What’s wrong with screening for disabilities?

In a recent article on the Daily Life, Alecia Simmonds looks at the problems of screening foetuses for disabilities. She makes a strong argument, and brings together a lot of the criticisms of disability screening. Most importantly, she briefly looks at the idea that making an informed decision on whether or not to have disabled child is not actually a choice with equal options. If society does not support one option, if life will be more difficult financially, if it will strain the relationship with your partner, if people will see your choice as a ‘tax burden’, if the majority will consider your choice foolish, then really, what choice do you really have?

But she also throws in a bit of hyperbole to her essay. In referring to a German study which found that 90% of women whose foetuses were diagnosed with Down Syndrome terminated the pregnancy, Alecia says “as a society we are on a nightmarish quest for biological perfection and crushing normality.”

I would consider a nightmarish quest for biological perfection to be the kind seen in Gattaca, where we choose our child’s eye colour, their height, their intellect, their athletic ability (which many of us already do, in choosing a mate. We don’t choose who we are attracted to, but surprisingly, it’s not the disfigured midgets who cant pass an IQ test or catch a ball that are getting all the dates). Choosing not to give birth to a child that will lead a significantly impaired lifestyle is hardly in the same category. These children may well lead happy lives, but they are not ignorant to the things they will miss out on in life. Choosing to bring them into a world where most will be deprived of many simple pleasures like steady work, independent travel, relationships or a family of their own, when they had the option not to, could almost be considered cruel.

Of course, saying this in public is always a dangerous thing to do. Alecia sums it up here:

“I once told Toby that I was helping an academic with some research on the politics of aborting foetuses with disabilities. ‘But that’s ridiculous’ he scoffed. ‘That’s like saying I shouldn’t have been born’. He laughed, but beneath it you could see the hurt. The unspeakable agony and outrage of being told that the world would have been better off without you.”

Because people think that if you are pro-disability screening, you are making a statement that disabled people are better off never having been born. That the world would be better off without them.

If disability screening was allowed, Toby may not have been born, correct. But let’s not forget that at the time he may have been aborted, he wouldn’t have been ‘Toby’. He would have been an unnamed zygote. Or a foetus. Which to many, many people, is not that dissimilar from any of the other sperms or eggs that are expelled during masturbation or menstruation. Just like the woman who chooses an abortion because it will interfere with her career, or she is unable to support a child, or it will interfere with her general lifestyle, Toby could have been terminated because the life he will lead will automatically put the woman, and the child itself, at a disadvantage. ‘Toby’ could instead, be the next ‘healthy’ foetus. The next sperm and egg to combine that will not enter the world immediately set up for a life of challenges and hurdles that will affect everyone around him.

It may be a societal problem that disabled people are not well enough supported, and it is a pity that they are not, but it is a fact. Most parents do not have the time and resources to adequately care for a disabled child.

I do not believe the world is better off without disabled people – in fact, I think the diversity makes the world a more colourful, wonderful place. Disabilities people make society more tolerant, more accepting and kinder. They teach all of us about perseverance and overcoming challenges and contribute to a society of humility and humbleness. Many people with disabilities are also capable of incredible feats – the Paralympics certainly proved that and there are countless examples of artists and geniuses who battled with disability.

But there should be no obligation to bring a disabled child into the world, nor should there be resistance against disability screening. Is it taking the easy route? Yes. But why shouldn’t we? Raising a child is hard enough as it is. Why should we be expected to accept the random chance that it will be one hundred-times harder? We may love them unconditionally. They may even be one of the lucky ones who can live close to a normal life. But aborting a foetus that will be born disabled causes no more harm than aborting one who will get in the way of your career. Choice allows us to be selfish. Not all people will be. We accepted it in the 1960s with birth control. Why not accept it now?