Down Syndrome Babies – Life Unworthy of Life?

On August 20, 2014 Richard Dawkins tweeted the following to a person wondering if they could tackle the challenges of raising a child with Down syndrome – “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Six days ago, a Yahoo! Parenting article entitled “I Terminated My Baby with Down Syndrome” appeared. The author, writing under the pseudonym Sophie Horan, justified her decision to kill her child by saying:

 My child deserved better than a life of struggle and frustration due to a condition that he or she would never be able to change. Plus, there was no predicting the severity of the disorder — some children with Down Syndrome are able to feed themselves and attend school; others require more urgent and consistent care. Knowing that my husband and I wouldn’t live long enough to provide the necessary long-term care for our child was stressful, to say the least. I did not want him or her to ever feel lonely, lack independence, or be confined to a nursing home when we passed on.

One wonders if she weighed the pain of her child “feeling lonely” versus the pain of a dilation and curettage procedure or burning to death while drowning in potassium chloride.

Is that what’s “better?”

These two cases are not few and far between. Indeed, it would appear as if war has been declared on Down syndrome babies. A 2012 study from the medical journal  Prenatal Diagnosis found that an average of from 61% – 93% of Down Syndrome babies are aborted – and those are just the numbers for the U.S.

Adding to the tragedy is that far from the miserable drain that Down syndrome children are portrayed to be by the culture of death, they are actually a boon to the families privileged enough to share life with them.

As Dr. David A. Prentice said earlier this month while testifying before the Indiana Senate:

Contrast the prevalent attitude about Down syndrome that leads to a lethal diagnosis, with the recent facts about increased life span, health, learning, and especially satisfaction for those with Down syndrome and their families. A recent study by Skotko et al. found that 99% of people with Down syndrome are happy with their lives, 99% of parents said they love their child with Down syndrome, and 97% of brothers/sisters, ages 9-11, said they love their sibling.

The pro-choice movement would have us think that termination of babies with Down syndrome is a form of “mercy killing,” a decision that benefits the parents and spares the child untold suffering. The Yahoo! Parenting piece uses the same logic to justify the anonymous woman’s heartbreaking decision to terminate.

I think it goes without saying that when a culture freely uses logic and terminology eerily similar to the “life unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben) and “useless eaters” (Unnütze Esser) of 1930’s Germany, we have gone from tipping point to full-blown crisis.

The Prenatal Diagnosis study would seem to indicate that our final solution has already been implemented.

As I mentioned in my inaugural post, I am undertaking a life study of Corrie ten Boom. While many are familiar with her exploits during and after the Second World War, one of her lesser known pursuits was working with mentally ill children.

Ten Boom referred to this work as the “most valuable work of all” and claimed that mentally handicapped people “often understand God’s love better than people who have problems because of their intellectual doubt.” (see In My Father’s House.)

When she was arrested by the Gestapo for rescuing approximately 800 Jews the death camps, her Nazi captors were apoplectic to learn that she also worked with the mentally handicapped. During one fierce interrogation, her captors demanded to know why she engaged in such behavior.

She relates the story in her acclaimed bestseller The Hiding Place:

“Your other activities, Miss ten Boom. What would you like to tell me about them?”

“Other activities? Oh, you mean- you want to know about my church for mentally retarded people!” and I plunged into an eager account of my efforts at preaching to the feeble-minded.

The lieutenant’s eyebrows rose higher and higher. “What a waste of time and energy!” he exploded at last. “If you want converts, surely one normal person is worth all the half-wits in the world!”

I stared into the man’s intelligent blue-gray eyes: true National-Socialist philosophy I thought, tulip bed or no. And then to my astonishment I heard my own voice saying boldly, “May I tell you the truth, Lieutenant Rahms?”

“This hearing, Miss ten Boom, is predicated on the assumption that you will do me that honor.”

“The truth , Sir,” I said, swallowing, “is that God’s viewpoint is sometimes different from ours- so different that we could not even guess at it unless He had given us a Book which tells us such things.”

I knew it was madness to talk this way to a Nazi officer. But he said nothing so I plunged ahead. “In the Bible I learn that God values us not for our strength or our brains but simply because He has made us. Who knows, in His eyes a half-wit may be worth more than a watchmaker. Or – a lieutenant.”

It is appalling to think that the wholesale slaughter of Down syndrome children continues unabated – and history will rightly judge us harshly for not doing more to stop it.


When Black Lives Don’t Matter

There are few stories more harrowing in their scope of tragedy and triumph than the saga of African Americans in the United States.

The near 400 year journey from slavery to freedom has dominated much of my work in the field of history (see here and here for a few examples) and is one on which there are equal parts of shame and triumph. Shame at what is now being rightfully described as the “torture” of enslaved toil and the systematic oppression of “labor camps” better known as plantations. Triumph at the non-violent successes of the Civil Rights movement and reconciliation that has taken place in the last fifty years.

As we commemorate Black History Month, the issue of race in America has become more troubling over the past few months due to unrest and angst over the unjust murder of Eric Garner and the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” is one of the results of this current turmoil over race relations in America.

Lost in this renewed discussion on race in America is something that immediately stuck out to myself and a few public figures and media personalities brave enough to voice it to the American public – namely, that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” falls short and seems disingenuous when one looks at the cold facts regarding abortion in the African American community.

As a pro-life historian, I am struck at the tremendous shift that has occurred in how the African American community views and deals with the issue of abortion.

There is no need to reach for hyperbole to describe the devastation that abortion has imposed upon African Americans in the United States.

Consider this small sample of statistics:

  • Although African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, black women have 29.7% of the annual abortions in the U.S.
  • Over 1,400 African-American children are killed by abortion every day.
  • Approximately 13 million African American babies have been aborted since 1973, making abortion more deadly than AIDS, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and violent crime combined.

These numbing statistics come from the CDC and a 2008 report by the Guttmacher Institute, not a pro-life organization with skin in the game.

Yet the voices of outrage within the black community are few and far between. The minority of African American clergy that do speak out against the soaring abortion rates in poor and underprivileged neighborhoods are accused of being “Uncle Toms” or worse. Powerful organizations like the NAACP have adopted a pro-abortion stance, leaving black pro-lifers who lack such a prestigious platform out in the cold.

Rev. Johnny Hunter, an African American pastor based out of North Carolina, bemoaned that:

Two hundred years ago our African American heritage was robbed by a group of elitist individuals who intentionally kept us ignorant concerning the devastating effects of slavery. Today, our heritage is being robbed by elitist individuals who have kept us ignorant concerning the devastating effect of abortion on our race.

Recently I was talking with a leader in the pro-life movement about this very issue, and she suggested that there is a culture of abortion within the African American community. It had been suggested to her that older African American women will pressure younger women experiencing a crisis pregnancy to terminate in order to validate their own prior decisions to abort.

Thus, the “culture of abortion” within the community combines with organizations like the NAACP and Planned Parenthood and the results are tallied in the heartbreaking statistics listed above.

The silence regarding this issue in light of the Garner and Brown cases is truly shameful, but not necessarily surprising.

One only has to look back to the 2013 trial of later-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell to see that abortion in the black community is a tough sell. Even when the jurors were told the shocking details of how Gosnell – himself an African American – kept separate rooms for white women and minorities, and that the rooms for white clients were much more sanitary than those black and Hispanic patients had to endure (Gosnell chalked up the disparity between the two rooms as  just “the way of the world”), very few African American leaders or media outlets seemed to care much.

This is a far cry from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when many Civil Rights activists like Jesse Jackson spoke out against abortion and linked it to “black genocide.”

Let us hope that as Black History Month continues, voices will rise up and protest innocent blood being shed through abortion with the same justifiable outrage and vigor that has been displayed in peaceful protests across the country.

The Webster Brief, or How NOT to be a Historian Activist

In 1986, the state of Missouri enacted legislation that placed a number of restrictions on abortions. Claiming that the “life of each human being begins at conception,” the law said that no public facilities could be used for abortions unless the mother’s life was in danger, it was illegal to counsel women to have abortions, and physicians were required to perform viability tests upon pregnant women. Lower courts struck down the restrictions and the case of Webster v. Reproductive Services wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was eventually argued on April 26, 1989.

Since the case had the potential to overrule Roe v. Wade, the pro-choice movement scrambled to mount an insurmountable defense based on many factors, including the history of abortion in America.

In 1989, NYU Law Professor Sylvia A. Law gathered a group of historians to advocate for the pro-choice position.

According to Law, “When the Supreme Court indicated that it was open to overruling Roe v. Wade, I contacted my…friends in the history profession.” She tasked her team of historians to write and file a brief that had three objectives – “to preclude the Court from relying on history in a stupid way, to tell the truth, and to support a political mobilization of pro-choice voices.”

Now, for anyone remotely familiar with how historians conduct their trade, this is about as egregious an example of how NOT to do good history as you are likely to find – to begin with a pre-conceived conclusion and work backward to make the data support that conclusion is taboo.

Nonetheless, Ms. Law was able to get 281 historians to initially sign on to the brief. When all was said and done, there were over 400 signatories.

The amicus brief was based on the work of historian James Mohr, who is currently teaching at the University of Oregon. Mohr’s book Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900 is still considered one of the standard works in the field, and having such a prestigious expert sign on to the brief added much weight to the final document. One of Mohr’s fellow signers would later say:

The message of the brief is unequivocal. Roe v. Wade reached the correct outcome and should be upheld. The history of abortion, and especially abortion regulation, the historians lectured the court, supports the right of women to choose.

Other signatories included authorities on the history of architecture, early modern France, North China and yes, in some cases, abortion.

In summary, the brief claimed that:

  1. abortion was not illegal at common law at the time the Federal Constitution was adopted and was a common practice that the Founding Fathers were well aware of
  1. late-19th-century laws against abortion had nothing to do with a desire to preserve the life of the fetus and were the work of doctors who wanted to protect their professional status by shutting out the “irregular” physicians who performed abortions.

Concerning the second allegation, the brief commented that “fetal rights” was a ruse designed to provoke gender and class fears that allegedly fueled the opponents of abortion.  In the words of the brief, “we must…question whether protection of the unborn has become a surrogate for other social objects that are no longer tolerated.” At this point the brief veered from history to political commentary by smearing the modern pro-life movement by implying that they are feigning concern for the unborn as a cover for their own inherent racism and sexism.

But ad hominem attacks were the least of the brief’s problems – as it turns out, the two fundamental conclusions that are touted as historical fact in the brief are problematic at best and complete falsifications at worst.

Historian John Keown, author of Abortion, Doctors, and the Law: Some Aspects of the Legal Regulation of Abortion in England from 1803 to 1982, has conducted deep research that shows that abortion was illegal under English common law (which, of course, was the basis of American common law.) Keown examined thousands of legislative records, judicial opinions, speeches, medical and jurisprudential textbooks, and other sources to show that a concern for the fetus was central to common law prohibitions on abortion.

There is also abundant evidence – much of which is contained, ironically, in the works of the historians who signed the brief – to suggest that abortion was actually quite rare in America prior to the mid to late 19th century.

Finally, the most important reason why 19th century doctors advocated for tighter restrictions on abortion was their belief that an innocent human being lost its life. One of the best sources for this conclusion is none other than Mohr’s Abortion in America! Confronted with the fact that he signed on to a brief that patently contradicted the claims of his own research, Mohr fudged by saying that the brief was not “history, as I understand the craft” but a “political document” that he signed as a historian and a civilian.

When these discrepancies were brought before Sylvia Law, she doubled down by saying “the document is constructed to make an argumentative point rather than tell the truth.”

Historian Michael Grossberg (currently at Indiana University Bloomington) defiantly said, “As a historian who has written on the history of abortion, I signed the original brief; upon reflection, I would sign it again.”

Criticism of the brief was immediate, but made no appreciable impact.

Writing in New York University Law Review, Jonathan D. Martin aptly concluded, “As amici curiae, [the historians] have smoothed over complexity, ignored countervailing evidence, and contradicted their own scholarship – all in the name of advocacy.”

In an article titled “Academic Integrity Betrayed,” Gerard V. Bradley cried, “Were Mohr called as an expert witness (i.e., to testify orally) at a trial of precisely the issues raised in Webster, he would with such behavior be liable to indictment for perjury.”

And George McKenna, in an article styled “Lying: Occasional and Organized” pronounced – “This was not just sloppy work, it was fraudulent.

Amazingly, the historians who signed on to the Webster Amicus Brief never offered a word of explanation over the glaring discrepancies and falsifications found in their document, nor have they retracted a single word of it.

They wrote the history that they wanted to be true, and found a receptive audience all too eager to accept their claims as gospel.

With no serious challenge to the brief ever mounted from academia, an altered version of the same brief was resubmitted in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which tragically reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. The brief still shows up in the footnotes of works that claim to offer “objective” analysis on abortion policies in the United States.

The Webster brief offers a case study in how not to wear the duel hats of historian and activist – regardless of the position one is arguing for, sound scholarship based on thorough historical investigation should be the only acceptable criteria used to advocate for it.

Such a decisive moment in America’s abortion debate begs the question – where are the pro-life historians?

Next up: a post in honor of African American History Month

Photo for Discussion

The picture featured below was captured at last month’s West Coast Walk for Life in San Francisco, CA.

While it might be easy to write this individual off as either a nut job or someone just trying to have a little fun at the expense of pro-lifers, I would not be the least bit surprised if this individual actually embraced the sentiment expressed in both of the signs he is holding.

What do you think?

What does this photo tell us about the current view of human life in the United States?

Photo courtesy of Students for Life of America

Photo courtesy of Students for Life of America

The Historian as Activist: Some Thoughts

In my introductory post I mentioned how my intention for this site is to use my platform as a historian to promote a culture of life – to be both historian and activist for what matters most.

Now, combine the words “historian” and “activist” in the same sentence and you’re likely to make more than one person in the field of history blush.

“Those be murky waters,” they might caution.

And, no doubt, historians who fudge results to support a particular cause should not be taken seriously (Howard Zinn on the left and David Barton on the right both come to mind).

But there is plenty of precedent for historians using their position in society to challenge the current order. To give one recent instance, scores of American historians, including Joyce Appleby, Robert Dallek, and Pulitzer Prize-winner James M. McPherson, endorsed Barack Obama for president back in 2008 with no appreciable backlash.


Well, as Prof. Jacquelyn Hall of UNC Chapel Hill said, “As a matter of civic duty and professional survival historians must unapologetically embrace opportunities to put the past in open dialogue with the pressing needs of the present.”

Indeed, the instructional nature of the study of history is one of its basic and intrinsic benefits. In The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris relate that history can help us be more open-minded and “perhaps, rid ourselves of some of our inherent cultural provincialism.”

And, more important to the specific place where I am coming from, Christian historian John Fea states:

“I am convinced that history, as a way of thinking about the world, teaches us virtues that are absolutely essential for life in a civil society. History is the antidote to the shouting matches we call the ‘culture wars.’”

With the aforementioned truths in mind, and with vigilance about the ever-present specter of blinding bias, I will press forward in using the historical record to advocate for positions that are near and dear to my heart.

Next up: A look at the controversial Amicus Brief signed by over 400 historians in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case. When should historians take public stances on issues related to controversial policies like abortion?

Welcome to Historicus Pro Vitae

Greetings and thank you for taking the time to visit Historicus Pro Vitae, a website concerned with using the study of the past to promote a culture of life. In this brief introductory post I will answer a few questions that will chart the course for the posts that will follow. Why If one is to take a hard, honest look at the saga of human history with all of its inherent wars, pogroms, persecutions, and injustices – to say nothing of natural disasters and plagues – one would be tempted to conclude that human life did not amount to much. If life truly had any lasting value, how to explain 60 million deaths in the Second World War? How could the Holocaust have possibly happened? By what twisted logic could one human being claim to own another? The sad truth is that injustices and calamities like global war or genocide result not from the fact that human life has no inherent value. Rather, these calamities are the result of societies who place a low value on human life in general or specific life which they deem to be “subhuman” or opposed to the interests of the state. The results of such toxic thinking are etched in stone in cemeteries and memorials the world over. Wherefore It seems clear to me that the lessons of history scream that catastrophe results when a high regard for human life becomes a secondary concern. Yet in today’s society, with scientific and technological advances occurring at a break-neck pace and mounds of new data accruing every second, it seems like we still struggle with what premium should be placed on the individual. In the United States, we zealously affirm individual rights on the one hand while vociferously advocating for practices that undercut the worth of the individual on the other. While the current struggles in America over issues like abortion or euthanasia come to mind as prominent examples, these are just two poisonous fruits that stem from the same tree – a tree with branches that sink deep into the troubled past of mankind. Much ink has been spilled on the moral, political, and religious implications of issues like abortion, genocide, and war – but what does the discipline of history have to say about these topics? That is what I intend this site to be – a wide-ranging exploration of various matters linked with what I hold to be the sacredness of human life. A Final Word While some may balk at such an unabashed marriage of an academic discipline with what many contend to be personal preference, I want to share an illustration from history to relate why I will not be silent on such issues any longer. My current book project is a scholarly biography of Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who suffered grievous persecution at the hands of the Nazis in order to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. My research led me to the following statistic regarding Europeans who were willing to risk life and limb to save their fellow human beings from the death camps: Of an estimated 300,000,000 European non-Jews that lived in Nazi controlled areas during the Holocaust, only around 100,000 chose to intervene and help. As noted historian David P. Gushee observed, “Even if we generously assume that only one-third of these non-Jews had any kind of realistic opportunity at all to help their Jewish neighbors, the numbers still mean that no more than one-tenth of 1 percent of Europe’s Gentiles did anything to help Jews survive the Holocaust.” (emphasis mine) I don’t know about you, but when the history of our modern era is written, I wish to be counted in the minority who did something rather than the majority who kept silent. It’s time to be a spoke in the wheel of injustice. Next up: an exploration of the historian as activist – is it permissible or “verboten”?