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Weakness That Makes Us Strong Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Recent evolutionary theory suggests that the old social-Darwinist dictum “survival of the fittest” couldn’t be more wrong. What has made homo sapiens a dominant species, many biologists now think is precisely our ability to cooperate, to act altruistically, and to protect the weakest members of the tribe.

This hypothesis makes even more incomprehensible the current efforts in the medical community to “purify” the gene pool through eugenic methods. Currently, for example, 90 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Indeed, there are powerful forces who have repeatedly announced their intention to eradicate children with Down syndrome within the next several years. By that they don’t mean eradicate the syndrome by treating it genetically. They mean eradicate the children by testing for their presence and then aborting them. 

Young women ask me all the time: “Am I really required by law to have an amniocentesis? My doctor says I am.” The answer to that question (for now) is: No. But people will tell you that you are required, because (A) they want to cover their own butts – that is, they don’t want to be sued if you give birth to a child that you would have wished to abort (what they call “wrongful life”) – and (B) they may be party to the current eugenics movement that is attempting to eradicate those whom they consider to have “lives unworthy of life.”    

That term, “lives unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben) was the term German doctors used to describe mentally retarded children in the 1930s as they were developing the methods of “euthanasia” that became the first step in eradicating all such “undesirables” on the road to the “The Final Solution.”

What makes such children so threatening that some people feel they must be eradicated completely? Indeed, why do they make many of us feel so uncomfortable? If I may indulge a Freudian impulse for a moment, I think it is because we see ourselves in them. That is, we see ourselves in all the most embarrassing moments in our lives: when we dropped our tray of food at school and everyone in the cafeteria laughed and applauded; when we didn’t know the answer to the question we were sure everyone else knew; when we acted in our usual fashion, and it turned out to be radically “uncool” and all the cool, sophisticated kids rolled their eyes at us in contempt. 

Those children are us when we were at our weakest, our most vulnerable, our most embarrassed. And no one wants to look or feel that way. In fact, the fear of looking or feeling foolish is probably one of the reasons that, in survey after survey, fear of public speaking far outstrips the fear of death as people’s “worst fear.” Whom the gods would destroy, they first make foolish. These children hit us where we’re weakest, and we would prefer not to look at that part of ourselves.

That, however, is precisely why they are some of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Remember Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” So too with us. When we can look upon that weak, vulnerable, socially awkward part of ourselves and say, “Yes, this too, God loves; this too, God sanctifies,” then we will finally be on the road to health and human flourishing.

I fear a culture that wants to eradicate children with Down syndrome and the mentally retarded and all people who aren’t strong and vibrant and productive. I fear it, because the purveyors of such a culture are trying to kill what is most human in us.  Caring for and living with children with Down syndrome humanizes us: it teaches us to love selflessly, the way Christ loves us. And it teaches us to love ourselves: even those parts of ourselves we’d prefer others not see, those parts that we ourselves would rather not look at.

We need such children among us.  We need them more than we need the latest iPad or “smart” phone. In a hundred years, no one will care about our technology, any more than my students care about the technology of eighteenth-century France or nineteenth-century Germany. What will make a difference is how well we treated the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

If we fulfill that calling faithfully, then ours will be a culture worth remembering. If we assert our technological brilliance above all else and succeed so brilliantly that we have no room in our lives for the disadvantaged, we’ll be remembered the way we remember Germany in the 1930s: they got the trains to run on time – and then they promptly used them to transport six million Jews and other “undesirables” to death camps.  

In the end, God is our only real audience, and compared to Him, the Creator of the universe, we have a worm’s intellect. But He manages to love us in spite of ourselves. We’re never closer to Him than when we’re embracing that part of ourselves that we see in children with Down syndrome: simple, joyful, vulnerable. 

These children need our help, but we need them more. They make us human. God’s greatest gift to creatures puffed up with silly self-importance is the gift of humility. As the poet T.S. Eliot has rightly said: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”  

Today is World Down Syndrome Day. Take five minutes and watch the International Down Syndrome Coalition for Life video for World Down Syndrome Day. It will be the best five minutes you spend this week.

Watch the video, and thank God for such children. Then pray for a culture that’s humane enough to embrace them and not so foolish as to eradicate them – and its own soul – in its efforts to perfect physical “strength” and genetic “purity.” That way madness lies. 

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Gian, March 21, 2012
Given their worldview, the disdain for Down's and others is perfectly comprehensible. Do you think pagans would have let defective baby survive?

", many biologists now think is precisely our ability to cooperate, to act altruistically, and to protect the weakest members of the tribe."

Altruism in biological terms is technical usage and is mathematically defined in the context of ant societies.
Apparent altruism on organism level is reduced to selfishness on gene level. It has nothing to do with "care or protection of the weakest member of group". One should read Dawkins' Selfish Gene to understand this point.

However, the evidence would not support the evolutionists' claim to understand all animal behavior. Certainly any extrapolation to human behavior is entirely unjustified.
written by Bangwell Putt, March 21, 2012
One on side of this argument are those who believe that every life is invaluable and beyond measure. On the other are those who hold that the markers of success are essential to a life "worth living".

It seems apparent that, human weakness being what it is, many people have convinced themselves that depriving a handicapped person of his or her life can be classified as a mercy. Or, on the other hand, they have accepted the argument that sacrifice of time and treasure in caring for a disabled person is psychologically "unhealthy".

To stand against any particular cultural ideal is, history teaches, a lonely stance, possible only through God's grace. The cost will be very high, requiring heroism from the young fathers and mothers who choose to pay it.

written by Richard A, March 21, 2012
So, in another generation, the only Down's Syndrome citizens among us will be the children of God-fearing folk, which will be additional evidence to our beters that fearing God is a social defect.
written by Dave, March 21, 2012
They want to destroy Down's Syndrome babies for several reasons, beginning with the cult of flawlessness. To this cult the Christian Faith responds that our perfection lies in our ability to receive and cooperate with divine grace, the impulses of divine love that created us in the first place. Eradicating these babies will not eradicate Down's, as Down's people do not generally have children and when they do, it is entirely possible - and it has happened -- that their children do not have the Syndrome. So the next reason is the cult of efficiency -- the drive to squeeze ever more work out of people until there is nothing left to squeeze out of them. And since there is little to squeeze out of Down's Syndrome people except their smiles, their unconditional love and their unfeigned joy (all that despite their syndrome), why, then, the "investment of capital -- financial and social" just isn't justified.

But I'll cease rehearsing the arguments, because they are sickening. Bangwell Putt states the other side's case admirably well -- either it's mercy (but how would they know?) or it's psychologically unhealthy to care for the disabled (but how would they know?) At the heart lies the conviction that suffering is bad and nothing good can come from it. The Cross is God's decisive answer to that conviction, and his eternal and unwavering argument to lay it aside.

Here's what I see as the underlying problem of the Left's entire paradigm: freedom means I should get what I want, and others should pay for it. I want contraception, you should pay for it. I want a life in which I can pursue pleasure as I define it, and others should pay for it, with their lives if I am strong enough to make that happen. If I can so arrange the laws as to make that possibility, good for me and too bad for you: it's your problem if you are weak.

Selfishness parading about as altruism, wrapped in envy of those who live lives of deep joy and the peace that passes all understanding (for which most of us, even those who practice the Faith, let's be honest, still long).

Dr. Smith, your article today is beautiful and I thank you for it. We need not only to pray for a culture that's humane enough to embrace the weak: we need to be that culture. Anciently our forebears in the Faith rescued children left to die of exposure. We are not so far off from those times. And Christ and His Church will prevail, because the gates of hell will not. But they'll sure try.
written by Tony Esolen, March 21, 2012
Dawkins is a very poor philosopher ... the very title of his work is an attempt to secure all the advantages of teleological thinking without acknowledging teleology.

Anyway -- a healthy soul considers that the weak have a special moral claim upon us. But we fear the weak because they remind us too much of ourselves.

All this reminds me of a statement by Von Balthasar: Outside of the ambit of Christianty, the child is always the first to be sacrificed.
written by Dave, March 21, 2012
Today at Mass a lady came and sat in the pew before me with her intellectually disabled son. The love between them was palpable; and the way they looked at each other, with deep and unfeigned love, reminded me once again of Dr. Smith's powerful piece. And it was then I recalled that as a little Protestant boy I asked a lady with a Down's syndrome daughter why she didn't send her up to the state hospital. "Because God gave her to me; we're Catholics and we don't send our children away." Those words doubtless played a role in my own conversion to the fullness of the Faith twenty two years ago, and some twenty-odd years after she spoke so kindly to a little boy who didn't know any better.

written by Sarah John, March 21, 2012
Wonderful piece, however, as a mother to a child with Down Syndrome and a representative of the community, I would like to point out that the term retarded is offensive and should not be used.
Also, we prefer our kids be labeled a person with Down Syndrome or Trisomy 21, not a Downs child -- the difference being the former describes a condition, and the latter conditions (or defines) the person.
written by Gian, March 22, 2012
Dawkins is certainly no philosopher but if one wants to know what do evolutionists mean by 'Selfishness' and 'altruism' then he is useful.

My point was that we can not get care for 'weakest member of the group' from the altruism as understood by the biologists and the author's claim that
". What has made homo sapiens a dominant species, many biologists now think is precisely our ability to cooperate, to act altruistically, and to protect the weakest members of the tribe."

is entirely untenable. The practice of eugenics is consistent with the evolutionists' view of human evolution.

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