Thursday, November 19, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, November 19, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Last Children of Down Syndrome? A Troubling Denial of Human Dignity Not Only in Denmark, But in the U.S. As Well
"The Last Children of Down Syndrome." That's a major article just released by The Atlantic. It is dateline from Denmark, but the issue is relevant anywhere right now on planet Earth and especially here in the United States.
What we're talking about is the fact that modern reproductive technologies and prenatal diagnostic, even genetic diagnostic tests are now leading to what can only be described as an intentional effort to try to rid humanity of anyone with Down syndrome. We're talking about the fact that the vast majority of pregnancies that come with any kind of diagnosis of the possibility or probability of Down syndrome are now ending in abortion.
This story is dateline from Denmark, but the issue is extremely relevant here in the United States, which is only as we shall see slightly behind Denmark in the numbers. And the numbers are absolutely daunting. But the article doesn't begin, and this is very important, even this article in The Atlantic doesn't begin with the numbers. It begins with a person. This individual is an 18 year old, a teenage young man, Karl Emil Fält-Hansen, and the article begins with his mother. We were told that his mother is the one who was often asked the question by someone calling as a stranger on the phone, "What is it like to raise a child with Down syndrome?"
As we are told in the article, by Sarah Zhang, "Sometimes the caller is a pregnant woman, deciding whether to have an abortion. Sometimes a husband and wife are on the line, the two of them in agonizing disagreement." The story goes on where we are told that this is a mom who is now well-known for having given birth to and raising a now 18-year-old son with Down syndrome of whom she is very proud. And she's talking about the fact that so many people call her because they are in the end stages of trying to make a decision that in the overwhelming number of cases is ending with abortion.
The decision not to have a baby that might have the possibility of Down syndrome, or speaking from a Christian worldview, we should say more clearly, we're talking about the overwhelming number of parents making the decision to eliminate the unborn child rather than to face the risk of Down syndrome.
But as you look at this article, you recognize that we are not here looking at some kind of horrifying future in genetic research and in medical treatment reproductive technology. No. We're looking at the present and we're looking at something that has been building now for over 30 years ever since the advent of any kind of prenatal diagnostics and especially any kind of genetic screening.
The fact is that human beings are demonstrating that if they have a choice, they will decide to terminate a pregnancy to end an unborn life rather than to accept a child which is substandard according to their definition. There could hardly be a more direct collision with a biblical, a Christian worldview than this.
But what we're looking at is the fact that we are already right now living in a society where it is estimated right now that by the low estimates coast to coast 67% of pregnancies that carry an indication of Down syndrome are being aborted in the United States. I've made reference to this issue several times in the past. It's one of the issues that weighs most heavily upon my thinking about this country and where we are. It is a tragic, heartbreaking statistic, but the statistic is almost assuredly artificially low.
I mentioned some time ago an interview with an obstetrician in the city of Beverly Hills who mentioned that neither he, nor his colleagues could even remember in recent years delivering a baby that had Down syndrome. They were all simply being aborted in the womb. And the decision to abort have become so much the default that these obstetricians had to think about the last time they actually helped to deliver a baby with Down syndrome.
We're becoming a people who are now saying, "We will not accept individuals with Down syndrome in our families or furthermore in our communities." It's as if we are going to take the Creator's power in our own hand and not only his power, but his authority and determine who shall live and who shall die.
But of course, something very interesting has happened even with the publication of this article. This is an article that has appeared in The Atlantic. The Atlantic has been for decades now one of the most influential journals of opinion in the United States. It tells us something, and by the way, I say this with appreciation to The Atlantic, that it would even decide to print, to publish this article, to raise this issue as a significant moral issue. And yes, to the tribute of both The Atlantic and to this reporter at the very least, the very presence of this article indicates that this is a serious moral issue, but the tone of the article is wistful, almost elegiac as if the article is saying, "Isn't it interesting and perhaps even somewhat in some way lamentable that we become a people in which the vast majority of pregnancies are simply aborted if there's any diagnosis of Down syndrome? Isn't that something we should think about?" The article seems to be saying.
By the time we're just a few paragraphs into the article by Sarah Zhang, the numbers do come up and that is the number 95. First of all, we are told in the article, "Nearly all expecting mothers choose to take the test, that's the prenatal diagnostic test, of those who get a Down syndrome diagnosis, more than 95 percent choose to abort." Now, as you look at the numbers furthermore, that means something less than 15 in the entire nation. And those numbers may be as low as the low single digits. We're talking about what amounts to the intentional elimination of all human beings with Down syndrome from entire societies.
Now the United States is not yet in terms of the numbers, either the actual numbers or the percentages, close to where Denmark is, but in some parts of the United States, it's getting close. And furthermore, the trends in the United States are following the trend in Denmark. But Denmark also presents something of the strangeness of this hyper modern age, in which as the article makes clear, if one does have a disability, then Denmark is a very good place to have that disability. It has an enormous social safety net. It has a very advanced economy and it offers all kinds of financial and educational assistance to families with children who have disabilities.
But notice that at the very same time as a part of this hyper modern post-Christian age in Europe, those very services are now less and less needed because the people of Denmark are deciding to use the opportunities for prenatal genetic diagnosis to eliminate babies that they believe to be substandard in some way. The article in The Atlantic recognizes that what we are looking at here is selective reduction. We're looking at the intentional reduction of the inhabitants of the womb, or in many cases, the single inhabitants simply by abortion, because we are becoming the kind of people who will demand only a certain kind of perfection in a baby, or will do everything we can to avoid that baby being born.
As Sarah Zhang says, " Down syndrome is frequently called the 'canary in the coal mine' for selective reproduction." Selective reproduction means entering parental selection in the picture of which babies will be born and which will not. The phrase "canary in the coal mine" refers of course to the proverbial canary lowered in a coal mine to see if the atmosphere is either safe or toxic for minors. It really means it's the leading indicator. What we're being told here is that Down syndrome is now the leading indicator for the extent to which human beings in our time will use selective reproduction if given the opportunity.
The answer is not encouraging at all. It's absolutely heartbreaking. It tells us that we are becoming a people, speaking of the larger society, especially where these kinds of diagnoses are available, we're becoming the kind of people who make these kinds of decisions. And this should cause Christians to understand that we are now looking at a redefinition of humanity. We're looking at a denial of human dignity.
And furthermore, the article in The Atlantic makes very clear that a diagnosis of Down syndrome does not mean a lifetime of depression or despair for that child. As a matter of fact, the article makes clear that Down syndrome "is very much compatible with life, even a long happy life."
One important paragraph in this article summarizes the situation in Denmark. "Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States."
The article continues, "In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people," says the article, "speak publicly about wanting to 'eliminate' Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that."
Back in the 1980s, the article tells us that Rayna Rapp, who's an anthropologist at New York University in the United States, described parents on the frontier of reproductive technology, and that means particularly on the issue of Down syndrome as "moral pioneers." As Sarah Zhang says, "Suddenly a new power was thrust into the hands of ordinary people, the power to decide what kind of life is worth bringing into the world." That's an enormously important statement.
Now, one of the things we as Christians need to understand is that there is certain knowledge we were never meant to have. Now that itself was a heresy in the secular age, that there could be knowledge that we are not meant to have, but in this case, we really are looking at the kind of knowledge that can only have a very deadly effect. Now at the same time, that shows you the double-edged nature of so much technology, because there is the possibility that when it comes to some prenatal diagnosis, that there could be some kind of genetic or medical intervention in order to effectively treat the issue in utero even before the baby is born.
But in this case, we're not talking about anything that might be done to treat or genetically to correct what leads to Down syndrome. We're talking about the choice being either to bring the baby into the world or to terminate the pregnancy. It's simply A or B in the current situation.
Just think of the other issues that are going to be put on the list. Laura Hercher, a genetic counselor and director of student research at Sarah Lawrence College points out, "If no one with Down syndrome had ever existed or would ever exist, is that a terrible thing? I don't know." Now, what an incredible statement. It just shows you how people in this very, very modern age and indeed ever referred to it as a post-Christian age. That doesn't mean that Christianity has disappeared. It simply means that the fundamental worldview of our society is no longer shaped by Christianity.
And there is the ominous reality here that if the worldview is no longer shaped by Christianity, the distinctive Christian biblical principle of every single human being being made in the image of God itself disappears. And that means that every single life is now going to be judged on some kind of human-ascertained criteria. We're going to determine what kind of conditions, what kind of principles, what kind of evaluation we will use when it comes to whether a life is acceptable or not.
Now, here we are in the 21st century with all of these technological possibilities. And of course even more close on the horizon, but just very near to us in the rear view mirror are the horrors of the 20th century. When for example, the doctors in Weimar Germany set the stage for the Third Reich with their category of "Lebensunwertes Leben," that is life unworthy of life. They determined that certain lives are simply unworthy of life. And thus, according to the Weimar doctors that could inform medical treatment, whether or not a person is treated or not, but it quickly became a matter of deciding whose life would be effectively and intentionally ended because those lives were determined to be substandard. And that included of course, millions of Jews. It included other persons from Jehovah's Witnesses to homosexuals. It also included infants or children who were judged to be substandard.
In terms of the moral impulses that are named in this article, it's interesting that one of them is risk aversion. We're being told here that the pattern in Denmark reveals the fact that when parents are told information, they become risk averse. That is to say they don't want to take the risk of the unknown, but as another person points out in this article, if parents could know in advance everything that would happen to their children or every implication, even of the genetic structure of their children, they would never have children.
Actually that point was made most poetically by the sister of that 18-year-old young man with Down syndrome. Ann Katrine said, "If you handed any expecting parent a whole list of everything their child could possibly encounter during their entire life span—illnesses and stuff like that—then anyone would be scared.” Her mother added, "Nobody would have a baby." But that's the word from a loving sister and a loving mother.
Now I want to point to something that directly references the United States in this article. Just listen to this paragraph and think about it. We're told this, "In the United States, which has no national health-care system, no government mandate to offer prenatal screening, the best estimate for the termination rate after a diagnosis of Down syndrome is 67 percent. But that number conceals stark differences within the country." The article says, "One study found higher rates of termination in the West and Northeast and among mothers who are highly educated. 'On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s going to be completely different than in Alabama,' said Laura Hercher, a genetic counselor."
Now just think about that for a moment. And here's what I want us to think about. There are moral problems in Manhattan and in Alabama, but you'll notice here the implication is that a baby that comes with a diagnosis of Down syndrome is much more likely to be aborted in Manhattan than in Alabama. But think about this, just think about how more tolerant Manhattan claims to be than Alabama. Intolerant of whom?
The article is massive, very extensive. And again, I thank The Atlantic for running the article. Even though it does not make declarative judgments that I believe we should make, the very fact that the magazine ran the article is a statement of a certain kind of moral courage in this strange age.
But before leaving this issue with our hearts and our minds invested in trying to be as faithful as Christians and thinking about this, let's just remind ourselves of the fact that we truly do believe and biblically we must believe. We must affirm in every case that every single human being at every age, at every point of human development and under every condition, and that includes Down syndrome, is fully made in the image of God and thus reflects God's glory in such a way that that life has to be recognized as sacred. And that life has to be defended, not eliminated, not discounted.
And let's also recognize that in this case, we're not just talking about a slippery slide argument. We're talking about the falling of dominoes we can see right before our eyes morally speaking. It's Down syndrome in this article. It could be just about anything else. And by the way, in this article, it also mentions the effort to try to eliminate Tay-Sachs disease, which is genetically linked to Jewish families. You could go on down the list.
How long is it until parents are given some kind of elective document in which they simply check off the traits they either demand or find unacceptable? We're not that far off from that becoming a reality. Right now you can put Down syndrome on the list and a number of other things. And right now in the United States, we really are flying in the dark. And that we do not know how many people are deciding to abort under these circumstances. Once again, that 67% is almost assuredly too low.
The Christian worldview also tells us that there is no reason why that legitimate techniques, technologies, and therapies of medicine should not be used if those technologies and treatments can reduce or eliminate suffering. But now we're talking about the horrifying situation in which the diagnosis means it really comes down to a choice of acceptance or nonacceptance of bringing the baby to life or eliminating the baby in the womb. That's really what it comes down to right now.
But we as Christians must also recognize that we bear responsibility even for the categories we deploy and the language that we use. We need to be very careful in making clear that we celebrate the birth of every single human baby, every single one. It's not just a matter of acceptance. It is a matter of celebration to the glory of God.
It also means that as the body of Christ and as Christians in a community, in a neighborhood, we need to be particularly supportive of families that include persons with disabilities of numerous forms. And we recognize that those parents and those families are actually on behalf of us all to the glory of God performing an extra service and contributing in a uniquely courageous way to demonstrating the glory of God in the humanity that God has created in his image.
U.S. Birth Rate Continues to Plummet: The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Accelerated a Problematic American Trend
But next, we turn back to the United States for the dateline of an article that actually also has implications, ramifications far beyond the United States. It has to do with the fact that right now, as you're looking at the birth of babies in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're looking at the fact that we are entering what Time Magazine calls a pregnant pause. The subhead in the article, "Women are deciding not to have babies because of the pandemic." The article subhead goes on to say, "That's bad for everyone." Eliana Dockterman is the reporter in the story. And by the way, once again, credit to Time Magazine for actually running an article about a crisis in a low birth rate and stating that's bad for everyone.
The Time report cites a study from the Brookings Institution that estimated "that the US would see as many as 500,000 fewer births in 2021, a 13% drop from the 3.8 million babies born in 2019." The Time article cites research in the Brookings Institution that estimated "that the US would see as many as 500,000 fewer births in 2021, a 13% drop from the 3.8 million babies born in 2019." Now, the point that needs to be kept in mind is that that number for 2019 was already nearly catastrophically low. We are looking at the fact that the United States is now slipping well beneath the replacement or reproduction rate necessary even to maintain a stable population.
Now, this is a worldwide problem. It's far more acute in some societies such as Japan, where that number is so low, that you're going to be looking at an incipient labor and financial crisis coming within our own generation very quickly. You can see that coming on the scene.
In the United States due to immigration and higher birth rates, it is not quite the same situation, but according to this article in Time Magazine and the underlying research and observations of so many others, the COVID-19 pandemic has now created a context in which the already troubling birth rate is becoming more troubling by the day. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and its effects also continue, we need to recognize that we're looking at a change in the equation. The equation in the beginning of the pandemic is whether or not many women and of course married couples were delaying having a baby.
It now seems that the issue is not merely a delay. There is likely to be, at least as traceable to the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a net reduction in the total number of children that American mothers give birth to over the span of the entire generation. In other words, we're not just looking at a delay, we're looking at a decision not to have a baby or to have fewer babies under the circumstance.
“The Great Liberal Death Wish” — Why a Secular Worldview Leads to a Sterile Worldview
This also comes with other trends that need our attention. And that is the fact that women and men, but in this case, the important issue is that women are marrying later. And of course their prime period of apex fertility and reproduction comes earlier than they are getting married and furthermore, even as they get married later, now far closer to 30 than to 20. And you're looking at the fact that they are also delaying having babies even further after they get married later. The reality is that the context before COVID-19 was spelling disaster when it comes to the American birth rate. But now we're looking at COVID-19 accelerating the trend.
Now, when we looked at the first issue of our concern today, and that was as we looked at numbers from Denmark and the United States when it came to the Down syndrome question, you'll recall that you're looking at near 99%, if not higher, when you're looking at Denmark, but you're looking at a far lower number or percentage about 67%, too low perhaps to be accurate, but still lower. But as you're looking at the birth rate problem, you recognize that it's a timeline. The implication of the article is that the United States is likely to catch up with Denmark.
And the same thing is true when it comes to birth rate. The reality is that this is going to be a lasting problem and that it is not going to get better. It is likely to get worse. As Time reports, "Demographers say that if women delay having babies at any point in their lives, it's more likely that they won't have children at all, or won't have as many as they originally planned."
But as you look at this Time Magazine report, it effectively ends by saying this is evidently a big problem. As the subhead in the article said, "This isn't good for anyone." But at the same time, you look at this and you recognize time's not operating from a context of any worldview that can say much about this other than, wow, this turns out to be bad news. But this is where Christians understand that we have to look at the biblical teaching first and then try to figure out everything else as a secondary matter. And as a primary matter, let's just consider the very first words that God spoke to the human beings He had created, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth."
Furthermore, we recognize that God gave us the gift of society, which is outside the circle of marriage and family, the next very circle includes the neighborhood and the community, and then larger concentric circles get to the larger arenas of culture. And cultures only survive if they successfully reproduce. Nations only survive if they successfully reproduce. This is just a factor that is undeniable and easily proven throughout the patterns of human history.
And this is where we also recognize that given the mentality, the worldview of this secular age, that says the individuals are all that matters and individuals should make decisions based upon their own bliss. And that sex is going to be separated from reproduction and reproduction is to be separated from sex. And no one can say that having babies is a moral good. And no one can say that not having babies is in any way a moral wrong. In the context of that society, it's nothing more than what Malcolm Muggeridge called the great liberal death wish. And yes, he was explicitly referring to the declining birth rate.
But this is where Christians have to understand that the secular worldview actually becomes a sterile worldview, a non-reproductive worldview because human beings just decide they're going to define their lives according to their educational plans and their professional plans, their individual priorities, their vacation wants, their expectations and their own picture of the good life and their desire to define even their sex life and their reproductive life entirely on their own terms. Guess what? It turns out that if human beings are left to determine those issues entirely on their own terms, the birth rate goes down.
What we're looking at here is not just something that isn't good news as Time Magazine says. This actually represents what is looming before us as an existential threat to our own society and civilization. But Christians have to look at this and say we actually can't live this way. We can't think this way. We can't live this way. Even if the world is headed in this direction, surely it can't be true among us.
But that then leads me to a final thought for today's edition of The Briefing. It turns out that even as we know, we are losing traction and much of the society as believing Christians, even as we look around us and we recognize that we're not in control in Hollywood or in Manhattan or in so many of the sectors of cultural production, we can at least see this. One real opportunity for Christians and an opportunity for biblical witness for Christians is to out-reproduce the world. Having babies, by the way, not just to have babies, but having babies for the glory of God.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.