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Six Disturbing Assumptions Uncovered in A World Without Downs

DS docoIf you haven't seen it already, run, don't walk, to see Sally Phillips' documentary: A World Without Down's Syndrome. In it Phillips discusses a new, non-invasive, test offered by the NHS to diagnose Down's Syndrome in utero. In Iceland, the test has led to 100% of expectant mothers terminating their pregnancies when discovering Down's. In Denmark it's 98%. Already in the UK, 90% of mothers terminate and Sally wonders aloud whether, with this new test, we will go the way of Iceland and effectively see a world without Down's Syndrome.

Sally is the mother of Olly, an 11 year old full of life and fun (and who has Down's) and she rightly sees this future as unthinkable. She interviews mothers, doctors, geneticists, and those with Down's from around the world. What we discover through the documentary is truly disturbing. Let me highlight six chilling assumptions informing a culture that would enable the elimination of a subgroup.


1. Because feelings run high, facts should be silenced

This article was written before the documentary's airing in which Jane Fisher, Director of Antenatal Results and Choices, complains:

“Sally is a very compelling presenter, and – absolutely – it’s great to have the positive images of people [with Down’s] who are already here. But it’s very personal, and it’s an extra layer of difficulty for couples and families who might be making the decision now about whether to end their pregnancy. It risks offering the suggestion to those who have [decided to end a pregnancy] that they have made the wrong decision."

Translation: When things are so personal, it's unhelpful to have the other side put compellingly. People might change their minds.


2. "Costs" are calculated in pounds and pence

At one point Sally interviews Lynn  Chitty, professor of genetics and fetal medicine, and asks her about the cost of the test. Sally is talking about the high cost to society of, potentially, eliminating an entire population. Jane says "It's not a high cost at all, our studies have shown that you can implement this at..." Sally interrupts "Sorry, I wasn't talking about the financial cost... I was talking about an experiment... that may result in a catastrophic result [for] the Down's Syndrome population."

When one side is speaking about the cost of rolling out a programme of blood tests and another side is speaking about the survival of a group of people, we are talking at some pretty chilling cross-purposes.


3. Society should not be encumbered by the weak and vulnerable.

Lynn comes back at Sally with a question of her own. She asks: "How do you feel about later on in life? Because [Olly] is likely to outlive you. How do you feel about that prospect?" Sally responds: "the answer to that is not termination. The answer is that if we have a society that is unable to care for people, the problem is not the person."

A mother whose vulnerable son will outlive her needs a society that will value the vulnerable too. Instead she is faced with someone who thinks the better course of action would have been termination. If Lynn's views are at all representative of society at large, this is frightening indeed and it signals a 180 degree shift in our moral compass. In times past we would have thought the moral thing would be to care for the weak and vulnerable. We are shifting to a view where it's not just permitted but positively virtuous to end the life of the weak and vulnerable because we no longer want to be a society that cares for the weak. We eliminate them


4. The good life is one that is free from pain and struggle

Sally meets Kate who decided to terminate her pregnancy at 25 weeks when they discovered Down's. Kate tells Sally she'd done a lot of research - not just of the facts and figures but also listening to stories of those living with Down's: "You see some of the difficulties that people were going through," she says, "One woman whose 5 year old son still wasn't walking... he was very heavy, having fits everywhere. If my child was affected as much as he was I'd feel really guilty about that, having been given the choice."

After they watch inspirational footage of a gymnast with Down's, Kate reflects that the gymnast clearly had to struggle far more to attain these achievements and it wasn't something she wanted for her child.

Never mind that those with Down's report being some of the happiest people on the planet, never mind that the greatest lives lived have been in the teeth of suffering, never mind that every human being must struggle in this world, somehow we have come to the view that a life of pain and struggle is simply not worth living.


5. The right to life is earned

Sally interviews geneticist George Church who is at the forefront of genetic testing in utero. As Sally raises the danger of people having ever more information about their offspring, Church says that our real battle is to educate the masses. If having children with DS is an enriching experience for all then Sally and others should keep doing what they're doing (while George does what he's doing). He urges Sally to "Spread the word that [those with Down's Syndrome] are valuable members of society."

Job done. We just need more information - both about the unborn and about their prospects in the real world. And if those with DS can be deemed to be valuable, no problem, right? Except, who says who's valuable? And how? On what basis? The entire logic of Church's position is that the right to life is earned. (Of course the position of the church is quite different: life is a sheer gift).


6. Personalising the issue is wrong.

Here's something deeply ironic in the way the Guardian have reported this documentary. Before the documentary we were warned that Phillips was wading into emotional waters and could upset mothers with her compelling case (see point 1). After the documentary, came this review by Julia Raeside: It's Straight From The Heart - And That's The Problem. First the facts would upset people's feelings. Then we're told Sally's case is all feelings, no facts.

Raeside says it's "impassioned but not impartial" because Sally shows us her happy family life, her beaming, boisterous son, Olly, and the inspirational achievements of those with Down's Syndrome. How unfair to personalise the issue. How unfair to bring these people, whose elimination we are discussing, off of the sonogram, out of the NHS leaflets and onto our screens, laughing, joking and dancing. Wouldn't it be fairer if we dealt with them as.... what? Statistics? Lists of symptoms?

No, if we are dealing with people then it would not be impartial, it would be sociopathic to cast them in anything less than personal terms. That is the beauty and also the integrity of Sally's documentary.


It seems to me that these six disturbing views are throbbing away under all our discussions in this area. Phillips' documentary has done us a huge favour. She has confronted a culture of death with a beaming 11 year old and asked us: Who will we listen to? Let's pray we choose well.


15 thoughts on “Six Disturbing Assumptions Uncovered in A World Without Downs

  1. Donald Mitchell


    My reply to another facebook comment on this issue,

    " I found it moving and extremely sad. Probably the biggest omission in the programme the fact that every human being is made in the image of God which makes terminations of pregnancy so awful. Both sides of the argument were inevitably v. human focused. The other point that wasn't made is that through termination we have arrived at the same place as Nazi Germany in respect of "removing" the problem of the disabled from society, yet now it is parents making the decision as society's proxies! How great the need for a spiritual revival in western society!"

  2. Chris Chapman

    I haven't had chance to view the program yet, but from what I read here a lot of the arguments for aborting a potential DS foetus seem very Hitleresque! If this is accepted by the general population which group will be the next target? Fortunately, God loves ALL people, not just the ones deemed to 'fit in'.

  3. Pete Matthew

    Glen, thanks for this post. Just a factual comment, I think your quote under point 2 was made by the professor who developed the test and not the lady who ran the 'counselling' line.

  4. Mike Tufnell

    Thanks Glen. A fantastic documentary as you say. I had the privilege of meeting Olly at a Christian holiday camp a few years ago, he was delightfully and sensitively playing with me then nearly-2 year old daughter. He was clearly a huge credit to Sally. Incidentally, to the first comment from Donald, Sally IS a Christian, and I'm sure her views on the worth of the individual as thus informed by her faith.

  5. Andrew Cirel

    A very moving documentary, it was lovely to see Sally’s relationship with Olly, Olly seems like a happy and friendly child.
    But isn't the issue with Sally’s position that she is pro-choice with regard to abortion, and isn’t this where pro-choice leads us?
    What about Sally’s other children, the ones who have no health problems, why doesn’t she put one of them in front of the camera and then ask why unborn babies like them are being aborted?
    If Sally was pro-life, her arguments would be more consistent...

  6. Mary Flannery

    We haven't seen this yet in USA but hope we will. I just want to add that the acceptability of abortion in society, (not just for DS) is dependent on the deHumanisation of the human being in the womb. We've relegated an entire group of people to subhuman status.

  7. Sharlene Cannon

    I find this abhorrent.My sis Heather has downs .she has taught us more about compassion kindness and the unfaltering determination of the human spirt which ever shell it comes wrapped in.The scientists had boardline autistic traits they continue down this path then they will in effect eradicate themselves as autism will no doubt be next on their agenda?

  8. Paul Goodfellow


    You make a very good point regarding being made in God's image. However in the documentary's defence I suspect any such discussion would have meant that the BBC wouldn't show it, and probably would have reduced the number of people who might watch it. As it is I think it successfully communicates a message to the secular world that values life, and for that I believe it may be commended.

  9. Ann Price

    This was an amazing programme. The joyful love that Ollie and Sally and her other children demonstrated was the most powerful argument ever for the preciousness and value of every single human life. It also made us look at the slippery slope we are on if we start grading which lives are worth preserving and which should be eliminated in 'the interests' of producing a 'perfect' society. I think Hitler was a champion of this kind of eugenics ! Is there a web site where we can show our support for Sally and her wonderful programme?

  10. Beth Bullington

    My daughter is 12 and when she was born in Taiwan the nurse told us that she was special because "most" don't make it. At that time many with Down Syndrome were aborted. This was an excellent article.

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