. Though he faced so much hardship and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he pushed himself to his limits, determined to not let his God-given gift of life go to waste. Now, after years of tremendous work and having taken advantage of the opportunities bestowed upon him by living in the United States of America, he is a respected attorney for New York City and strives every day to better the world around him. In addition to that, my uncle motivates me every day to be the best possible person I can be. I am inspired by his humor, dedication, and love, and hope to one day be as influential as he is.
Living in a country that does not promote the idea of aborting a child simply because of a disability is a gift. Without my uncle I would be an entirely different person from who I am today, and the world would be a different place without him in it. Take a moment to think—how different would our world be if that 95 percent of Danish children with Down Syndrome were still here with us today?
Anastasia Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Presidential Scholar majoring in Classics at the College of the Holy Cross. She is a features editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, associate editor of the Parnassus Classical Journal, author of Milkshake: A Very Special Pony, recipient of the 2019 NYC Scholastic Writing Award, and an advocate for children with special needs. Anastasia has contributed to WestView News since 2018.