Anti-Discrimination Laws Overlook the Unborn

Disabilities Allow for Late-Term Abortions

AUSTIN, Texas, NOV. 10, 2001 ( Why is it acceptable to discriminate against unborn babies?

Many countries have passed laws in recent decades outlawing unfair treatment against the disadvantaged. Yet the unborn in general are not protected. In fact, the trend is toward greater discrimination.

Recently the acting head of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, John Robertson, an ethicist and lawyer at the University of Texas, came out publicly in favor of permitting couples to choose the sex of their children by selecting either male or female embryos and discarding the rest.

Reaction was swift. Dr. Norbert Gleicher, chairman of the Center for Human Reproduction, whose group has nine facilities, said, “We will offer it immediately,” according to the New York Times on Sept. 28. “Frankly, we have a list of patients who asked for it,” he added.

Gleicher had asked Robertson for clarification of his group´s position. Robertson said that he wrote the reply after consulting with another committee member.

Robertson wrote that embryo sex selection could be offered for gender variety “when there is a good reason to think that the couple is fully informed of the risks of the procedure and are counseled about having unrealistic expectations about the behavior of children of the preferred gender.”

The group´s previous statement, in 1999, said that selecting embryos solely to have a child of a particular sex “should be discouraged.”

Other experts expressed serious doubts about the go-ahead for sex selection of embryos. “Sex selection is sex discrimination, and I don´t think that is ethical,” said Dr. James Grifo, the president-elect of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, an affiliate of the reproductive medicine society.

“What´s the next step?” asked Dr. William Schoolcraft of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in Englewood. “As we learn more about genetics, do we reject kids who do not have superior intelligence or who don´t have the right color hair or eyes?”

The negative reactions sparked a clarification of the official position of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. According to the Associated Press on Sept. 29, Dr. Robert Rebar, the group´s associate executive director, clarified that the organization´s previous policy discouraging sex selection stands — unless the entire committee decides otherwise, at its January meeting, for instance.

Sex selection isn´t the only risk for the unborn. Gene testing is poised to play a bigger role in determining the physical defects of children in the womb. In the United States, tens of thousands of white Americans will be offered tests to see if they carry a gene mutation that causes cystic fibrosis, the Associated Press reported Oct. 1.

Even if no one in the family has the disease, under new guidelines obstetricians and gynecologists are supposed to offer the gene test to every Caucasian — or the partner of a Caucasian — who is pregnant or considering having a baby.

This marks the first time gene tests are being offered to the general population. Until now, they have been recommended just for small groups of people who face a high risk for a particular inherited disease.

This is happening in spite of improvements in treatment for those born with cystic fibrosis. Recent advances have lengthened their life span and patients can now hope to live until their 30s.

Dr. Francis Collins, of the National Institutes of Health, recommended that testing be done before a woman gets pregnant. Parents who both carry a genetic defect are then presented with the option of in vitro fertilization. The embryos — tiny human lives — are then tested for the disease and only healthy ones are implanted into the mother´s uterus.

This kind of in vitro creation and subsequent destruction of human embryos go against Catholic teaching, as expressed in the 1987 instruction “Donum Vitae” (see

Selective abortion

Killing an unborn child who has a defect is a growing trend. In Britain, an organization appointed by the government to protect the rights of the disabled said that a key section of the 1967 Abortion Act is offensive and discriminatory, the Telegraph newspaper reported Aug. 22.

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) said the section was incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally. The law allows unborn babies who show signs of disability to be aborted after 24 weeks of pregnancy, but not healthy babies.

Liz Sayce of DRC said the commission wanted to make sure that pregnant women get better information about disability, and to protect the rights of disabled people.

In Australia, too, the practice exists of performing late abortions when a fetus has some disability. Doctors carried out at least 84 late-term abortions — at or after 24 weeks — in the past three years, according to the Age newspaper of Melbourne on Oct. 25.

A survey of doctors who specialize in detecting fetal abnormalities using ultrasound found that a majority, 64%, would agree to perform a late-term abortion in some circumstances.

Medical ethicist Julian Savulescu sent anonymous surveys to the 82 members of the Australian Association of Obstetrical and Gynecological Ultrasonologists.

The 39 respondents reported 34 feticide procedures — injections of potassium chloride through the heart or umbilical vein of a viable fetus — had been carried out over the past three years and they knew of a further 50 late-term abortions using other methods.

About two-thirds of respondents said they would perform illegal abortions if lethal abnormalities were detected. Of those, 16% also would perform a feticide for any reason, provided the mother had counseling, and a further 20% would do so if the fetus showed the potential for a disability such as Down syndrome.

Dr. Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, an independent ethics consultant, said the doctors in the survey who performed late-term abortions were practicing “reproductive discrimination” and said they had no right to decide who should live and who should die.

Writing in the Oct. 5 issue of Science magazine, Garland E. Allen, a historian of science in the Evolutionary and Population Biology Program of Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, expressed concern about the trend toward a new eugenic mentality.

“Are we getting carried away with the false promise of a technological fix for problems that really lie in the structure of our society?” asked Allen. His answer was affirmative: “A ´bottom line´ mentality is rapidly becoming our guidepost.”

“As health care costs skyrocket, we are coming to accept a bottom-line, cost-benefit analysis of human life,” he wrote. “This mind-set has serious implications for reproductive decisions. If a health maintenance organization (HMO) requires in utero screening, and refuses to cover the birth or care of a purportedly ´defective´ child, how close is this to eugenics?” How close, indeed.

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