Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Professor criticized for advocating aborting the mentally retarded

An embryology professor who called for Down's Syndrome victims to be aborted is now having to defend himself in the public square.

According to the News-Observer story Abortion remark angers students, ominously subtitled "UNC Prof wary of Down's Syndrome," the professor read this passage from his lecture notes in an embryology class:

"In my opinion, the moral thing for older mothers to do is to have amniocentesis, as soon during pregnancy as is safe for the fetus, test whether placental cells have a third chromosome #21, and abort the fetus if it does. The brain is the last organ to become functional."

There is an obvious joke in that last sentence.

There is a more subtle disconnect in the professor's concern that the test be done "as soon as is safe for the fetus."

To their credit, some students reacted quite critically:

Frame's brother, John, 18, has Down syndrome, and Frame said she became "physically ill" at Harris' remarks. She didn't say anything during Monday's class. She was too angry, she said.

Sarah Truluck, who coordinates membership in the campus group Best Buddies, also was appalled to hear what Harris had said. Best Buddies pairs college students with intellectually disabled adults in the community.

"It is shocking to find that a university professor can be so ignorant of the issues at stake," Truluck said in a release. "We will continue to fight the stereotype that people with disabilities are somehow less than human, and encourage others to do the same."

The article discusses UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Albert Harris' reaction to the criticism:
Harris, 64, has taught embryology at UNC-CH for 35 years. He has made the statement about Down syndrome and abortion many times. He says it's the moral thing to do because of the effect on families. "I know somebody who had a child like this, and it ruined their life," he said.

"It is a relevant thing. It is a teaching moment," he said, sitting in his office after class. But this year's experience has him wondering how, or whether, he'd ever say it again. "I'm not advising anybody," he continued.

"I'm trying in the most effective way possible to indicate that this is something that one can hold different opinions on. And I think it would be kind of weaselly to say it's a secret what my opinion is. But maybe I should."

Then the professor admits to some very admirable, if confused, hypocrisy:

"If our child had been born with Down syndrome as we expected, we would have cherished her," Harris said.

Though he believes aborting a fetus with Down syndrome is the moral thing to do, "I don't necessarily do the moral thing," he said.

Talk about doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

I have to say this article surprised me. It is the first mainstream news story I've found that both discusses the targeting of Down's Syndrome children for eugenic abortion and reports opinions that this is a bad thing. I am encouraged that some students objected enough that the dispute received news coverage.

George Neumayer has the sad statistics of eugenic abortion:
Medical researchers estimate that 80 percent or more of babies now prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. (They estimate that since 1989 70 percent of Down-syndrome fetuses have been aborted.) A high percentage of fetuses with cystic fibrosis are aborted, as evident in Kaiser Permanente's admission to the New York Times that 95 percent of its patients in Northern California choose abortion after they find out through prenatal screening that their fetus will have the disease.

We generally pass over the "fetal deformity" exceptions often supported by pragmatic anti-abortion candidates. Let's remember exactly what that means.

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