Dr Jovina James is a GP with a keen interest in palliative care and all things family medicine. She was raised and educated in Sydney but she and her husband Gabriel moved to Queensland in 2015. They have three earthly children and one in Heaven. This is part of the talk she shared with guests at the Emily’s Voice gala fundraising dinner in Toowoomba on Saturday. She brings to light an alarming trend towards the normalising of eugenics.
Abortion is not just becoming a way of eliminating an unwanted child based on difficult circumstances, but eliminating unwanted features from our families, and the human race. This practice harks back to eugenics.
Eugenics – “the science of improving stock” – first came to be in the late 19th century and fast became fashionable in the US in the early 20th century, with eugenics societies becoming popular among intellectuals, particularly at Ivy League universities. Projects were enacted to limit birth rates among black communities, and even forbid people with epilepsy from marrying. By 1931, 48 US states had legislated for forced sterilisation of the unfit.
Who was Marie Stopes?
Marie Stopes, for whom the largest abortion-provider in Australia is named, is one who subscribed to eugenics avidly. A brilliant British young scientist, she was a trailblazer in the study of paleobotany in the early 20th century, and the youngest person to gain a doctorate in science at the time. Not content to stick to her own field of study, she pursued her agenda of eugenics, appalled at the “ever increasing stock of degenerate, feeble-minded and unbalanced who are now in our midst and who devastate social customs. These populate most rapidly and tend proportionately to increase and these are like the parasite upon the healthy tree sapping its vitality.”
To Stopes’ thinking, “when Bills are passed to ensure the sterility of the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased… our race will rapidly quell the stream of the depraved, hopeless and wretched lives which are at present increasing in proportion in our midst”.
Obsessed with trying to improve the British race, she lobbied parliament to legislate for forced sterilisation for substandard humans, advocated that half-caste children be sterilised at birth, and that one third of British men should be forcibly sterilised, “starting with the ugly and the unfit”.
Marie Stopes had one son. When he married a girl with glasses, she disinherited him as she was concerned that the girl’s myopia would most reprehensibly be passed down to any grandchildren.
As a side note: she died from breast cancer. I wonder, if she’d know that she may have been carrying a gene that predisposed her to developing breast cancer, if she’d have advocated for her own forced sterilisation.
Over in the US, a similar tone was rising, fuelled by blatant racism.
Now, some of you may be thinking ‘well perhaps breeding out the undesirable traits was not such a bad thing.’ But I’ll remind you that this kind of thinking resulted in the greatest mass murder of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, after the atrocities of Nazi Germany eugenics rapidly became a dirty word.
Eugenics was dead.
And yet it has crept back in. Liberal eugenics – where parents are given the ability to select desirable traits in their unborn.
The problems with genetic engineering, or modern day eugenics, are several:
- It denies the inherent dignity of every member of the human family. Our dignity (and therefore our rights) are not derived from our abilities or race or gender but from our shared humanity. Whenever we deviate from this, society falters. It devalues any of those who are imperfect in our society.
“The best chapters in our history have been when we have recognised the innate dignity of others. But our worst have been when people with rights have decided that others shouldn’t have them too.” – Dominic Perottet.
There will always be imperfection, no matter how good we are at searching out birth defects in-utero and eliminating them. So how will it affect our treatment of the imperfect who aren’t born disabled but become that way? Autism, mental health, stroke patients, car accident victims? If we are systematically targeting the disabled for termination, the disabled in our community will become increasingly looked upon as remnants that should never have been allowed to be born. How do you think children with Down syndrome in Iceland are treated? You cannot logically and meaningfully extol the value of Stephen Hawking’s life and simultaneously advocate that any future human beings with MND should be terminated.
- It decreases our inclination to endeavour. For example, gene therapy.
Spinal Muscular Atrophy is a genetic defect which results in progressive muscle wasting, often in infancy and childhood. It is a leading genetic cause of death in infancy. It is obviously a devastating condition and recently there have been calls to fund prenatal testing for the genetic cause in order to terminate babies with this condition. This year, a gene therapy has actually been developed to slow the progress: Zolgensma. And it costs over $2 million. The process by which novel medications become cheaper is a complicated one. But will this occur if babies with SMA are being terminated out of existence? If we routinely search and destroy children with SMA will we ever get a chance to see how effective this therapy can be? Will we ever get a chance to imagine the possibilities? Right now, a tremendous amount of research goes into finding the cause of autism. What if a biomarker became available that allowed prenatal detection of ASD in the unborn baby? What do you think would happen to those babies then? And to the research efforts?
- It closes our minds to the very valuable contributions that disabled people make to our lives. I’m not speaking of this in some sort of abstract manner either. My 32-year-old brother-in-law, Tom, has Down syndrome, and he is the only one in his large and chaotic family who can bring everyone together, on the same page. If you’d told me when my oldest son was born, that at age five he still wouldn’t be able to run or climb very well, I’d have imagined a terrible quality of life. And yet he is a fulfilled, thoughtful, creative little boy. I have no idea what my youngest son’s life will be like. On paper, it may not look very good. But I’m glad I don’t have that crystal ball, because it would prevent me from allowing him to grow my heart each day with him.
I can sum up all these three problems by quoting one appalling speech by NSW MP Jenny Aitchison during the NSW abortion debate:
“I did not know I had the genetic disorder; I can tell the House that I wish I had. I love my daughter and my son so much. But if I knew when I was pregnant that there was a chance that I would be putting them through the past 10 years of my life I would have had an abortion straight away—because I love them and I know the pain that I have dealt with. I have woken up some days thinking, “What is the point of my life?” because I could be dead soon.”
This is a mother saying to her children: your life, and my life, are not worth living.
The reality of modern eugenics
So we have come to a modern eugenics, a purification of the human race that is not state-enforced, but now consumer driven, under the influence and facilitation of some within the medical profession. At its core, it involves a decision about whether a human life is worth living.
I also ask you to consider the effect that a eugenic mindset has on the medical profession, because I’m afraid to say that amongst my colleagues there is an ever more prevalent stench of elitist paternalism when it comes to who should be allowed to have babies and which babies should be allowed to live.
The medical profession, so beleaguered by fears of litigation for “wrongful birth” and so ironically xenophobic of disability in general, has lost the ability to imagine the possibility of living a good life with a disability.
The parent that chooses to terminate their child based on their disability is a parent who cannot imagine that their child will have a meaningful life. Who cannot imagine that their own life with a disabled child could be any good.
But I invite you to imagine the possibilities.
Consider Kris and Paul ScharounDeForge, who met at a social event for young people with Down syndrome and fell in love. They married and had a happy, successful 25-year marriage.
So where to from here?
John O’Connor was the Catholic Archbishop of New York City from 1984 to 2000. A giant of a man with a military background, he was known for his outspokenness and passionate engagement in social dialogue. After every Sunday Mass at New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, he would give a press conference during which the NY media liked to pepper him with controversial questions. And at the end of each press conference he would do exactly the same thing: he’d stare directly at the camera and ask if there were any women out there in crisis pregnancy, to come to him and he’d assist them.
The media never once let that offer go to air.
This is what we’re up against. And this is why it’s so important that we focus on winning over hearts and minds bit by bit. To invite people into conversation to imagine the possibilities when we value human life in all its imperfections.
How do each of us invite our fellow human beings to imagine the possibilities? I would propose that we show them by not sugar-coating. By showing them life is never perfect. That parenthood never turns out how we expect it will, that our children are never perfect! But that with every imperfection comes a challenge to love more deeply, and to find the value in moments that might seem worthless. And that we will walk with them on this challenging journey.
I know that, at the most difficult moments in my motherhood journey, when I felt unable to imagine life ever being good again, all my husband and I had to do was look around and see that we were not alone, that we were never going to walk our parenting journey alone, and that our children will be accepted and loved always. Imagine if every struggling family had that kind of support around them.
Let us not lose heart.
Even if we believe the political battle is lost, we now know that the battle for the unborn is now to take place in the hearts and minds of the people of Australia.
Remember that Western society has recovered from horrible atrocities against the dignity of human beings even in the past century. Remember that infanticide was once commonplace but is not something we allowed to be passed down to our culture from Ancient Rome. Remember the beautiful rally that occurred in Sydney on Tuesday. Take heart that scores of young women are going off to join an order of nuns in the USA dedicated to assisting women in crisis pregnancies, that in Europe there are pro-life parties being elected to government in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Estonia. Every civilisation has periods of deterioration, decline, and regeneration. As improbable as it seems, heart by heart, we can turn it around.