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Israelis and the quest for a perfect baby

"For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well." - Psalm 139:13-14

With March 21 observed as World Down Syndrome Day, the issue of abortion has never seemed more relevant especially as a new test is being rolled out in Israel making it easier and less invasive to almost conclusively test babies in the womb for the chromosomal disorder.

While abortion figures are frequently disputed, when it comes to a diagnosis of Trisomy 21 even the lower abortion estimates are shocking. (T21 is the scientific term for Down syndrome, indicating three chromosomes instead of two on the 21st strand in the person’s DNA, thus March 21 – the 21st day of the third month.)

According the advocacy group Down Pride’s appeal to the United Nations, Iceland has bragged that not one person with Down syndrome has been born since 2008.

Israel isn’t far behind. Down syndrome could be reduced “only to cases in which the parents made an informed decision not to do prenatal testing,” according to Prof. Joel Zlotogora, the head of the Health Ministry’s department of community genetics.

“It is too soon to administer these blood tests comprehensively, but those days are fast approaching,” Zlotogora said at a conference in 2012. “Our goal is to reduce Down syndrome babies only to cases in which the parents made an informed decision not to do prenatal testing.”

wdsdIt appears those days are upon us. In both Israel and the United States, the unofficial abortion rate for a fetus diagnosed with Trisomy 21 is nine out of 10.

Down syndrome, which can be diagnosed in the womb, is an obvious target of medical professionals pushing abortion, but it is far from the sole reason for a high abortion rate in Israel. While abortion still comes under moral and legal scrutiny in countries such as the United States, abortion in Israel remains legal, unopposed and is not even debated, even in the case of a healthy fetus.

“There’s no real discussion about abortion here,” Sandy Shoshani, director of Be’ad Chaim, a pro-life organization, told KNI. “With all the issues that the religious parties impose on the public, it is amazing that, though they themselves have a low rate of abortion, they don’t impose this respect for the sanctity of life on the rest of the country as they do with their other issues.”

In fact, Shoshani reports that government-funded abortions are handed out easily.

“In order to obtain a government funded abortion in Israel, women must meet certain criteria. Yet, over 98 percent of those who apply for abortions are accepted,” she contended.

The Israeli government gives the official number of abortions as one in every 10 births, the unofficial number may be higher due to private abortions that may not be tallied by the state, Shoshani said. Regardless of the actual figures, without a moral and ethical discussion, Shoshani said, “the danger is, it’ll go too far.”

“When you ‘prove’ someone is a burden on society, you justify killing them, which is exactly what led to the Holocaust,” Shoshani said. “It’s eugenics. We choose who is worthy of life and who is not.”

Before he rounded up the Jews, Adolf Hitler experimented with the mentally and physically disabled and terminably ill — Germans he deemed “unworthy of life,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 200,000 handicapped people were murdered between 1940 and 1945 laying the groundwork for the mass murder of the Jews.

Meanwhile, abortion is widely considered a viable option for family planning in Israel. In a study, several Israeli women expressed their perceived right to have a healthy child — and an outright fear of having a child with special needs.

“Preventing disability was perceived as an indispensable part of good motherhood, an expression of responsibility towards one’s own future, existing children and other family, as well as society at large,” according to Larissa Remennick, professor of sociology and anthropology at Bar-Ilan University. “In either explicit or tacit ways, several women expressed their sense of entitlement to perfect motherhood as an attainable asset as a result of new genetic technologies.”

Remennick interviewed a wide range of Israeli women, most of whom favored prenatal testing.

“My neighbor has a disabled kid whom she still takes around in a carriage at the age of five or six. She cannot work or study, they live on her husband’s small salary and some miserable allowance from Social Security,” one respondent said. “I don’t think I could cope with such a bleak life. When I imagine this child, I rush to do all pregnancy tests possible to ensure this doesn’t happen to me.”

“Abortion is painful but a sick child is much worse,” another woman responded.

The rate of prenatal testing in Israel, already extraordinarily high compared to many Western nations, is on the rise.

“In Israel, the prevalence of elective testing has tripled every five years since 1992, and by the early 2000s this practice had become common for a broad low-risk population,” Remennick wrote.

Remennick maintains that while in Japan 4 percent of pregnant women and in Denmark and Holland 9 to 16 percent of women undergo an amniocentesis, in Israel 51 percent of women underwent the same testing.

Shoshani said this type of genetic screening invariably leads to women considering terminating their pregnancies, even for perceived, non-diagnosed issues which may or may not indicate other complications.

One woman, who asked not to be named, told KNI that after a non-diagnostic test at 14 weeks into her pregnancy showed the baby might have a chromosomal disorder, she was encouraged to do all the testing available and to consider “all your options.” When she declined further testing, her doctor discharged her from his care and referred her to the insurance company’s high-risk obstetrician.

“He told me, ‘You could sue me if your baby isn’t born perfect,’ and he refused to see me after that,” she said.

The doctor who performed the non-diagnostic test immediately laid out all the possible complications that could occur from a chromosomal disorder, even though it wasn’t yet determined.

“He asked whether I would want a baby that would die only an hour after birth, or one that would suffer his whole life. Basically, worst-case scenarios and anything to cause fear,” she said. “Even after I said the abortion wasn’t an option for me he kept telling me to keep my options open and that I had to act fast because it was a good time to abort.”

Shoshani warned that a society is “in danger when it randomly determines the validity of a life according to his merit to other people.”

“Each individual is vital to creating a caring, healthy society,” she said. “Those who are deemed ‘less valuable or less healthy’ are perhaps those who actually render the most value to society as they teach us compassion, mercy and understanding.”

“I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.
So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.”
– Deuteronomy 30:19

N.J. Schiavi has lived in Israel for over 15 years and is a freelance writer for Kehila News Israel.

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