Rob Douglas: Are we not better than this?


Rob Douglas

Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at

Find more columns by Douglas here.

My friend and fellow Steamboat Today columnist Joanne Palmer wrote a piece this week headlined, “Are we not better than this?” I hope Joanne doesn’t mind that I’ve borrowed her headline en route to a different destination from the same starting point.

Like many commentators, Palmer expressed outrage about Ann Coulter’s use of the word “retard” to describe President Barack Obama. While I doubt Coulter used the word to denigrate people with special needs, I think some of the anger directed at Coulter, like Palmer’s, is genuine. Palmer is correct when she argues that we should refrain from the use of language that unnecessarily ridicules or breeds disrespect. While Palmer’s column sparked this column, I am not judging my good friend. My intent is to articulate a public policy issue I think is raised by the Coulter controversy.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Coulter did use the word retard as a slur to denigrate those with mental challenges and to foster disrespect for the president. In that case, Coulter would deserve the public scorn she received.

However, if we are righteous in our indignation at Coulter’s use of a word many find offensive, what are we to make of a society that stands mute while unborn children who test positive for undesired mental or physical conditions are at risk of being aborted by their parents?

As the Coulter tempest roared to life, I recalled reading a piece earlier this year in The New York Times about the termination of unborn children following prenatal testing that indicated those children would be born with Down syndrome. Having reread the commentary in the context of the Coulter controversy, I am struck by how easily some are offended by the use of words that may denigrate a segment of our population while deeds with life-ending consequences for that same population are all but ignored.

On June 9, Times columnist Ross Douthat examined the growing potential for prenatal tests to be used in order to abort children who test positive for undesired traits. One statistic cited by Douthat in “Eugenics, past and future” screams off the page: “In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion.”

Douthat’s column credits that statistic to a 2009 ABC News report quoting Dr. Brian Skotko, a pediatric geneticist from Children’s Hospital Boston who said, “An estimated 92 percent of all women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancies.” Skotko, who has a sister with Down syndrome, thinks mothers are aborting unborn Down syndrome children based on myths about the condition, not facts. While the 90 percent figure may vary by region, parental income and political ideology, it is clear that unborn Down syndrome children are at significant risk of being aborted.

Based on that reality, Douthat argues that “given our society’s track record with prenatal testing for Down syndrome, we also have a pretty good idea of what individuals and couples will do with comprehensive information about their unborn child’s potential prospects.” In other words, we are moving into a modern era of eugenics where some parents will use prenatal tests and fetal genome mapping as a justification to abort unborn children that do not meet the idealized standards of the parents.

So while the line to heap ridicule on Coulter for the use of the word retard is long and criticism of outlandish political dialogue like Coulter’s is voluminous, meaningful public policy discussion about the use of prenatal tests to abort unborn children with special needs is seemingly nonexistent. Evidently, as a society we are more offended by the Coulters of the world who use hurtful words that might denigrate those with special challenges than we are about parents who abort children because of prenatally determined traits they find less than ideal.

To borrow Palmer’s poignant question, “Are we not better than this?”

To reach Rob Douglas, email


Clay Ogden 4 years, 6 months ago

I think this is perhaps the most thoughtful (and thought provoking) piece I've ever read from Mr. Douglas ... who I have often found myself at odds with. I am a very strong proponent of a woman's right to choose ... and ... I find this to be a really interesting and powerful part of the intellectual and emotional puzzle.


Scott Wedel 4 years, 6 months ago

The word "retard" was used to gain a little publicity.

"Retard" is not a synonym for Down's Syndrome.

It was a nice example of creative writing to link the use of the word "retard" with the aborting of fetus that test positive for Down's Syndrome. But, there is no real connection between the two.

The use of the word "retard" was unneeded and rude to gain some attention. It was not made to spur a debate on Down's Syndrome's genetic testing in fetus.

The ethical question of testing for Down's Syndrome that leads to aborting those fetus so affected does not involve the use of the word "retard"

But otherwise, a nice attempt of defending the publicity seeking use of the word "retard" by switching the discussion to prenatal Down's Syndrome testing.


rhys jones 4 years, 6 months ago

You're right, Scott, this article is an eloquent attempt to divert attention from a distasteful and insensitive remark, uttered by a person endowed with those qualities.


mark hartless 4 years, 6 months ago

More outrage over words than deeds. I agree, Rob.

"...aborting the fetus...does not involve the use of the word "retard". No, but if I'm ever a fetus can you please call me a retard and allow me to be born, instead of the other way around...


rhys jones 4 years, 6 months ago

All these people ARE is words. NO substance, NO performance, NO production -- just more blab.


David Carrick 4 years, 6 months ago

I agree, Rob.
The same outrage is expressed by rabid environmentalists and animal rights the seals, the wolves, puppies and the trees. While I in no way support irresponsibility in those areas, the point still holds--not even a hint of that level of outrage is shown for genetic-testing-prompted abortions, nor abortion in general. Interestingly, the activists in those other areas generally are the very same folk glaringly silent on the rights of the unborn human. Sad indeed...and the opposing comments already have pretty much proven your point. THANKS for your article!


Robert Dippold 4 years, 6 months ago

Rob, I appreciate the article, but to me the article is an opportunity to write an extreme Pro Life editorial and has little to do with Coulter's comments.

You wrote: "... what are we to make of a society that stands mute while unborn children who test positive for undesired mental or physical conditions are at risk of being aborted by their parents?"

If Pro Choice is to the left and it equates with the woman has a right to terminate a healthy pregnancy.

If Pro Life is to the right and equates with a woman NOT having the right to terminate a healthy pregnancy.

Then the position that a woman does not have a right to terminate a "less than healthy" pregnancy has to be to the right of Pro Life.

By attaching Coulter"s offensive comments, I believe you are trying to show the act of abortion as offensive in general, in my opinion. Depending on your stance on abortion, it may or may not be offensive.

I don't have an issue with someone taking a position on a controversial topic that I may or may not agree with. I just believe your approach was not as genuine as it could have been. As always, I enjoy your thought provoking articles. Bob


Ronna Sommers 4 years, 3 months ago

Abortion should be available to women.... If you aren't a woman you won't need to worry about it....


Fred Duckels 4 years, 6 months ago

What is correct or not is usually valued by the political mileage that can be derived from it. Why no global warming issues this election?


John St Pierre 4 years, 6 months ago

If Ann Coulter along with her Friends (Rush, Hannity etc) are such experts in every topic why it is it they never run for office..... because they do nothing to offer but lob BS..... Rob what you did not bring up is that most of people who have these tests done have the money to do so.... the underprivilidge do not have the acces to this type of medical Insurance does not cover it....
I would also love to know the stat on how many Pro Choice women are on Birth control..... We are so so focused on life before birth but completely disregard what happens after birth ............


John St Pierre 4 years, 6 months ago

We're always so ProLife concerned But.....What does it say about us when we are simultaneously pro-life and pro AK-47's? And Hell while were at it......What does it say about us when God's will would allow a rapist to ask for shared custody and child support payments? ......What does it say about us when a black guy's in charge and we say things like "it's time to take America back"? .....What does it say about us when we think the institution of marriage is threatened by gay people who love each other, but not by idiotic game shows like "The Bachelor"? .......What does it say about us when we export democracy with Hellfire missiles, then restrict the right to vote here? .......What does it say about us when we build nuclear submarines to defend against exploding vests? ......What does it say about us when we think a guy who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, keeps his money offshore, stubs his toe and says "H-E-double hockey sticks" and wears magical underwear can feel our pain? ........What does it say about us when we demand less government and more FEMA?
So please stop and think what has this entire politcal season on both sides has said about us.......


maynardshort 4 years, 6 months ago

I think abortion should be the mothers' perogative, up until the child is the age of 18.


Michelle Hale 4 years, 6 months ago

As a woman, a Mother and a Grandmother I am sick of hearing MEN make choices, and comments about a womans body. In my eyes NO man has the right to make a law regarding my body, or my choice.

There are many women who choose to have an abortion because of birth defects. There are also mothers who decide to make that choice because they can not afford another child, or do not choose to have one at that time. It comes down once again to "a womans choice." Women are the ones who carry the child. Women in large part are the ones who raise that child. Abortion was never JUST about termination of a pregnancy, it was about taking abortion out of the back alley and address the right of a womans choice and HEALTH.

As far as Ann Coulter, she makes a living being nasty, and ugly, just like all the other shock jocks. I have no respect for that, from anyone. Being a distasteful human, and doing it for a living still does not give you the right to harm another by the use of distasteful terms to express yourself. Public figures should try to rise above small minds. After all if we like it or not, they set standards in your society, and that is sad.

Abortion is always attached to religion, and the idea of the Ten Commandments. It is my personal view (as all women are allowed) that religion is of man, not of God. I also stand strong behind seperation of church and state as our founding fathers did, and for reason like this. Our nation is not about making laws of morality, but to stand for the rights of the "common" man. Religion and the Bible are like a musical instrument. It plays a different tune to who ever picks it up. What is right for one should never be pushed onto others. Our spiritual path is our own, it belongs to no one but us. With in that abortion was talked about in the Bible. Job 33:4, Ezekile 37:5 & 6, and Exodus 21:22, and a few others. Bottom line was this. A child did not become a human until it took its first breath. Abortion was around even during bibilical times, as it always has been. It belongs to a woman .It is between her, her doctor and who ever she does or does not believe in.

Lets uphold the simple law of compassion, without the need to place hurtful words or judgment against others. That is what this nation was built upon. Freedom. Freedom of choice, freedom of, and from religion. Freedom to be happy and do what is right for ourselves. Even freedom of how one speak and expresses themselves, and freedom to honor that kind of action or not. Ann Coulter should be placed on ignore. Karma will find us all one day.



Scott Wedel 4 years, 6 months ago

Michelle, Great post except for "In my eyes NO man has the right to make a law regarding my body, or my choice."

Why are only men excluded from making laws regarding your body or your choice? You would accept Ann Coulter making laws regarding your body and your choice?

The rest of the post makes the argument that no one else, male or female, has the right to make laws regarding your body or your choice.


rhys jones 4 years, 6 months ago

Scott -- We don't have to worry about Ann Coulter making laws, because first she'd have to be elected.


melissa 4 years, 6 months ago

A woman's (or couple's) choice to terminate a pregnancy is not as "black and white" as Douglas makes it. The tests women have provide more information than just Healthy vs Downs Syndrome. Tests also reveal several other neurological and genetic diseases: Some that can be life threatening to the mother or unborn child during pregnancy and some that may have life long health complications after birth and/or shorten life expectancies. Plus, several other pros and cons factor in to a very difficult and "personal" decision a woman (or couple) have to make to continue or terminate a pregnancy. We should never question or judge any one's decision. It is their choice, not yours, not mine, and not the government's to make.


Brian Kotowski 4 years, 6 months ago

"...NO man has the right to make a law regarding my body, or my choice."

That might have been a relevant argument in 19th-century pre-women's suffrage America. In the here & now it's a breathtakingly tattered straw man. I'd bet a year's salary Chelley6 wouldn't mind terribly if issues of "choice" were left to any NARAL endorsed politician regardless of gender. I'd bet another year's salary she'd be opposed to Michelle Bachman/Sara Palin/Laura Ingraham/Michelle Malkin having the temerity to weigh in. Excluding anyone on the basis of gender from the discussions/decisions of the day is straight out of the Dark Ages, and says more about Chelley6 than she may realize.


Kevin Chapman 4 years, 6 months ago

Rob when you spout breasts and a vagina i will give more of a damn about what you have to say about this subject. Until then i'll just try and enjoy your insight about the workings of our city council.


Scott Wedel 4 years, 6 months ago

The point that most of Michelle post made was that NO ONE ELSE has the right to pass laws that control that personal family decision.

Just because older white men seem particularly skilled at making clueless comments on these issues does not mean it becomes acceptable for even a group of compassionate women to pass laws controlling these sorts of personal family decisions. Doesn't matter who would make those rules, there is a point at which personal decisions are for the person to decide.

Sep, That was only one line from Michelle's post. It was not the major theme. It is not fair to say that shows a lot about Michelle since saying that requires ignoring the rest of her post. Which suggests that saying "man" instead of "person" was more of a mistake than some great political opinion.


Stuart Orzach 4 years, 6 months ago


 I find the link between your column and Joanne's tenuous. One could write myriad opinion pieces under the headline, "Are We Not Better Than This?"

 Since Joanne's column dealt with our choice of words and how it affects other people, and since your stock in trade is the written word, I would like to comment on the choice that you made.

 To refer to people who are labelled as retarded, you used the phrase "undesired mental or physical conditions".

 NY Times columnist Ross Douthat referred to people with Down syndrome as having "undesired traits".

 I don't know that I would feel better if the schoolyard bully told me I was undesired rather than retarded.

 But since it's currently okay, in the ever shifting field of political correctness, let me say that Anne Coulter has undesired mental or physical conditions.



Robert Huron 4 years, 6 months ago

Unfortunately people who call themselves "Pro-life" do not want anything to do with that child when it comes out of the womb because now it is called Socialism. These same people want us to go to war with any country that will not do what we tell them but they won't serve or pay for that war. They want to make available to any nut case an assault weapon and execute as many people as we can so they can say they are tough on crime..
The basic problem is most laws are made by men who can't get pregnant. If men could become pregnant there would be an abortion clinic in every town and they would sell birth control at every 7-eleven. Now we have MEN redefining rape to suit their so called "pro-life" agenda which is a joke. If we are going to be a truly free country then women need to make their own decisions about their bodies and the rest of society needs to mind their own business including a mean spirited loudmouth idiot like Coulter. Then and only then will we be a better country. .


Steve Lewis 4 years, 6 months ago

Beyond the making of a choice remains the lifetime chosen. One path holds 2 and more lifetimes greatly altered. That path can be overwhelming to the parent. It can also be overwhelming to the community whose resources will be called for. Some parents are up to the obligations of that path. Some are not.

If those resources are not supported by the community, the community has no place in choosing the path, or condemning the choice made.


mark hartless 4 years, 6 months ago

So a womans right to keep or dispose of all that is within her body is absolute. But once the kids are 7 years old and misbehaving her right to spank them comes into serious question... Yeah, that sounds like the logic of the left...


My right to produce oil from my land is not absolute. My right to keep the fruits of my labor are not absolute. My right to grow what I want in my garden is not absolute. My right to smoke what I want in my own home is not. My right to distill and drink whatever I want on my property is not. My right to spank the kids I chose not to abort is not absolute...


Carolyn Kleckler 4 years, 6 months ago


The fact that you drew from Ann Coulter’s comment to write about this topic illustrates a paradox of which I, as a parent of a child with Down syndrome, am only too painfully aware. On the one hand, improvements in medical treatment and education for people with Down syndrome have removed them from the institutions that they were once relegated to and led to huge gains in their life span, IQ, and ability to be independent, contributing members of society. The backlash against Coulter and others’ use of the “R-word” is a reflection of this progress. On the other hand, funding for medical research for Down syndrome is scarce because of the prevailing attitude that Down syndrome can be “prevented” through prenatal testing. I have heard story after story of parents who felt pressured to terminate a pregnancy upon receiving a prenatal diagnosis by some in the medical community, and some outside it. It’s a paradox that’s hard to make sense of.

As medical science continues to advance and understanding of human genetics increases, we will see this paradox more and more as we have the ability to “choose” whether or not to have a child who will have challenges of one kind or another. It needs to be more a matter of public discourse.

I have had the opportunity to meet many families of individuals with Down syndrome, and I think every one of them would agree that raising a child with Down syndrome brings a richness and joy to their lives that they would never otherwise have known. My heart breaks for the children who will never be born and the people who will never have the privilege of loving them. Thank you for speaking up on their behalf.

I did not take your intent to be advocating limits to women’s choices, rather urging discussion about making different choices. It is clear from Clay Ogden’s response that your article will challenge those who are truly thoughtful about the abortion issue to look at it in a new way, and that’s a great accomplishment.


Rob Douglas 4 years, 6 months ago

Carolyn, Please send me your email address. I'd like to share some information with you that is contained in the research I did for this column. I think you'll find that it tracks closely with what you've experienced personally. I can be reached at Thank you for your thoughtful comment and I look forward to being in touch. Rob


Bob Smith 4 years, 6 months ago

"Are we not better than this?" based on your article, I would say no. You are not.


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