We applaud competitors while welcoming new ways to 'eradicate' Down’s syndrome sufferers

The hugely successful Paralympic Games come to a close this Sunday. In a strongly worded message to draw attention to the ambivalence of our attitude to the disabled, James Parker, Catholic coordinator for the Games, has spoken out against Great Britain’s “discriminatory and outdated abortion laws”. He relates that many Paralympians he has talked to are unaware that had they been conceived today in this country they would most likely be aborted. Doubtless they would be aghast to think that their lives, so full of triumphal achievement against great odds, might have been brutally ended before they had properly begun.

Parker described the Paralympic Village, filled with the best modern equipment that these athletes require, as a “sacred place” where there is “a vibrant, tangible passion for life”. You can get an idea of its special atmosphere when Parker goes on to explain that every participator, sensitive towards each other’s difficulties, “is in the service of their neighbour”. Indeed, it sounds the kind of Christian community that we all aspire to build. It reminds us that people with a disability have a unique and crucial witness to make to our Darwinian-oriented society, with its implicit pull towards the survival of the fittest.

Parker emphasised that “what is astounding is that Britain is enabling the eyes of the world to be opened to the giftedness and potential of those with disabilities through its hosting of the Paralympic Games. However, its own laws vehemently and shockingly discriminate against any new life in the womb that might possibly be affected by a physical handicap, genetic problems or a mental defect.”

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In a recent blog post Madeleine Teahan, like James Parker, called in question the hypocrisy of a country which has fallen over itself to highlight the splendid efforts of the competitors this last fortnight, yet at the same time is publicly silent about its laws that allow abortion up to birth for babies with defects. She concluded: “Before we, the benevolent Paralympic hosts, congratulate ourselves on being the midwives of diversity, let’s pause … to ponder if support for our Paralympians rings hollow.”

I found striking evidence of this Janus-faced “benevolence” in an article in the Telegraph earlier this week. The headline: “Test that could end Down’s syndrome” and the subtitle: “Blood check is 99 per cent accurate, could save 300 babies a year and should be available on NHS within five years”. My instant (naive) response was to think that a breakthrough had been made in ending this chromosomal disorder. What else could the headline possibly mean? Then I read the small print. I was completely mistaken. Indeed, I had to read the small print a few times to grasp its full implications.

What the report by Stephen Adams, the Telegraph medical correspondent, did not say was that a new blood test for pregnant women, which would “pick up more cases of Down’s” than the current process, would certainly have “the potential to all but eradicate Down’s syndrome” – by simply by killing off more affected babies more efficiently than in the past by detecting the condition earlier. The figure of 300 “saved” babies concerns those now unhappily miscarried when the current tests are carried out.

If the headline had been of a test that could “end” malaria or polio it would be unthinkable to imagine it meant wiping out persons affected by these diseases. Those who composed the Telegraph headline obviously had no idea of the savage and Swiftian irony behind it.

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