The Story: According to new report by CBS News, few countries have come as close to eradicating Down syndrome births as Iceland.
The Background: Since prenatal screening tests were introduced in Iceland in the early 2000s, the vast majority of women—nearly 100 percent—who received a positive test for Down syndrome terminated their pregnancy, CBS News notes. Currently in Iceland, only about two children per year are born with Down syndrome.
“My understanding is that we have basically eradicated, almost, Down syndrome from our society—that there is hardly ever a child with Down syndrome in Iceland anymore,” says Kari Stefansson, a geneticist and founder of a company that has studied nearly the entire Icelandic population’s genomes.
A reporter from CBS asked Stefansson, “What does the 100 percent termination rate, you think, reflect about Icelandic society?” He replied, “It reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling. And I don't think that heavy-handed genetic counseling is desirable. . . . You’re having impact on decisions that are not medical, in a way.”
(The 10-minute video report is worth watching it its entirety for it provides a pro-dignity and pro-life viewpoint not often presented by mainstream media sources.)
What It Means: Before we examine this issue further we need to adjust for our “American bias.” When we hear about demographic trends in other countries those of us in the United States have a tendency to consider them in our own context because the norm we know is what we experience in America.
We’re a huge country and so our demographic trends tend to also be massive. This can be especially problematic when we mentally apply the U.S. context to a tiny country like Iceland. In order to make sure we understand the true scope of the problem, let’s put the numbers in perspective. (Almost all numbers are based on 2016 data.)
Iceland is a country with a population of only 334,252. This means the entire country has a population comparable to Santa Ana, California (334,217) or Corpus Christi, Texas (325,733). Rather than using the comparison “Iceland to the United States” think “Iceland to a mid-size U.S. city.”
In the entire country of Iceland there were only 4,034 babies born. In the United States there are 10,999 babies born every day—that’s 2.7 times as many babies born every day in the United States than are born in Iceland every year. Another useful comparison is that the United States has about 1.5 times as many babies born with Down Syndrome (about 6,000) as Iceland has total babies born in a year.
Each year in the United States about 1 in every 700 babies is born with Down syndrome. If we assume the same number would apply to Iceland, we would expect there to be six babies born each year with Down syndrome.
Iceland has come close to eradicating Down syndrome because approximately six women who found their unborn child had a chromosome abnormality decided to have an abortion.
Now that you understand the context the question is, “Do you still care?”
Were you only outraged because it sounded like a large-scale problem? Are you less bothered by the idea of Down syndrome being “eliminated from an entire country” when it only requires aborting six children a year? I hope that’s not the case. Whether we are talking about one child or 1 million, we should be opposed to any attempts to eliminate children because they do not meet our standard of “quality.”
Now that we’ve been awakened by an attention-grabbing concept, we need to maintain that same same concern in the context or our own country. If you’re like the average American, you live in a city that aborts more children because of a Down syndrome diagnosis than they do in the entirety of Iceland.
The initial numbers don’t sound as shocking—Iceland has a near 100 percent abortion rate after a prenatal screening diagnosis while our rate is “only” 67 percent. But the scale of the eugenics problem in the United States is exponentially higher than it is in Iceland. We may not be as obvious about it, but we are also a country where children with Down syndrome are disappearing.