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