Garth George

Garth George is a Herald columnist

Garth George: Screening on slippery slope to eugenics

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Garth George writes that an expanded screening programme for Down Syndrome may go against the rights of the disabled.

Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

Back in February this year, the Government instituted the "Antenatal Screening for Down Syndrome and Other Conditions - Quality Improvements" programme.

This programme, which received but cursory mention in the press, was introduced by the Ministry of Health following advice from the ministry's National Screening Unit without, according to pro-life sources, any public consultation.

In this newspaper it was presented simply as "an expanded, safer screening programme to detect Down syndrome during pregnancy" and the report quoted the Health Ministry as saying that its review of the screening was not about reducing the number of babies born with Down syndrome.

However, pro-life sources tell me cabinet papers they have obtained under the Official Information Act state the outcomes of the programme will be a reduction in the number of births of babies with Down syndrome, with some 90 per cent of unborn children diagnosed with the condition being aborted.

The programme is funded by the state and targets all pregnant women in New Zealand in their first trimester on the basis of providing information to women to make decisions about their pregnancies, including abortion.

But, say pro-lifers, people with disabilities are the only group targeted for selective abortion. Down syndrome and other conditions targeted are genetic conditions that have no cure.

"This is eugenics," says Ken Orr, spokesman for Right to Life, "which proclaims that only the perfect have a right to be born. The screening programme is a search and destroy mission and is a further major step on a slippery slope."

He accuses the Government of seeking to conceal the true purpose of the programme by calling it a "quality improvement" rather than a state-sanctioned national screening programme.

"The Government states that it is providing a service to families by giving them a choice whether to terminate the life of the child with Down syndrome or to allow the child to be born. But we should be aware that this is part of a strategy of social conditioning.

"Right to Life contends that the Government has decided that children with Down syndrome are not valued or wanted in our community. Its intention, then, is to encourage families to abort children with Down syndrome."

Mr Orr says the "insidious option to terminate the life of the child will ultimately become a duty to kill the child before birth. With the acceptance of eugenics ultimately it may be expected that with the rationing of diminishing health resources the health care for the disabled will be restricted".

It seems obvious to me that the basis of first-trimester screening is to enable women to have an abortion within the 20-week timeframe if an abnormality is detected, since other reasons for prenatal diagnoses are left until the later stages of pregnancy.

Jane McEntee, manager of antenatal and newborn screening at the National Screening Unit, was quoted in this newspaper in February as saying that the new system "is about making sure the screening is safe and reliable and that women are fully informed around what screening means and what may follow screening and any decisions that they may need to make".

However, documentation obtained under the Official Information Act from the Ministry of Health by Whangarei engineer Mike Sullivan, parent of a Down syndrome child, includes a report which states that "the [Down syndrome screening] programme will be cost beneficial for the population and the health system ... the economic costs of screening outweigh the high costs associated with the long-term care needs of an individual with Down syndrome."

The pro-life movement also maintains that the preventing of birth of a group of people falls within the definition of genocide under international law, particularly Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which New Zealand signed in 1948. This article forbids signatory states from imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group. Mr Orr says people with Down syndrome fall within the definition of "disabled persons" and are recognised under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons as a group which forms part of a nation.

Under that Declaration disabled persons "have the same civil and political rights as other human beings" and "must be protected against all exploitation, all regulations and all treatment of a discriminatory, abusive or degrading nature".

These rights, says Mr Orr, are further reinforced under Article 10 of the Convention on the Rights of Disabled, which states: "State parties reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others."

I know that men and women and boys and girls with Down syndrome are loved and valued members of their families and their communities, and contribute to society in a variety of ways. God help us if they are, in fact, destined to be victims of the thin end of the eugenics wedge.

Garth George is the father of a Down syndrome son, now in his mid-40s.

garth.george@hotmail.com

- NZ Herald

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