On 16 August, The Independent reported on mass abortion in Iceland. But what it failed to do was give its readers an alternative viewpoint. Instead, it opted for selling the story as one of ending a genetic condition.
A “horrifying reality”?
On 15 August, US network CBS released a documentary about Iceland. It was specifically regarding the country’s prenatal screening programme which, CBS said, has almost “eradicated” babies born with Down’s syndrome. This is because the government tells all expectant mothers about the test’s availability, and around 80-85% of these women go on to have the test. Consequently, nearly 100% of women whose unborn children screen positive for Down’s choose to have an abortion.
CBS‘s own report was fairly balanced. It gave voices to both those who were for and against the abortion of babies with Down’s syndrome. But some of its language caused controversy. As the conservative Christian-leaning website The National Review noted:
The CBS article does little to accord this subject the moral gravity it deserves. ‘Other countries aren’t lagging too far behind in Down syndrome termination rates,’ the authors note casually. CBS News’s tweet promoting the story read simply: ‘Iceland is on pace to virtually eliminate Down syndrome through abortion.’
But The Independent‘s reporting on CBS‘s piece was far from balanced. It merely lifted quotes from the CBS article and repackaged what the US website had said. And it only lifted the pro-abortion quotes, at that. For example, The Independent concluded its article by quoting Helga Sol Olafsdottir, a counsellor for women who are considering ending their pregnancy over a “foetal abnormality”. It said:
She says she tells mothers: ‘This is your life. You have the right to choose how your life will look like.’
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She told a reporter: ‘We don’t look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication… preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder — that’s so black and white’.
‘Life isn’t black and white. Life is grey.’
It is perplexing to see The Independent be so lax when it comes to presenting a balanced viewpoint. Because there are plenty of anti-abortion commentators it could have called upon. But then it may be that, for The Independent, this is too complicated an issue; as the subject of Iceland’s screening programme and subsequent abortions of Down’s syndrome babies is not just a case of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’. And it’s not just a debate that needs to be had in Iceland, either.
In the interest of balance
As the website Snopes pointed out, Iceland’s abortion rate for Down’s syndrome babies is not unusual:
There are similar termination rates after fetal diagnoses of Down syndrome in other European countries. In Denmark, for example, the rate is about 98%, CBS News reported. In the United States, for comparison’s sake, the rate of mothers choosing to terminate their pregnancy after receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis is about 68%.
[Ted] Cruz mischaracterised the news on Twitter, saying there was a ‘100% termination rate’ for ‘children’ with Down syndrome, calling it ‘truly sad’. [Sarah] Palin kicked things up a notch, accusing Iceland of trying to mimic Nazi Germany.
For the record, there is no requirement whatsoever for women to accept screening, let alone terminate their pregnancies if Down syndrome indications are detected, and that there are many Icelanders of all ages with Down syndrome is easily verifiable.
For comparison, Iceland has an age-standardised abortion rate of 14.2 per 1,000 women of child bearing age; the UK’s rate [pdf p5] is 16 per 1,000. And while Iceland reports nearly 100% of women with Down’s babies are having abortions, the UK rate is at around 90%.
A global problem
The issue with Iceland’s approach is not just one of abortion. A woman’s right to decide what happens to themselves, their bodies and their children should always be theirs. Iceland’s problem is the overt way that its government has essentially been pushing the agenda that anyone with Down’s syndrome is better off dead; that they are somehow inferior to the rest of us and not needed in modern society.
But this is not an issue confined to Iceland. It’s a societal problem across the world that is becoming more and more ingrained. And it’s one of disabled people being seen as inferior, not as worthy as non-disabled people and, ultimately, subject to persecution.
In the UK, we have witnessed it in the pages of three UN reports, which said successive governments have committed “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights. The UN also noted that the UK government had helped to create a public perception where disabled people:
have been… negatively portrayed as being dependent or making a living out of benefits; committing fraud as benefit claimants; being lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers, who are paying ‘money for nothing’. Persons with disabilities continue to experience increasing hostility, aggressive behaviour and sometimes attacks to their personal integrity.
The UN found no evidence to support any of these ideas, especially the idea that disabled claimants were committing benefit fraud. But we also witness the persecution of disabled people on a global scale. Just this week, for example, the UN refugee agency revealed that almost 10 million of the 65 million people forcibly displaced in 2016 were disabled.
Society in the gutter
No one has the right to tell a woman what she can and can’t do with her body. But it’s troubling that, in 2017, people with Down’s syndrome are still portrayed as ‘inferior’ to the rest of society; so much so that governments are applauded for “eradicating” Down’s like it was the Black Death. Aside from the facts showing that people with Down’s can live full and fruitful lives, has our self-respect got so low as a society that we can value others so little? We may be living in 2017, but it looks like we’re still not even in the 20th century.
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