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Bio-ethicist Sparks Furor by Suggesting Abortions of Disabled
By Robert B. Bluey
CNSNews.com Staff Writer
November 25, 2002

(CNSNews.com) - Disability advocates and pro-life groups are comparing the process of genetic selection to Nazi eugenics after a scholar from the National Institutes of Health said America would benefit from aborting the blind and disabled.

In a speech earlier this month at the University of Rhode Island, biomedical ethicist Dan W. Brock said his views are not discriminatory, and he said any decision must be left to parents, without government intervention.

Brock told CNSNews.com that his beliefs are his own and do not represent those of the National Institutes of Health or the federal government. He also said it is not the first time he has faced criticism for his views.

The speech was meant, in part, to counter that criticism and offer a defense for genetic testing, which Brock said is not like the eugenics practiced by the Nazis. German dictator Adolf Hitler used eugenics, killing disabled individuals and then Jews, with the goal of creating a perfect society.

But two pro-life groups said Brock's theory could have a detrimental impact on future generations.

"It's a hidden agenda that they want to rid our country of people who may cause us to care for them and protect them and may even cost some money," said Tom Lothamer, interim director of Baptists for Life. "If we have that kind of a culture of death, then I believe our country is doomed. If we can do away with the disabled, then who's next?"

Wendy Wright, spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, echoed those sentiments. She said Brock's theories undermine the field of bioethics and lead society down a dangerous path.

"It's particularly dangerous when you target people because of a disability," Wright said. "As we've seen throughout history, it's too easy for people who don't have a moral compass to fall into that way of thinking. Once people start down that slope, that inevitably expands to other classes of people."

Brock said this is not the first time he has been criticized by those in the disability and pro-life communities. As for the argument that he is promoting eugenics, "One thing doesn't always lead to every other thing," he said.

"One can distinguish between using this testing, either pre-conception or post-conception, to prevent the birth of children with very serious disabling diseases from any implications of how we should treat people who are born and live with those diseases," Brock said.

Other bioethics specialists have also challenged his views, including Adrienne Asch, a professor at Wellesley College, who said Brock has failed to understand how disabled individuals cope with their disabilities.

Brock, for instance, said blind individuals cannot enjoy the paintings at an art gallery and people with cognitive disabilities are unable to perform basic daily functions. For those reasons, he said, parents should give genetic testing some thought.

"Even after we've made all the accommodations of justice and equality of opportunity, there would still be some residual disadvantage from being seriously cognitively disabled or being blind," Brock said. "It's a judgment not about the person; it's a judgment about the condition and a judgment that it would be better if the children who are born don't have that condition."

Asch said blind individuals might not be able to see two-dimensional art, but that does not mean they cannot appreciate other things in life.

"Not every human being can do everything," Asch said, citing the athleticism of a basketball player or the knowledge of a mathematician. "Everybody has things they are able to experience and things they are not."

For Penny Reeder, who is blind, Brock's theories are hurtful. She said if genetic testing becomes prominent, parents would be faced with difficult ethical decisions.

"How dare he say that he's not denigrating people with disabilities when he's advocating aborting a pregnancy of a potential person with a disability. It's just amazing to me," said Reeder, who cited her job as a magazine editor as evidence that blind people can succeed.

Lothamer said the issue also extends beyond bioethics into an area where parents must decide if they should play the role of a higher being. But Brock was quick to counter that assessment as well.

"Medicine is in the business of messing with nature and God's will," he said. "Medicine tries to intervene in what would otherwise happen by natural processes or God's will. We normally think that if we can prevent serious suffering, then artificial interventions are justified."

Even Asch conceded that some parents would probably adopt Brock's way of thinking, but said she hopes those parents also consider the positive impact disabled individuals can have on society.

"I think people should get to make the decisions they want to make," Asch said. "I think they need to have better information about life with disability before they make those decisions, but if they ultimately make those decisions, then they make them."

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

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