The dignity of human beings must not be measured in ‘usefulness’

Pope Francis greets a French nun with Down Syndrome during an audience at the Vatican on Oct. 21, 2017. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)Pope Francis greets a French nun with Down Syndrome during an audience at the Vatican on Oct. 21, 2017. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Despite some significant positive changes over the last few decades, persons with Down syndrome can still be treated in many degrading ways in contemporary life, whether through personal animus or social systems like discriminatory employment practices. Perhaps the most egregious examples are in Denmark and Iceland, where close to 100 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted. To be clear, Down syndrome is not being eliminated in these countries; persons with Down syndrome are being eliminated. The reasoning behind that trend is not uncommon in our recent discourse in the United States.

Persons with Down syndrome are capable of representing themselves, but as they are rarely given a platform in politics, journalism and other avenues of public discourse, we must strive to listen to, learn from and empower their own voices even as we advocate on their behalf. Hence, I want to direct attention to a subtle problem that can occur even among those who love and support persons with Down syndrome: reducing a human being to their usefulness.

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The dignity of human beings must never be reduced to how well they accomplish the ends of other people.

Those who wish to defend the dignity of persons with Down syndrome should avoid the perhaps unintended, but nonetheless consequential, dehumanization process of portraying persons with Down syndrome as “useful.” Yes, persons with Down syndrome can accomplish amazing things vocationally, contribute civically and bring happiness to the lives of others (as evidenced by the new Gerber Baby model with an “infectious smile”). It is important and good to celebrate their contributions and accomplishments, including the witness of Karen Gaffney, Charlotte Fien’s campaign to “prove them wrong” or Frank Stephens’s testimony before the United States Congress (see “I Am a Man With Down Syndrome and My Life Is Worth Living”).

Further, if persons with Down syndrome are as fully human as persons without Down syndrome, everybody can learn from our common humanity what it means to be human. We may be one of the loneliest societies in history,suicide rates have gone up more than 30 percent from 1999 to 2016, and we are entertaining ourselves to death, as Neil Postman prophesied in 1985. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted in his “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”: “America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress.” Those whom Jean Vanier refers to as “friends of time” arguably have more to contribute to our exhausting, distracted age than many of us realize.

But the dignity of human beings must never be reduced to how well they accomplish the ends of other people. As Micha Boyett, the mother of a 3-year-old boy with Down syndrome, has argued, “despite the fact that people with Down syndrome are living longer, going to college and achieving more than ever before, a culture that defines human worth by what a person can contribute, produce or enjoy is always going to leave people behind.”

“A culture that defines human worth by what a person can contribute, produce or enjoy is always going to leave people behind.”

Only five years ago a memorial was erected in Berlin commemorating the victims of Aktion T4, the program in Nazi Germany that euthanized 300,000 physically and mentally disabled people deemed burdens “unworthy of living.” Upon its dedication, the German culture minister Monika Graters declared that “every human life is worth living: That is the message sent out from this site.... The ‘T4’ memorial confronts us today with the harrowing Nazi ideology of presuming life can be measured by ‘usefulness.’”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” and that human dignity transcends every quantifier of worth (Gn 1:26–27; Jas 3:9). In the economy of grace, God’s saving wisdom and power are revealed in the weakness and folly of the cross, choosing the lowly and despised things of the world (1 Cor 1:17–31). As the New Testament scholar John Barclay concludes in his 2015 book Paul and the Gift, “the Christ-event fits no preformed evaluative schema.... Baptism ‘into Christ’ provides a radically new foundation for communities freed from hierarchical systems of distinction, not because of some generalized commitment to ‘equality’ but because of the unconditioned gift of Christ, which undercuts all other reckoning of worth.”

That is, God’s raising a crucified Jew from Nazareth as Messiah and Lord recalibrates human worth, requiring us to have new eyes for our neighbors and especially for the most vulnerable in our midst.

Detractors from Celsus to Nietzsche gaze upon the body of Jesus nailed to the cross and perceive only weakness, folly and the scandal of something useless in a world of power—something that must be eliminated. But those who believe the good news that “he has risen; he is not here” behold on the cross nothing less than the image of the invisible God and prepare for the beatific vision by conforming to “the image of the Son” in cruciform love for others (Rom 8:28).

A world indifferent or hostile toward the claims of faith needs reminding that every last one of us is dust, and to dust each of us, in our utility and inevitable burdensomeness, shall return. Those who cleave for life to a crucified and risen Messiah must welcome and love as our own selves those brothers and sisters with Down syndrome because of their irreducible worth rooted in the image of God as co-heirs of the new creation.

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Nora Bolcon
6 months ago

Once again our hierarchy needs to understand that they look like the biggest hypocrites in all the land when they accuse anyone, especially women, of not respecting the human dignity of others. Our hierarchy abuses women's dignity every day it keeps laws on its church books forbidding women same sacraments and same exact treatment as men. When they tell women they are just not born sacred enough as men to represent their Messiah, during mass, despite what Jesus may say otherwise in every Gospel.

Now back to the issue our church is pretending to care about in this article.

One of the largest reasons people abort any pregnancy is money. When my friend had a mentally retarded child, I assumed there were plenty of government funded social programs to help her child, especially since she lived in a very blue state. She is middle class. To my surprise and hers this was not the case unless she was poor. What this amounts to, since care for folks with these ailments can be extremely expensive, is that giving birth to such children can bring entire families to the brink of bankruptcy and in fact actually bankrupt them.

Also due to modern medicine many fetuses that would not have made it to birth due to serious ailments and disabilities, now do. This again creates new dilemmas for women and parents whether we want to face that fact or not. This issue is much more complex than our leaders treat it and since it does not effect their lives they think it is OK to judge. I don't judge anyone facing these very hard decisions.

I, myself, chose not to get an amino with both my pregnancies even though I was older than thirty five and doctors highly recommended I get one both times. Praise God both my kids are healthy. I didn't want to face a possible dilemma based on the fetuses health because I was not going to abort - I simply did not believe I could ever do that so why create the anxiety.

Again though our church needs to understand, if it wants women not to seek abortions, in any case, it needs to stop seeking laws to control women's choice on these issues but instead make sure they support the creating of social programs to help all pregnant women and all families.

In other words while our leaders support a party that cuts social programs like obamacare, and fights against spending money on government funded daycare, and special needs care for these kinds of kids, they just look ignorant, uninformed, and callously nasty.

Judith Jordan
5 months 4 weeks ago

Nora Balcon

Excellent insights. Pro birth critize women for having an abortion based on "mere" economics. Yet, they show they value economics over life because too many of them refuse to pay more taxes for desperately needed programs for families.

Stanley Kopacz
5 months 4 weeks ago

Bringing any child into this increasingly dystopic world is certainly a scary proposition. Bedford Falls is gone. It's Pottersville all the way. Even if a child has full faculties, success is problematic. And now, with climate change and ecological collapse (the bugs are in trouble for goodness sake), even survival may not be guaranteed. But abortion is still killing. Better to not conceive in the first place.

Phillip Stone
5 months 4 weeks ago

This is the community that hails a woman as Queen of Heaven, the only person who was ever conceived, lived and finished her life without any sin - some disrespect of the dignity of women, eh!

Warren Patton
5 months 3 weeks ago

Termination rates for DS babies (post-diagnosis) are highest in European countries. They're lower in the United States and lower in nations where abortion is illegal.

Phil Lawless
5 months 4 weeks ago

Whatever discussion I have seen about Down's children's behavior suggests to me that they do not suffer from the traditional concept of Original Sin. Such persons seem to be able to relate to others without reservation, without looking out for their own interests. It is difficult to quantify this observation, and there may be many exceptions. Nonetheless, I suggest that Original Sin arises because humans evolved in family groups as an instinct to protect themselves from outsiders.

If Downs persons have evolved differently, than we have much to learn from them.

Phillip Stone
5 months 4 weeks ago

This is just nonsense if you are flying blind and ignorant, and heretical if you believe you are fully Christian.

Educate yourself by reading about some of the work of L'Arche, a ministry to very low IQ humans started by ‎Jean Vanier who is mainstream Catholic.

The Old Testament tells us how the Fall came about, we need no pseudo-sociological or pseudo-psychological theories to replace that full and mysterious explanation.

The people who have the disability and abnormality of Down's Syndrome do so because one whole chromosome in every cell of their body is abnormal. It is totally physical and genetic.
Many who are born and treated in first world countries are of higher IQ than they might have been because other malfunctions in their biology are detected and treated (one example is hypothyroidism) by excellent medical care.

Warren Patton
5 months 3 weeks ago

Downs syndrome is only the tip of the iceberg here, because as the technology of prenatal screening improves we can expect to see a lot more groups at risk of extermination. What will happen if prenatal tests are developed that identify autism? How about homosexuality? Cleft-palate? Tourette's? Depression? If someone thinks eliminating people with Down Syndrome is okay, where and how do you draw the line? Is there even a line to be drawn?

What if in the future genetic tests are able to test not just for disorders, but predilections for certain personalities? What will happen to babies whose genetics show they're prone to addiction? What if it becomes acceptable to abort a child simply because it did not show a predilection for intelligence? I can't see why it wouldn't if people accept pro-choice arguments.

It's a scary thing we're seeing, the return of eugenics.

Donna Paulson
5 months 3 weeks ago

I love this post. Thanks for starting it. Loved the thought that was put behind writing this. I'm glad. :)

Regards,
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