It was a huge scientific breakthrough. In 1953, science discovered the structure of DNA — the double helix strands that create our very existence.
It has revolutionized medicine, allowed scientists to reprogram the genes to cure diseases and launched glimpses of how the future may look once science has mastered that realm. DNA solves crimes, allows correct pairing of organ donors and recipients, facilitates prenatal testing for in utero abnormalities and creates clones. Unfortunately, it opens the Pandora’s Box of related moral questions.
Chromosomes are great and everyone is supposed to get their 23 pairs. That’s the recipe for a normal human. But too much of a good thing ruins the mix. The tragic extra copy — or partial copy — of Chromosome 21 is a troubling abnormality, presenting questions of both reason and belief for parents and lawmakers. It is the cause of Down syndrome.
Of course, some will say that having a Down syndrome child has been the best thing in their lives. Others, either verbally or secretly, resent the presence of a life-long child who requires constant care and can never fully function on its own. Down syndrome is a drain on the entire family, creates long-term financial stress, necessitates special education and sometimes requires lifetime institutionalization. While parents may feel a unique usefulness in caring for a Down syndrome child, most merely resolve themselves to the fact that it’s just the luck of the draw.
Fortunately, a test can identify a Down syndrome fetus while in the womb, and more than 67 percent of U.S. parents choose to terminate a Down syndrome pregnancy. In some countries, such as Iceland, that figure approaches 100 percent.
Though the pro-life option is available, people are, by nature, both selfish and practical. Perpetually dependent children are emotionally taxing and economically burdensome. The revelation of a Down syndrome fetus is a bombshell.
A few Down syndrome children grow up to hold down jobs, raise families and even learn complex skills. Sadly those able to become independent are few.
Gov. Gary Herbert, as protector of the people, finds himself in a real conundrum. Would he, should he, could he conscientiously sign House Bill 166, which would make it illegal to abort a fetus solely for Down syndrome? As an unabashed opponent of pro-choice, Herbert has openly talked about the right of imperfect humans to be born, noting that the Down Syndrome babies are not alone, and asserting that “none of us is born perfect.” He rationalizes that there’s a broad spectrum of human imperfections and that Down syndrome is just one of many.
Understandably, the strength of the pro-life movement is at the core of the issue. These people believe all abortions to be, simply, murders by a different name, and there’s no question that the rights of the unborn are part of a very complex argument.
Lacking prenatal testing, animal mothers have their own ways of dealing with damaged or abnormal babies. Mother dogs, for instance, will instinctively kill a congenitally defective pup. It seems so cruel, yet nature uses harsh solutions to prevent the corruption of the gene pool. Similarly, the right not to bear genetically defective children should be the choice of parents, not lawmakers.
The Utah House and Senate approved HB166, which will likely be signed by Herbert. If he does, it will be yet one more attack on the hotly debated reproductive rights of parents. Some other states have advanced similar legislation, but it has passed in only a few. Enactment of such bills has brought immediate challenge in the courts, but, to date, there have been no Supreme Court decisions rendered.
Understanding that Utah’s bill could lead to a legal quagmire, the authors of HB166 included a provision that the law would not be implemented unless the Supreme Court rules another state’s version constitutional. That would avoid a taxpayer-funded, dead-end legal crusade down the road.
Regardless of whether Herbert signs the HB166, its overall impact is far-reaching. This bill threatens a bald-faced theft of the rights of parents to make choices concerning their future, and it’s yet one more example of how the state can, with the stroke of a pen, impose the will of the few upon the many.
Michael S. Robinson Sr. is a former Army assistant public information officer, retired businessman, and novelist. He resides in Utah with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel yellow dog.