Misdirected Wonder at the Miracle of Life: Rottenness Beyond Denmark

People With Down Syndrome Persecuted, But Pandas Protected?

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Last week when I was in the United States, I found that in order to take America’s mind off gun laws and fiscal cliffs, news outlets had turned to an uplifting story about life. Everyone was all abuzz over the first public appearance of Xiao Liwu, the baby panda bred in captivity at the San Diego zoo, which made his first public appearance on Jan. 10. The world cooed and pondered this miracle of life engineered by the San Diego zoo and their panda breeding program.

Now I like cute and cuddly as well as the next person. Well, maybe a little less. But still, as I watched the interminable story regarding the challenges of breeding these animals, I couldn’t help but think about another article from the summer of 2011 when Denmark proudly proclaimed that it would soon be the first Down Syndrome-free nation in the world. Its official Web site stated:

“A medical review from 2002 of elective abortions in the UK and the US found that around 92% of all fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome were aborted. In Denmark, medical experts estimate the rate of abortions to be even higher. If the current trend continues, it is predicted that the last Down Syndrome baby in Denmark could be born in 2030.”

This announcement was touted by many scientists and researchers as a “fantastic achievement.”

Denmark’s statement makes Hamlet’s evil Uncle Claudius look like Santa Claus.

Attentive ZENIT readers know that I am a little sensitive to this issue since I have a child with Down Syndrome, but I cannot help noticing a disturbing paradox here. I ask myself why it is a fantastic achievement that children with Down Syndrome become extinct while the survival of the panda is of international concern?

Perhaps it is because children with Down Syndrome are born with varying amounts of intellectual disability, and have difficulty achieving standardized learning goals at the same rate as other children. But from news reports, pandas are apparently so dumb they can’t figure out how to breed without human help, so the panda does not stand out as a paragon of intelligence either.

In a moment of Obama-era irony, a law signed by this president in 2009 replaced the legislative language of “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” The law is called “Rosa’s law” for the girl with Down Syndrome who fought to remove that language from federal laws.

I wonder what Rosa thinks about Obama’s health care mandate, which recommends no-cost prenatal visits that include testing for “genetic or developmental conditions.” Since Down Syndrome cannot be treated in the womb, the principal reason for early testing is to abort these children as soon as possible. These tests have helped Denmark drop its Down Syndrome birthrate by 13% every year since 2004.

In Switzerland, 87% of all Down Syndrome pregnancies are terminated. In France, 96% of fetuses are aborted following this prenatal diagnosis.

Denmark describes its goal as that of a perfect society, and part of this plan is to remove “undesirable citizens” before they can even be born. But a society that decides which citizens are worthy to live and die seems far from perfect.

As I look at my 9-year-old son with Down Syndrome while he figures out a puzzle or dances to music or is kind and affectionate toward his school companions (pandas, by the way, are quite irritable), I wonder why his kind has been selected for eradication. How did Hitler select the Jews? How did white men arrive at the conclusion that black men should be simply used as slaves? To borrow from the Bard, eugenics by any other name, cannot smell sweet.

Contributing to humanity

Pandas are endangered in part because their habitats have been threatened. How ironic that the habitat of a child with Trisomy 21, the womb, has become the most dangerous place of all.

Researchers have studied every aspect of panda mating, eating and sleeping habits (they don’t really do much else). They have experimented with endless breeding techniques and kept meticulous records to swell the sheaves of data on the 2,000 pandas in the world.

Out of a population of 7 billion people, 5.8 million have Down Syndrome and the numbers are falling every year. At just 0.083% of the population, people with Down Syndrome should be hailed as an endangered “species.” The dwindling numbers help to explain why there are far fewer records on what people with Down Syndrome can achieve, how they learn and how they can excel, than on pandas . One thing is for certain, 9-year-old activist Rosa Marcellino, actor Chris Burke, and musician Sujeet Desai have contributed more to humanity than any panda on earth.

There are economic considerations here as well. In Rome, I am continually asked why the Vatican doesn’t sell its artistic patrimony to feed the poor. I wonder how such people justify the enormous panda spending.

The San Diego zoo has spent an estimated $30 million on its panda program. Meanwhile, California has overtly used its prenatal testing program for Down Syndrome to reduce the number of children born with the condition through earlier abortions. The result is 47% fewer children with Down Syndrome.

Further north and east, Toronto is raising $20 million to bring two pandas from China to their zoo, while philanthropist David M. Rubenstein recently made a $4.5 million gift to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to fund a panda reproduction program.

The reason for this generosity? “Because pandas make people happy.”

Spending on Down Syndrome pales by comparison — the data just released on research spending shows that the National Institutes of Health spent $20 million on Down Syndrome research in 2011, and the same amount is expected for this year and next.

This was down, however, from $28 million in 2010.

Autism on the other hand, receives $169 million in funding and cerebral palsy was given $29 million.

Outspent, outfilmed and outcuddled, people with Down Syndrome can expect tough times ahead. Little did Shakespeare know how right he was when he wrote, “By the pricking of my thumbs (or diagnostic needle), Something wicked this way comes.” (MacBeth Act 4, Scene 1)

In our media age, two videos give an interesting perspective on these two endangered species. One shows a boy with Down Syndrome who encounters a dog for the first time and had 4,277,000 viewers. The other, of panda Xiao Liwu’s first public appearance logged about 500 views. Again, I may be a little out of step, but one tells a touching story and the other is … well … cute and furry.

As we approach the annual March for Life in the United States, it seems a disturbing sign of the times that the life of a panda is more desirable and more protected then the life of an unborn human child. Something is rotten in more than the state of Denmark.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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