“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The ultimate in discrimination

My friend and colleague, Rev. Bill Gaventa recently recommended a book to me and I am glad he did. It is, Hans S. Reinders' The future of the disabled in a liberal society: An ethical analysis (Notre Dame Press). I am only about half way through it, but I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read thus far. For those of you who do not like to read philosophy, it is a bit thick, but it is definitely worth the effort. I want to provide an extended quote from page 46.

The context is the attempt to try to understand the reasons for abortion of children with disabilties in the context of "prevention" of genetic disorders.
The aim of the proposed terminology is to suggest that, in principle, we can attack the consequences of a disease from two sides: not only by combatting the disease with the diagnostic and therapeutic means that medicine provides but also by changing the social and cultural environment that makes for the cause of disability or handicap. The latter may be the objective of social and political reform rather than of medical intervention. The distinction between types of genetic disorders is important, then, because it generates different moral arguments. Preventing the birth of a disabled child because its life will be devalued as abnormal is surely morally different from preventing the birth of a disabled child that will suffer from serious illness. Even if in both cases their lives may be burdened by distress to similar degrees, their distress is very different in kind. Furthermore, being devalued as abnormal in our society may be seen as constituting a case of discrimination, which means that prevention in that case takes on a completely different meaning. For it can be argued, given these different meanings, that in some cases prevention is a dubious response to a social evil. At least that is what I think many people in our society will be lieve to be true. Instead of confronting the agents of discrimination, one aims at preventing its victims from being born. Consequently, people in our society may be worried about preventing disabled children for reasons of abnormality, even if at the same time they may accept that parents decide not to have a mentally disabled child in order to avoid serious suffering due to illness. If the cause of the suffering is society rather than nature, the more appropriate response would be political rather than medical. This indicates in which sense disabilities and handicaps caused by different kinds of genetic disorders may raise different sets of moral questions. (emphasis added)

Reading this, I can't help but come back to the notion of the church's protective function. We have the ability to provide succor with the potential effect of normalizing the lives and experience of persons with disability. Or by chosing to ignore or not prioritize ministry to persons with disability, we can be complicit in the discrimination which leads to practices such as abortion of such people. As Reinders states, the solution to aleviating the suffering of a significant group of persons with genetic disorders/disabilities is of a political or social nature. If the church would normalize persons with down syndrome, for example, the arguments for prevention of these lives through abortion would be harder to substantiate. We would also be all that we should be to the community, potentially having a dramatic effect on the understanding of who people with down syndrome are. People would have to say that persons with down syndrome suffer from discrimination, but only in environments outside of the Christian world. Within the Church and its agents, they are just people.


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