Number of children born with Down syndrome drops to 18 in Denmark

The Nyhavn canal, part of the Copenhagen, Denmark, Harbor and home to many bars and restaurants, is seen in this August 11, 2008 file photo.
The Nyhavn canal, part of the Copenhagen, Denmark, Harbor and home to many bars and restaurants, is seen in this August 11, 2008 file photo. | Reuters/Teis Hald Jensen/Files

Prenatal testing for Down syndrome has led most women in Denmark to abort their children once diagnosed. The number of children born with Down syndrome in the northern European country plummeted to 18 last year.

But Michelle Sie Whitten, president and CEO of Global Down Syndrome Foundation, said the problem isn’t the free tests. Rather, it’s a worldwide mindset that treats people as animals to be improved by breeding and culling.

Whitten pointed to the U.S.’ little talked about eugenics history.

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“The U.S. was the stomping grounds of early eugenics,” she told The Christian Post. “This was where a lot of the big eugenic movement happened. A lot of people don’t know about that past. It’s a little bit like the Holocaust. But if you don’t bring it up, it will happen again.”

In the early 1900s, over two dozen U.S. states passed sterilization laws as part of the eugenics movement. Sterilizations were forced on the disabled, the mentally ill, the poor and people of color, among others. These efforts partly inspired Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who were responsible for the genocide of 6 million Jews.

Today in Denmark, the government offers healthcare for children with Down syndrome and is not overtly hostile to those with a disability, The Atlantic reported. But after the country began offering free prenatal testing to all women in 2004, the rate of children born with Down syndrome has continued to drop to new lows. The Danish National Board of Health reports that "95% of pregnant women whose fetus is found to have a chromosomal abnormality opt for an abortion.”

“It’s hard to change trends that may have been in place for 20 or 30 years,” said Whitten.

Whitten’s own experience with Down syndrome began before the birth of her daughter, who has Down syndrome, she said. When a test showed her baby might have the condition, her doctor showed her a short homemade video that bluntly told her the probability of death and disease for the child she held within her. Tears trickled down her face.

“Don’t cry. Here’s a tissue. Eighty to 90% of people terminate who get this diagnosis. You can too,” the office’s technician said to Whitten.

“I must have had five doctors who said ‘you should terminate,’” Whitten said. “I was at 30 weeks. ‘Oh, but it’s Downs,’ they’d say. These clinicians are good people. They’re uneducated. They’re unaware. They just don’t know any better. It’s our job to educate them.”

In many ways, life for those with Down syndrome has improved considerably, she said. Life expectancy has more than doubled from 28 to 60. Due to higher teaching expectations, most people with the condition can now read. Many of the condition’s worst effects are now fixable.

But the creation of pre-birth screenings for Down syndrome has led to the abortion of these people at unprecedented rates. Notably, the Global Down Syndrome Foundation takes a neutral position on abortion. The group opposes abortion based on skewed or prejudiced information about Down syndrome, but it doesn’t oppose abortion of children with Down syndrome based on correct and balanced information, Whitten said. The group also wants to focus its efforts on areas that don’t require the difficult legal fights of the abortion issue.

“I think that for us, we have an inclusive policy. We have tons of people who are pro-life and pro-choice, all supporting children with Down syndrome. We’ve walked that line by saying we’re pro-information and anti-eugenics,” she said.

To ensure the public recognizes people with Down syndrome as human beings, Whitten said she works to give them publicity. People are more likely to not kill people they see, she said. She said the work of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation has led to higher birth numbers for Down syndrome children.

“We’ve moved to this place when the majority of people want to accept all people from all walks of life. I think it’s a beautiful thing in terms of inclusion and acceptance,” she said. “I don’t think you can underestimate the awareness work that we and others do. I think that has contributed to the increased number of births.”

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