Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2003 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Feticide, as peace of mind | The good news is that scientific testing is getting more and more sensitive; the bad news is that humans remain as insensitive as ever.

Between modern medicine and mod language, we're now able to describe feticide - never call it that! - as peace of mind. The story, on Page 2 of the morning paper, caught my attention. ("New testing method spots Down's Syndrome earlier")

How's that for good news? The opening paragraph of the AP story sounds as sunny as a spring day, as therapeutic as modern medicine, as cheering as a baby's first smile:

"A new combination of blood tests and ultrasound can detect fetuses with Down's Syndrome sooner and more accurately than standard U.S. screening tests, offering mothers-to-be more peace of mind and more time to decide whether to end a pregnancy, researchers say."

O frabjous day! It's now possible to know weeks earlier than before whether a woman is carrying a Down's Syndrome child. To what end? To somehow eliminate the disability? Don't be silly. The tests are conducted so that, if the disability is detected, we can eliminate the child.

"The absolute biggest advantage," explains Dr. Ronald Wapner of Drexel University in Philadelphia, "is this allows women to make private decisions" before they are visibly pregnant. No one need know. Well, almost no one.

If that isn't good news, what is?

OK, maybe it's not such good news for Down's children, but the tests will surely be welcomed by all those who don't want their kind around anymore.

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And this could be just the start. Abortion's slippery slope keeps getting slipperier all the time. If we can eliminate Down's by eliminating those born with it, think of the possibilities for others with genetic disabilities that one day will be detected early in pregnancy - the deformed, the weak, the mentally slow, the physically awkward, the homosexual, the socially undesirable, the left-handed . . . . In Asia, sophisticated prenatal testing is increasingly being used to eliminate girl babies.

"O brave new world!" Miranda exclaims to old Prospero in "The Tempest." Prospero's reply is not as often quoted: "Tis new to thee." He'd been around for a while, and seen the uses man makes of wondrous things.

This brave new world that science is hatching may not be so new in its ethical aspects; child-sacrifice is one of the oldest rites known to man.

No wonder medical journals report that some mothers in these sophisticated times are trying hard not to grow attached to their babies in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy - before the full range of prenatal tests are conducted.

Now these new, improved prenatal tests will allow mothers to get rid of Down's Syndrome fetuses even earlier.

Of course the choice may not be put quite that plain. Better to speak of "private decisions," of "peace of mind," of Choice - and not ask too many questions about just what it is we are choosing.

Some decisions you don't want to examine too closely. That's when the art of euphemism is most useful.

"Especially in the case of abortion there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology," a prominent clergyman once noted, and he concluded: "Perhaps this linguistic phenomenon is itself a symptom of an unease of conscience." - Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae," or "The Gospel of Life."

Euphemism is the first sign that we don't want to admit what we're condoning, especially not to our conscience. There are times when the most useful advantage of language is not to reveal but to conceal.

Anyway, why should aborting a Down's Syndrome fetus trouble us any more than aborting so many perfectly healthy ones every year? Man giveth and man taketh away. Isn't that the new American Standard Revised gospel?

These new tests for Down's aren't perfect, but they do seem a considerable improvement over the old, second-trimester kind. Between blood tests and ultrasound, doctors can now identify fetuses with Down's Syndrome an estimated 85 percent of the time at 12 weeks into the pregnancy.

Only 9 percent of the time did these new tests incorrectly indicate that the fetus had Down's Syndrome.

So the mother who decides to abort in these circumstances has about one chance in 10 of aborting a healthy baby.

Can this be what the AP story meant by "peace of mind"?

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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