Early Monday morning, news agencies began reporting that ISIS clerics have issued an oral fatwa calling for the systematic killing of children with Down syndrome and other genetic disabilities. According to reports, nearly 40 disabled infants in ISIS territory have already been suffocated or given lethal injections.
The news is sickening. The world has watched, on YouTube, the violent martyrdom of Christians at the hands of ISIS fighters. We’ve seen photos of martyred families and beaten prisoners. We’ve seen shootings in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino, all claimed as ISIS sponsored acts of terrorism. And still, the West has not yet committed to the kind of sustained engagement that would lead to the destruction of ISIS. We’re war-weary, and our weariness has contributed to the ongoing destruction of the religiously impure.
We should all pray that the systematic killing of children might evoke a reaction strong enough to hasten our military response.
But we should also pray that this story might lead to more conversation about the treatment of children with Down syndrome in the West. With few exceptions, disabled children don’t suffer infanticide in the West, but they do suffer abortion, at staggering rates. Some sociologists suggest that nearly 90% of European children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted, and that American figures are not much better. The veneer of civility does precious little to protect disabled children from extermination at the hands of Western medicine.
ISIS is obviously a civilization in which the strong assert violent supremacy over the weak. That problem exists in the West as well, in the forms of abortion, euthanasia, the dismantling of the family, and the “new orthodoxy” of statist control over religious perspectives and activity. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that the “war of the powerful against the weak” runs through each of our hearts, and “goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.“
The “war of the powerful against the weak” is waged under the veneer of religious purity in the Middle East. In our own civilization, it is waged under the idolatrous adulation of efficiency, profitability, independence, and technological advancement.
We have a common human obligation to protect the disabled children in ISIS territory. We also have an obligation to bring to light the plight of disabled children across the world—in the places where they’re suffocated in village squares, and the places where they’re killed in the quiet privacy of their mother’s wombs.
In the Middle East, we need to be honest about the need for serious engagement with ISIS. But to defend the lives of disabled people, we need to be honest about the reality of their lives. And we need to be honest about the dangers of our ever-more technocratic social ethics.
We measure worth in the West by productivity, profitability, and utility—by contribution to common economic benefit. We measure quality-of-life by the ability to avoid suffering, and the ability to avoid becoming burdensome to others. We’re obsessed with innovation, efficiency, and individual sovereignty.
Intellectually disabled people in America are not favorably judged by those standards. It’s true, of course, that families with disabled children report higher rates of happiness, healthier marriages, and a deep sense of joy. And it’s true that disabled people often exude positivity, and an enviable sense of optimism. But I have two children with Down syndrome– I know it’s also true that children like mine require some degree of ongoing and specialized care. That they suffer, and that their suffering represents obligations—sometimes burdensome obligations—to those who love them. That by the cold and technocratic metrics of productivity, they rarely represent a net contribution to their communities.
Those who love the disabled, as I do, can be tempted to defend them by the standards of modern technocracy. There seems to be a developing myth in some circles that serious intellectual disabilities are not an impediment to a wholly independent lifestyle. There seem to be more insistent assertions that the intellectually disabled can be “fully productive” members of our society; that, with the right kinds of training or education, the disabled will not represent economic or social burdens to the rest of us.
But defending the disabled—especially in the West—cannot depend on hollow attempts to defend their technocratic utility.
Defending the disabled depends on recognizing certain facts: That human dignity is not contingent on a person’s productive aptitude. That none of us are really independent. That, in fact, cohesive social bonds are borne from the burdens we represent to each other. That measuring human worth by the metrics of productivity and utility diminishes the human dignity of each one of us.
To end the systematic eradication of the disabled, we need to recognize that those who are weak among us are those most deserving of our protection. And we need to recognize that our common weaknesses forge the bonds of lasting communities. We need to reject the assertion of power over weakness, whether it’s cloaked in the language of religious purity, or the language of technocratic efficiency. Instead, we must commit to a civilization in which the powerful are at the service of the weak—through serious military intervention in the Middle East, through support for families in our communities, and through a sustained respect for human dignity, not because of what a person can do, but because of the ineffable and profound mystery of who they are.