Earlier this month a team of researchers at the University of Washington reported it was able to map the entire genetic blueprint of an unborn baby using only a blood sample from the mother—who was just 18 weeks into her pregnancy—and saliva from the father. They believe that this technique will enable them, with 98% accuracy, to screen a fetus for more than 3,000 genetically linked conditions, including cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and Marfan syndrome. For most of these conditions there is no current treatment or cure. The only way to avoid having a baby with these traits is to avoid bringing the baby to term. In other words, through these tests increasing numbers of unborn children with physical, cognitive, or other disabilities, will either be aborted or die in a petri dish in the fertility clinic.
There is no legal reason these children may not be born, of course, but genetic screening for Down Syndrome is a painful lesson that teaches us how these tests will be used. Today, because of pervasiveness of testing, 90% of children with Down Syndrome are never born! Genetic disability has become a bulls-eye targeting the unborn. Why would we expect this new battery of tests to be used any differently?
How are we to think about children with disabilities? First, every human being, regardless of his or her abilities or disabilities, is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27-28). That’s why the early church not only forbade infanticide, but established the first orphanages to care for children who were abandoned by their families.
Furthermore, the Bible actually has quite a lot to say about persons with disabilities. The blind, the deaf, the mute, and the lame are often mentioned in one way or another. The Holiness Code, for instance, prohibited cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:4). Respect was to be shown instead. Mephibosheth was “crippled in his feet” and “lame” due to being dropped accidentally by his nurse (2 Samuel 4:4; 9:3, 13). The prophet Isaiah taught that despite any impairment, the faithful would receive everlasting blessings (Isaiah 56:3-5). In Jesus’s Parable of the Great Banquet, those who invited “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to the feast are told they will be rewarded at the resurrection (Luke 14:11-14).
It is Jesus himself who bids Christians to be hospitable to those who were unwell. In solidarity with the sick, he said to his disciples, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25: 35-37). He followed with these famous words, “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (vv. 38-40).
Rather than receiving those with disabilities, our culture of narcissism often rejects and abandons them. There are valiant exceptions, of course. Some courageous parents choose to bring their children into the world, lovingly caring for them, despite the diagnosis of a genetically-linked disorder. Society should applaud their self-sacrifice and love, rather than pity them for their supposed naiveté. There may come a time when the ethical means to treat and cure disabilities are available to us. But in this case, the end of not bearing a child with a disability, does not justify the means of ending the life of the child before birth. In other words, when one counts the cost of this new genetic screening method, the moral arithmetic does not add up.