Dominic Lawson: We're hiding from the truth: eugenics lives on

Rights imputed to all 'viable' unborn children are withdrawn if the child is not ... normal

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There's some good news and some bad news for 92-year old Dr Hans-Joachim Sewering. The good news is that he has just been awarded a medal for "unequalled services in the cause of the independence of the medical profession" by the German Federation of Internal Medicine (BDI). The bad news is that Der Spiegel magazine has not forgotten what it published 30 years ago about Dr Sewering: documents testifying that under the Nazis he had sent children with disabilities to a facility where they were killed as part of a systematic programme of exterminating the mentally and physically handicapped.

The BDI this week refused to respond to Spiegel's renewed claims about Dr Sewering, who now lives in comfortable retirement in the town of, er, Dachau. Dr Sewering continues to insist that he did not cooperate with the Nazis' programme of compulsory eugenic euthanasia. He admits that he was an active member of the SS, but claims that his membership of Hitler's most ruthless paramilitary wing was purely for "social reasons" – the sing-songs, the dressing-up, that sort of thing.

It wasn't necessary to be an enthusiastic Nazi to have some sympathy for the objectives of the campaign to rid Germany of "lebensunwertes Leben" – lives unworthy of living. Hitler had simply taken to a foully logical conclusion the views of then-fashionable eugenicists: after all, Winston Churchill, when Home Secretary in Asquith's Liberal Cabinet in 1910, proclaimed that "the unnatural growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes is a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. The source from which this stain of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed."

Churchill, of course, was proposing compulsory sterilisation of what he termed "the feeble-minded", not their extermination. Well, that was almost a hundred years ago, people say, whenever his remarks are exhumed. Yet such attitudes survived long after the Nazis' eugenically-inspired crimes against humanity were revealed – and in the most unlikely countries: it was not until 1976 that Sweden abolished laws promoting the sterilisation of women for openly eugenic reasons.

Churchill was unsuccessful in his attempt to introduce such legislation in the UK, which is a cause for some national self-congratulation; but we should not delude ourselves into believing that our legal system, even today, is entirely free from eugenic prejudice. Remnants of it survive in our abortion laws.

Last week the House of Commons agonised over the legal time limits for abortion, in no fewer than 145 speeches on amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Eventually Members of Parliament voted to retain the 24-week limit for legal abortions – the moment when the unborn child is thought to be viable outside the mother's womb.

This was not altogether surprising. When sailing in such turbulent moral waters, it is understandable that most MPs would grab at the rail of "viability"; otherwise there is little to stop the conscientious legislator from being tossed from one side of the boat – any abortion is the unconscionable ending of another's life – to the other: no constraint of any sort should be placed on a woman's "right to choose", right up to the moment when the umbilical cord is cut, whenever that happens to be.

In effect, MPs decided that up to 24 weeks the unborn child has no rights at all – but after that moment its rights are absolute, superseding any wishes the mother might have to terminate the pregnancy. It's a bit weird, if you think about it, but that's the logic of Parliament's decision.

Only there's a big hole in this logic, even on its own terms. The original Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, under Margaret Thatcher's government in 1990, passed into law the notion that if there was a substantial risk that an unborn child could be "seriously handicapped", then there was no limit on the period during which its life, in utero, could be terminated. And there you have it: such rights as are imputed to all "viable" unborn children are absolutely withdrawn if the child is not ... normal.

There was in fact one amendment to this aspect of the law, which was put to the vote last week. It merely stipulated that when such a diagnosis is made, the mother-to-be should be provided with an-up-to-date analysis of the prospects and treatments available for such a child, and details of help-lines run by organisations such as the Down's Syndrome Association (which represents far and away the most common – and most feared – form of congenital disability).

This amendment was conclusively rejected by MPs, by 309 votes to 173. Not only did the great majority support the notion that a disabled unborn child could be terminated right up until 40 weeks' gestation, they didn't even want there to be a legal requirement that such a decision is based on more than an understandable spasm of panic, or even horror.

Those who opposed this amendment doubtless believed that the disabled associations who might provide such information would be putting pressure on the pregnant woman not to terminate. Yet there is at the moment a tremendous pressure in the opposite direction: because of the significant risks of miscarriage inherent in amniocentesis (the process by which blood for chromosomal tests is taken from the unborn child) doctors almost invariably tell the pregnant woman that they will not perform the test unless she agrees in advance to terminate the pregnancy, if Down's Syndrome is indicated.

This pressure to terminate is psychologically understandable – not least from the doctors' point of view: for every 100 instances of Down's Syndrome detected, about 400 "normal" pregnancies miscarry as a result of the amniocentesis. So if the mother refuses to be swayed by the social and medical pressure to abort her "abnormal" baby, she is making the system look even crazier and more wasteful than it already is.

Not the least crazy aspect of it is that there is actually a waiting list of people who want to adopt a child with Down's Syndrome. The idea that institutionalisation is the only alternative to abortion for such a child, if it is not wanted by his or her biological parents, is hopelessly outdated.

Some years ago, when I wrote about the birth of our own daughter Domenica, who has Down's Syndrome, Claire Rayner commented that we had behaved selfishly, because of the "misery" and cost to society of such children: "People who are not yet parents should ask if they have the right to inflict such burdens on others". There you have the classic eugenic argument, from a very well-known ex-nurse who was frank enough to blurt out what is normally covered up.

While I was discussing this article yesterday morning at home, Domenica, who will be 13 this Sunday – must have overheard. She suddenly said, at lunch, "I'm so glad I'm human." Perhaps I am being an over-proud father, but I think she put her finger on the most important argument of all.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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