More than a quarter of students ‘self-censor’ because they fear their views will clash with the ‘woke’ values promoted by their university, according to a shocking new survey.
In the latest evidence of the free speech crisis engulfing campuses across the country, 27 per cent of students said they have actively ‘hidden’ their opinions when they are at odds with those of their peers and tutors.
More than half of those who ‘self-censored’ did so because of their political views. A further 40 per cent withheld their opinions on ethical or religious matters for fear of being judged.
In a chilling indication that those with ‘unfashionable’ views fear speaking out will have long-term consequences, almost 40 per cent of those polled said they believed their career would be adversely affected if they expressed their true opinions at university.
In the latest evidence of the free speech crisis engulfing campuses across the country, 27 per cent of students said they have actively ‘hidden’ their opinions when they are at odds with those of their peers and tutors
Free speech campaigners last night likened some campuses to ‘Maoist re-education camps’ dominated by ‘woke orthodoxy’ where only the most liberal and Left-wing views are tolerated.
Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent, said: ‘We need to keep our world-leading universities as free as possible and we need students and the people teaching them to feel that they can debate, discuss and exchange ideas and perspectives from different angles.
‘If we lose that, we’re going to lose what it is that makes our universities great in the first place. Freedom of speech is a fundamental aspect of our national identity.’
The survey – conducted by Survation on behalf of ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organisation – found that more than a third (36 per cent) of students hold views that are legal to express but that would be considered ‘unacceptable’ by their student union.
Ryan Christopher, Director of ADF International UK, said: ‘Of all places, university is where students should be free to debate and explore ideas – especially those with which they disagree.
‘Institutional policies and practices can suggest that even mainstream views are beyond the pale.
‘Today’s censorship on campus can easily become cancel culture in the public square.’
The poll, which received responses from 1,028 current university students and recent graduates across the country, discovered that 44 per cent believed lecturers would treat them differently if they publicly expressed views important to them.
Two-fifths of those questioned said so-called ‘no platforming’ – where events are cancelled due to the views held by speakers – had become more frequent at their university.
Earlier this year, the former home secretary Amber Rudd was ‘no-platformed’ only 30 minutes before she was due to give a speech at Oxford University about how to encourage women into politics.
The UN Women Oxford UK society withdrew its invitation after Left-wing students complained about her role in the Windrush immigration scandal. In response, Oxford barred the society.
Toby Young, who created The Free Speech Union in February, said his organisation is inundated with students ‘begging for help’.
‘They thought they’d applied to a university, but they’ve ended up in a Maoist re-education camp,’ he added.
‘If they say anything that challenges the prevailing woke orthodoxy – if they dispute the idea that trans-women are women, for instance – a complaint is made to the authorities and they find themselves being put through dubious, quasi-legal procedures that resemble struggle sessions during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
‘If they don’t throw themselves at the feet of their inquisitors and denounce their white privilege, they’re liable to be kicked out and reported to the police for ‘hate speech’.’
During last year’s general election, the Tory manifesto pledged to ‘strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities’.
In July, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson that said struggling universities would only qualify for emergency loans if they could ‘demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech’.
J. K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis and Sir Salman Rushdie were among 150 leading writers, academics and thinkers who signed an open letter this summer condemning ‘cancel culture’ for stifling freedom of expression in higher education, journalism, philanthropy and the arts.
Violence escalating despite pleas to government, Family Research Council reports.
November 19, 2020
Leah Sharibu in captivity in photo released by captors in August 2019.
JOS, Nigeria (Morning Star News) – Their pleas for government help falling on deaf ears, Christian leaders issued calls for prayer this month as Islamic extremist groups continued terrorizing northeast Nigeria.
In the wake of attacks and kidnappings by Islamic extremist group Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), leaders of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) called for the release of four members long held captive by Islamic extremists in the country’s northeast.
The Rev. Stephen Baba Panya, president of the ECWA, said church leaders are troubled at the lack of effort by the Nigerian government to free church members years after Islamic extremist groups took them captive. He called for prayer for high school student Leah Sharibu, two aid workers, university student Lillian Gyang and the 112 girls who remain captive of the 276 kidnapped from a high school in Chibok, Borno state in 2014.
“Please join faith with me, and let us pray standing on God’s promises in Matthew 18:18-19 that Boko Haram/ISWAP or any other Islamic terror group shall not determine the fate of God’s beloved daughters Leah Sharibu, Alice Loksha Ngaddah, Grace Lucas, and Lillian Gyang who are ECWA members, and also the remaining Chibok girls,” Pastor Panya said in a statement sent to Morning Star News.
Leah Sharibu, 15 years old when she was kidnapped by Boko Haram on Feb. 19, 2018 from the Government Girls’ Science and Technical College, in Dapchi, Yobe state, was one of 110 girls taken captive; the 109 Muslim girls were released while Leah remained captive when she refused to renounce her Christian faith.
Ngaddah, mother of two children and an aid worker with UNICEF, was abducted on March 1, 2018 in Rann, Borno state, when ISWAP militants attacked an Internally Displaced Persons camp where she was working. Her aged mother reportedly died of trauma soon after learning about the kidnapping.
Taku, a health worker with Action Against Hunger, was kidnapped by ISWAP militants on July 18, 2019, along the Damasak-Maiduguri highway in Borno state. She also was ministering to displaced people.
Lillian Daniel Gyang, a student at the University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID) in Borno state, was kidnapped on Jan. 9 by ISWAP while returning to school from the Christmas and New Year’s break from her native Plateau state.
ISWAP in 2016 broke off from Boko Haram, which attacked two predominantly Christian communities in Borno state earlier this month. The Boko Haram insurgents, who seek to impose sharia (Islamic law) throughout Nigeria, attacked Pulka and Gwoza towns soon after Christians had finished Sunday evening services on Nov. 8, residents said.
“The attacks on Pulka and Gwoza towns started at about 9 p.m. and lasted till around 11p.m.,” area resident Vanessa Muda told Morning Star News by text message. “The Boko Haram terrorists invaded our towns shooting indiscriminately on our people.”
Another area resident, Polycarp John, said the Boko Haram militants were heavily armed.
“They were repelled when personnel of the Nigerian army who were stationed here fought them and forced them to retreat from Gwoza and Pulka towns,” he told Morning Star News by text message. “Our towns have been under constant attacks from Boko Haram since 2014, and at a time, Gwoza town was made the headquarters of the Boko Haram caliphate until the Nigeria army retook the town from them in 2018.”
The attacks came on the heels of an appeal by leaders of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN), for prayer for Christians in southern Borno state facing terror from both Boko Haram and ISWAP militants.
“It is harvest time, which is challenging in normal years, but in these past years includes the threat of Boko Haram destroying the crop or attacking people as they harvest,” the leaders wrote in a Nov. 6 email. “Pray for many vulnerable villages in southern Borno state and other areas far from military bases.”
Six Nigerians Convicted
Lela Gilbert, senior fellow for international religious freedom for the Family Research Council, stated in a recent report that in spite of frequent appeals from Nigerian church leaders across the denominational spectrum and international human rights advocates, violence is escalating.
“Many informed observers describe Nigeria’s political leadership as both incompetent and corrupt,” Gilbert noted. “But that’s only part of the problem. Not only are they almost entirely Muslim in their religious affiliation (while the country’s population is roughly half Christian), as previously noted, several governmental leaders – beginning with President Muhammadu Buhari – belong to the Fulani tribe, as do numerous military and police officials. This is seen as one of the major roadblocks to reform, particularly with regard to the Fulani jihadi massacres.”
In the United Arab Emirates, authorities were able to convict six Nigerians resident in the UAE for financing Boko Haram activities in Nigeria, according to press reports.
Surajo Abubakar Muhammad and Saleh Yusuf Adamu were sentenced to life imprisonment, while Ibrahim Ali Alhassan, Abdurahman Ado Musa, Bashir Ali Yusuf and Muhammad Ibrahim Isa each received 10-year prison sentences, according to Nigerian newspaper the Daily Trust.
An Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal convicted the six Islamists of providing Boko Haram with $782,000.
On Jan. 30 Christian Solidarity International (CSI) issued a genocide warning for Nigeria, calling on the Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council to take action. CSI issued the call in response to “a rising tide of violence directed against Nigerian Christians and others classified as ‘infidels’ by Islamist militants in the country’s north and middle belt regions.’”
Nigeria ranked 12th on Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of countries where Christians suffer the most persecution but second in the number of Christians killed for their faith, behind Pakistan.
Rome Newsroom, Nov 17, 2020 / 02:00 pm MT (CNA).- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe published data Monday documenting more than 500 hate crimes against Christians in Europe in 2019.
Incidents included attacks against Catholic priests, arson attacks on Catholic churches, the destruction of images of the Virgin Mary, vandalism of a pregnancy counseling center, and the theft of consecrated Eucharistic hosts from tabernacles.
France had the most hate crimes against Christians, with 144 incidents in 2019, the majority occurring against Catholic churches. The OSCE also reported 81 incidents in Germany, 75 in Spain, and 70 in Italy.
In total, there were 595 incidents against Christians documented by OSCE. Of these, 459 were attacks against property and 80 were violent attacks against people. Nearly a fourth of the data on Christians was reported directly by the Holy See.
The information was published Nov. 16 to mark the International Day for Tolerance. The OSCE also released data on hate crimes driven by anti-Semitism, racism, bias based on sexual orientation and other categories.
Here is a breakdown of some of the hate crimes committed against Christians documented by OSCE:
Consecrated Hosts Stolen
In France and Spain, there were multiple incidents in which tabernacles were broken into and consecrated hosts stolen. In Feb. 2019, almost 300 consecrated hosts and three chalices were stolen from a church in France. There were 14 incidents in France involving a tabernacle being forced open and the hosts either being stolen, destroyed, or scattered on the floor. In June 2019, the tabernacle in one church was set on fire.
In Spain, consecrated hosts were stolen from a church and destroyed Feb. 2019. The following month two ciboria containing consecrated hosts were stolen from a church in one of two incidents targeting churches in the area to occur over a two-day period. In other incidents in March and October, tabernacles were forced open and consecrated hosts scattered over the floor.
Attacks and threats against priests
In Poland, there were four incidents that the OSCE classified as violent attacks against people perpetrated against priests. A priest was stabbed in the chest with a knife when entering church before Mass in June 2019. Another priest was beaten by a group when he intervened in their attempt to desecrate his church in Nov. 2019. Two other priests were assaulted in July and August 2019 respectively.
In Spain, a priest was the target of an attempted physical assault while he was offering Mass in April 2019. Another priest was punched in the face as perpetrators threatened to burn down his church in Sept. 2019. An Indian priest living in Spain received death threats and racist insults in June 2019 for which the perpetrator was charged with a hate crime.
A priest in Italy was also subjected to insults and threats due to his work in support of migrants.
Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary Destroyed
In Italy, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was decapitated and then broken into pieces by a group in March 2019. Multiple statues of the Virgin Mary were destroyed in one area in April 2019 and two more statues of the Virgin Mary were destroyed in Dec. 2019.
A shrine in Spain dedicated to the Virgin Mary was defecated in. The church’s walls and a statue of Jesus Christ were smeared with excrement.
France also had a number of attacks against images of the Virgin Mary, including vandalism of a replica of the Lourdes Grotto in Oct. 2019, vandalism of statues of Mary in July and November, the destruction of two statues of Mary in April and August, and a statue stolen in October.
In Poland, four rosary chapels were vandalized with offensive graffiti in Feb. 2019 and a statue of the Virgin Mary was vandalized with anti-Christian messages in May. Poland also had four incidents in which statues of St. John Paul II were vandalized.
Arson attacks on churches
There were at least 20 arson attacks against churches in France recorded in the data for 2019. In Dec. 2019, the nave of a church was set on fire during Sunday Mass. In other incidents, confessionals and altars were set on fire. A similar number of arson attacks against Christian churches in Germany were documented in 2019, and six arson incidents were also documented in Italy.
In the United Kingdom, there were eight arson attacks against Christian churches, including at least one Catholic church.
A convent in Spain was the target of arson a few days after it was vandalized with paint in Sept. 2019. A statue of Jesus was set on fire in November and a church’s altar was set alight twice in two weeks among other arson attacks.
The participants in the Catholic bishops’ conference in Spain also received numerous threats of an arson attack in 2019.
Universities are supposed to be places that foster diversity of thought and teach students how to think critically by tackling different ideas.
But across the country, universities are failing to do this. In fact, it seems like some universities are directly discouraging diversity of thought and expression.
Florida State University is one of them.
This year, FSU senior Jack Denton was ousted by fellow students from his job as Student Senate President. Jack had served in student government for three years and viewed many of his fellow senators as friends.
So what happened?
Jack lovingly shared his religious beliefs with other Catholic students in a private chat, and some students decided that his faith disqualified him from his office.
FSU then removed Jack from his position as senate president.
But students’ First Amendment rights don’t end when they step onto their university campus.
In firing Jack from his job and subjecting him to harassment, Jack’s freedoms of religion and speech were violated. That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom is standing with Jack and other students whose First Amendment freedoms have been violated.
Watch below to see Jack’s full story:
The FSU Student Senate essentially forced Jack to undergo a religious test and discriminated against him for his views.
In the words of one student who spoke out against Jack: “I am disgusted that other Catholics are attempting to stand behind him with his outdated and extreme cult mindset. Those who choose not to denounce Jack Denton tonight should expect the same action and scrutiny from the entire community moving forward.”
If Jack was punished by his university for expressing his orthodox Christian beliefs, what can students at FSU say without fearing retaliation?
That’s why we appealed to FSU to reinstate Jack as president of the Student Senate—because if Jack doesn’t have the freedom to voice his beliefs, then every FSU student’s free speech is in jeopardy. But the university administration refused.
So we filed a lawsuit with a federal court in Florida, asking it to reinstate Jack as the Student Senate President because he was wrongfully removed in violation of his constitutional rights. Thankfully, the court agreed that Jack’s rights had been violated and ordered FSU to begin paying Jack as the Student Senate President while the lawsuit moves forward.
In America, no one should be punished for exercising their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, Jack isn’t alone. Many students across the country are silenced for holding views with which their professors or fellow students disagree. This is no way to seek truth in a free society.
You can stand with Jack today by sharing this video with your friends and family. Let them know what is happening in cases like this, so we can ensure that the mantle of freedom is passed on to the next generation.
Every few weeks or so, Grete Fält-Hansen gets a call from a stranger asking a question for the first time: What is it like to raise a child with Down syndrome?
Sometimes the caller is a pregnant woman, deciding whether to have an abortion. Sometimes a husband and wife are on the line, the two of them in agonizing disagreement. Once, Fält-Hansen remembers, it was a couple who had waited for their prenatal screening to come back normal before announcing the pregnancy to friends and family. “We wanted to wait,” they’d told their loved ones, “because if it had Down syndrome, we would have had an abortion.” They called Fält-Hansen after their daughter was born—with slanted eyes, a flattened nose, and, most unmistakable, the extra copy of chromosome 21 that defines Down syndrome. They were afraid their friends and family would now think they didn’t love their daughter—so heavy are the moral judgments that accompany wanting or not wanting to bring a child with a disability into the world.
All of these people get in touch with Fält-Hansen, a 54-year-old schoolteacher, because she heads Landsforeningen Downs Syndrom, or the National Down Syndrome Association, in Denmark, and because she herself has an 18-year-old son, Karl Emil, with Down syndrome. Karl Emil was diagnosed after he was born. She remembers how fragile he felt in her arms and how she worried about his health, but mostly, she remembers, “I thought he was so cute.” Two years after he was born, in 2004, Denmark became one of the first countries in the world to offer prenatal Down syndrome screening to every pregnant woman, regardless of age or other risk factors. Nearly all expecting mothers choose to take the test; of those who get a Down syndrome diagnosis, more than 95 percent choose to abort.
Denmark is not on its surface particularly hostile to disability. People with Down syndrome are entitled to health care, education, even money for the special shoes that fit their wider, more flexible feet. If you ask Danes about the syndrome, they’re likely to bring up Morten and Peter, two friends with Down syndrome who starred in popular TV programs where they cracked jokes and dissected soccer games. Yet a gulf seems to separate the publicly expressed attitudes and private decisions. Since universal screening was introduced, the number of children born with Down syndrome has fallen sharply. In 2019, only 18 were born in the entire country. (About 6,000 children with Down syndrome are born in the U.S. each year.)
Fält-Hansen is in the strange position of leading an organization likely to have fewer and fewer new members. The goal of her conversations with expecting parents, she says, is not to sway them against abortion; she fully supports a woman’s right to choose. These conversations are meant to fill in the texture of daily life missing both from the well-meaning cliché that “people with Down syndrome are always happy” and from the litany of possible symptoms provided by doctors upon diagnosis: intellectual disability, low muscle tone, heart defects, gastrointestinal defects, immune disorders, arthritis, obesity, leukemia, dementia. She might explain that, yes, Karl Emil can read. His notebooks are full of poetry written in his careful, sturdy handwriting. He needed physical and speech therapy when he was young. He loves music—his gold-rimmed glasses are modeled after his favorite Danish pop star’s. He gets cranky sometimes, like all teens do.
One phone call might stretch into several; some people even come to meet her son. In the end, some join the association with their child. Others, she never hears from again.
These parents come to Fält-Hansen because they are faced with a choice—one made possible by technology that peers at the DNA of unborn children. Down syndrome is frequently called the “canary in the coal mine” for selective reproduction. It was one of the first genetic conditions to be routinely screened for in utero, and it remains the most morally troubling because it is among the least severe. It is very much compatible with life—even a long, happy life.
The forces of scientific progress are now marching toward ever more testing to detect ever more genetic conditions. Recent advances in genetics provoke anxieties about a future where parents choose what kind of child to have, or not have. But that hypothetical future is already here. It’s been here for an entire generation.
Fält-Hansen says the calls she receives are about information, helping parents make a truly informed decision. But they are also moments of seeking, of asking fundamental questions about parenthood. Do you ever wonder, I asked her, about the families who end up choosing an abortion? Do you feel like you failed to prove that your life—and your child’s life—is worth choosing? She told me she doesn’t think about it this way anymore. But in the beginning, she said, she did worry: “What if they don’t like my son?”
In january, I took a train from Copenhagen south to the small town of Vordingborg, where Grete, Karl Emil, and his 30-year-old sister, Ann Katrine Kristensen, met me at the station. The three of them formed a phalanx of dark coats waving hello. The weather was typical of January—cold, gray, blustery—but Karl Emil pulled me over to the ice-cream shop, where he wanted to tell me he knew the employees. His favorite ice-cream flavor, he said, was licorice. “That’s very Danish!” I said. Grete and Ann Katrine translated. Then he zagged over to a men’s clothing store and struck up a conversation with the clerk, who had just seen Karl Emil interviewed on a Danish children’s program with his girlfriend, Chloe. “You didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend,” the clerk teased. Karl Emil laughed, mischievous and proud.
We sat down at a café, and Grete gave her phone to Karl Emil to busy himself with while we spoke in English. He took selfies; his mother, sister, and I began to talk about Down syndrome and the country’s prenatal-screening program. At one point, Grete was reminded of a documentary that had sparked an outcry in Denmark. She reclaimed her phone to look up the title: Død Over Downs (“Death to Down Syndrome”). When Karl Emil read over her shoulder, his face crumpled. He curled into the corner and refused to look at us. He had understood, obviously, and the distress was plain on his face.
Grete looked up at me: “He reacts because he can read.”
“He must be aware of the debate?” I asked, which felt perverse to even say. So he’s aware there are people who don’t want people like him to be born? Yes, she said; her family has always been open with him. As a kid, he was proud of having Down syndrome. It was one of the things that made him uniquely Karl Emil. But as a teenager, he became annoyed and embarrassed. He could tell he was different. “He actually asked me, at some point, if it was because of Down syndrome that he sometimes didn’t understand things,” Grete said. “I just told him honestly: Yes.” As he’s gotten older, she said, he’s made his peace with it. This arc felt familiar. It’s the arc of growing up, in which our self-assuredness as young children gets upended in the storms of adolescence, but eventually, hopefully, we come to accept who we are.
The decisions parents make after prenatal testing are private and individual ones. But when the decisions so overwhelmingly swing one way—to abort—it does seem to reflect something more: an entire society’s judgment about the lives of people with Down syndrome. That’s what I saw reflected in Karl Emil’s face.
Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States. In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people speak publicly about wanting to “eliminate” Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.
The medical field has also been grappling with its ability to offer this power. “If no one with Down syndrome had ever existed or ever would exist—is that a terrible thing? I don’t know,” says Laura Hercher, a genetic counselor and the director of student research at Sarah Lawrence College. If you take the health complications linked to Down syndrome, such as increased likelihood of early-onset Alzheimer’s, leukemia, and heart defects, she told me, “I don’t think anyone would argue that those are good things.”
But she went on. “If our world didn’t have people with special needs and these vulnerabilities,” she asked, “would we be missing a part of our humanity?”
Sixty-one years ago, the first known prenatal test for a genetic disorder in the world took place in Copenhagen. The patient was a 27-year-old woman who was a carrier for hemophilia, a rare and severe bleeding disorder that is passed from mothers to sons. She had already given birth to one infant boy, who lived for just five hours. The obstetrician who delivered the baby, Fritz Fuchs, told her to come back if she ever became pregnant again. And in 1959, according to the published case study, she did come back, saying she couldn’t go through with her pregnancy if she was carrying another son.
Fuchs had been thinking about what to do. Along with a cytologist named Povl Riis, he’d been experimenting with using fetal cells floating in the yellow amniotic fluid that fills the womb to determine a baby’s sex. A boy would have a 50 percent risk of inheriting hemophilia; a girl would have almost no risk. But first they needed some amniotic fluid. Fuchs eased a long needle into the woman’s abdomen; Riis studied the cells under a microscope. It was a girl.
The woman gave birth to a daughter a few months later. If the baby had been a boy, though, she was prepared to have an abortion—which was legal under Danish law at the time on “eugenic grounds” for fetuses at risk for severe mental or physical illness, according to Riis and Fuchs’s paper describing the case. They acknowledged the possible danger of sticking a needle in the abdomen of a pregnant woman, but wrote that it was justified “because the method seems to be useful in preventive eugenics.”
That word, eugenics, today evokes images that are specific and heinous: forced sterilization of the “feebleminded” in early-20th-century America, which in turn inspired the racial hygiene of the Nazis, who gassed or otherwise killed tens of thousands of people with disabilities, many of them children. But eugenics was once a mainstream scientific pursuit, and eugenicists believed that they were bettering humanity. Denmark, too, drew inspiration from the U.S., and it passed a sterilization law in 1929. Over the next 21 years, 5,940 people were sterilized in Denmark, the majority because they were “mentally retarded.” Those who resisted sterilization were threatened with institutionalization.
Eugenics in Denmark never became as systematic and violent as it did in Germany, but the policies came out of similar underlying goals: improving the health of a nation by preventing the birth of those deemed to be burdens on society. The term eugenics eventually fell out of favor, but in the 1970s, when Denmark began offering prenatal testing for Down syndrome to mothers over the age of 35, it was discussed in the context of saving money—as in, the testing cost was less than that of institutionalizing a child with a disability for life. The stated purpose was “to prevent birth of children with severe, lifelong disability.”
That language too has long since changed; in 1994, the stated purpose of the testing became “to offer women a choice.” Activists like Fält-Hansen have also pushed back against the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the medical system encourages women to choose abortion. Some Danish parents told me that doctors automatically assumed they would want to schedule an abortion, as if there was really no other option. This is no longer the case, says Puk Sandager, a fetal-medicine specialist at Aarhus University Hospital. Ten years ago, doctors—especially older doctors—were more likely to expect parents to terminate, she told me. “And now we do not expect anything.” The National Down Syndrome Association has also worked with doctors to alter the language they use with patients—“probability” instead of “risk,” “chromosome aberration” instead of “chromosome error.” And, of course, hospitals now connect expecting parents with people like Fält-Hansen to have those conversations about what it’s like to raise a child with Down syndrome.
Perhaps all of this has had some effect, though it’s hard to say. The number of babies born to parents who chose to continue a pregnancy after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome in Denmark has ranged from zero to 13 a year since universal screening was introduced. In 2019, there were seven. (Eleven other babies were born to parents who either declined the test or got a false negative, making the total number of babies born with Down syndrome last year 18.)
Why so few? “Looking at it from the outside, a country like Denmark, if you want to raise a child with Down syndrome, this is a good environment,” says Stina Lou, an anthropologist who has studied how parents make decisions after a prenatal diagnosis of a fetal anomaly. Since 2011, she has embedded in the fetal-medicine unit at Aarhus University Hospital, one of the largest hospitals in Denmark, where she has shadowed Sandager and other doctors.
Under the 2004 guidelines, all pregnant women in Denmark are offered a combined screening in the first trimester, which includes blood tests and an ultrasound. These data points, along with maternal age, are used to calculate the odds of Down syndrome. The high-probability patients are offered a more invasive diagnostic test using DNA either from the fetal cells floating in the amniotic fluid (amniocentesis) or from placental tissue (chorionic villus sampling). Both require sticking a needle or catheter into the womb and come with a small risk of miscarriage. More recently, hospitals have started offering noninvasive prenatal testing, which uses fragments of fetal DNA floating in the mother’s blood. That option has not become popular in Denmark, though, probably because the invasive tests can pick up a suite of genetic disorders in addition to Down syndrome. More diseases ruled out, more peace of mind.
But Lou was interested in the times when the tests did not provide peace of mind, when they in fact provided the opposite. In a study of 21 women who chose abortion after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, she found that they had tended to base their decisions on worst-case scenarios. An extra copy of chromosome 21 can cause a variety of symptoms, the severity of which is not known until birth or even later. Most people with Down syndrome learn to read and write. Others are nonverbal. Some do not have heart defects. Others spend months or even years in and out of the hospital to fix a heart valve. Most have healthy digestive systems. Others lack the nerve endings needed to anticipate bowel movements, necessitating more surgeries, possibly even a stoma bag or diapers. The women who chose abortion feared the worst possible outcomes. Some even grieved the possibility of aborting a child who might have had a mild form of Down syndrome. But in the end, Lou told me, “the uncertainty just becomes too much.”
This emphasis on uncertainty came up when I spoke with David Wasserman, a bioethicist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health who, along with his collaborator Adrienne Asch, has written some of the most pointed critiques of selective abortion. (Asch died in 2013.) They argued that prenatal testing has the effect of reducing an unborn child to a single aspect—Down syndrome, for example—and making parents judge the child’s life on that alone. Wasserman told me he didn’t think that most parents who make these decisions are seeking perfection. Rather, he said, “there’s profound risk aversion.”
It’s hard to know for sure whether the people in Lou’s study decided to abort for the reasons they gave or if these were retrospective justifications. But when Lou subsequently interviewed parents who had made the unusual choice to continue a pregnancy after a Down syndrome diagnosis, she found them more willing to embrace uncertainty.
Parents of children with Down syndrome have described to me the initial process of mourning the child they thought they would have: the child whom they were going to walk down the aisle, who was going to graduate from college, who was going to become president. None of this is guaranteed with any kid, of course, but while most parents go through a slow realignment of expectations over the years, prenatal testing was a rapid plummet into disappointment—all those dreams, however unrealistic, evaporating at once. And then the doctors present you with a long list of medical conditions associated with Down syndrome. Think about it this way, Karl Emil’s sister, Ann Katrine, said: “If you handed any expecting parent a whole list of everything their child could possibly encounter during their entire life span—illnesses and stuff like that—then anyone would be scared.”
“Nobody would have a baby,” Grete said.
A peculiar effect of Denmark’s universal-screening program and high abortion rate for Down syndrome is that a fair number of babies born with Down syndrome are born to parents who essentially got a false negative. Their first-trimester screening results said their odds were very low—so low that they needed no invasive follow-up testing. They simply went on with what they thought was an ordinary pregnancy. In other words, like the couple Grete once counseled, these are parents who might have chosen to abort, had they known.
The day after I met Grete, I attended a meeting of the local Copenhagen Down syndrome group. The woman who invited me, Louise Aarsø, had a then-5-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, Elea. Aarsø and her husband had made the unusual choice to opt out of screening. Though they support the right to abortion, they knew they would want to have the baby either way. At the meeting, two of the seven other families told me their prenatal screening had suggested extremely low odds. At birth, they were surprised. A few others said they had chosen to continue the pregnancy despite a high probability for Down syndrome. Ulla Hartmann, whose son Ditlev was 18, noted that he was born before the national screening program began. “We’re very thankful we didn’t know, because we had two twin boys when I got pregnant with Ditlev and I really don’t think we would have been, ‘Okay, let’s take this challenge when we have these monkeys up in the curtains,’ ” she told me. “But you grow with the challenge.”
Daniel Christensen was one of the parents who had been told the odds of Down syndrome were very low, something like 1 in 1,500. He and his wife didn’t have to make a choice, and when he thinks back on it, he said, “what scares me the most is actually how little we knew about Down syndrome.” What would the basis of their choice have been? Their son August is 4 now, with a twin sister, who Christensen half-jokingly said was “almost normal.” The other parents laughed. “Nobody’s normal,” he said.
Then the woman to my right spoke; she asked me not to use her name. She wore a green blouse, and her blond hair was pulled into a ponytail. When we all turned to her, I noticed that she had begun to tear up. “Now I’m moved from all the stories; I’m a little …” She paused to catch her breath. “My answer is not that beautiful.” The Down syndrome odds for her son, she said, were 1 in 969.
“You remember the exact number?” I asked.
“Yeah, I do. I went back to the papers.” The probability was low enough that she didn’t think about it after he was born. “On the one hand I saw the problems. And on the other hand he was perfect.” It took four months for him to get diagnosed with Down syndrome. He is 6 now, and he cannot speak. It frustrates him, she said. He fights with his brother and sister. He bites because he cannot express himself. “This has just been so many times, and you never feel safe.” Her experience is not representative of all children with Down syndrome; lack of impulse control is common, but violence is not. Her point, though, was that the image of a happy-go-lucky child so often featured in the media is not always representative either. She wouldn’t have chosen this life: “We would have asked for an abortion if we knew.”
Another parent chimed in, and the conversation hopscotched to a related topic and then another until it had moved on entirely. At the end of the meeting, as others stood and gathered their coats, I turned to the woman again because I was still shocked that she was willing to say what she’d said. Her admission seemed to violate an unspoken code of motherhood.
Of course, she said, “it’s shameful if I say these things.” She loves her child, because how can a mother not? “But you love a person that hits you, bites you? If you have a husband that bites you, you can say goodbye … but if you have a child that hits you, you can’t do anything. You can’t just say, ‘I don’t want to be in a relationship.’ Because it’s your child.” To have a child is to begin a relationship that you cannot sever. It is supposed to be unconditional, which is perhaps what most troubles us about selective abortion—it’s an admission that the relationship can in fact be conditional.
Parenting is a plunge into the unknown and the uncontrollable. It is beautiful in this way, but also daunting.
In the cold, scientific realm of biology, reproduction begins with a random genetic shuffling—an act of fate, if you were to be less cold, more poetic. The 23 pairs of chromosomes in our cells line up so that the DNA we inherited from our mother and father can be remixed and divided into sets of 23 single chromosomes. Each egg or sperm gets one such set. In women, this chromosomal division begins, remarkably, when they themselves are fetuses in their mother’s womb. The chromosomes freeze in place for 20, 30, even 40-plus years as the fetus becomes a baby, a girl, a woman. The cycle finishes only when the egg is fertilized. During the intervening years, the proteins holding chromosomes together can degrade, resulting in eggs with too many or too few chromosomes. This is the biological mechanism behind most cases of Down syndrome—95 percent of people born with an extra copy of chromosome 21 inherited it from their mother. And this is why the syndrome is often, though not always, linked to the age of the mother.
In the interviews I’ve conducted, and in interviews Lou and researchers across the U.S. have conducted, the choice of what to do after a prenatal test fell disproportionately on mothers. There were fathers who agonized over the choice too, but mothers usually bore most of the burden. There is a feminist explanation (my body, my choice) and a less feminist one (family is still primarily the domain of women), but it’s true either way. And in making these decisions, many of the women seemed to anticipate the judgment they would face.
Lou told me she had wanted to interview women who chose abortion after a Down syndrome diagnosis because they’re a silent majority. They are rarely interviewed in the media, and rarely willing to be interviewed. Danes are quite open about abortion—astonishingly so to my American ears—but abortions for a fetal anomaly, and especially Down syndrome, are different. They still carry a stigma. “I think it’s because we as a society like to think of ourselves as inclusive,” Lou said. “We are a rich society, and we think it’s important that different types of people should be here.” And for some of the women who end up choosing abortion, “their own self-understanding is a little shaken, because they have to accept they aren’t the kind of person like they thought,” she said. They were not the type of person who would choose to have a child with a disability.
For the women in Lou’s study, ending a pregnancy after a prenatal diagnosis was very different from ending an unwanted pregnancy. These were almost all wanted pregnancies, in some cases very much wanted pregnancies following long struggles with infertility. The decision to abort was not taken lightly. One Danish woman I’ll call “L” told me how terrible it was to feel her baby inside her once she’d made the decision to terminate. In the hospital bed, she began sobbing so hard, the staff had difficulty sedating her. The depth of her emotions surprised her, because she was so sure of her decision. The abortion was two years ago, and she doesn’t think about it much anymore. But recounting it on the phone, she began crying again.
She was disappointed to find so little in the media about the experiences of women like her. “It felt right for me, and I have no regrets at all,” she told me, but it also feels like “you’re doing something wrong.” L is a filmmaker, and she wanted to make a documentary about choosing abortion after a Down syndrome diagnosis. She even thought she would share her own story. But she hadn’t been able to find a couple willing to be in this documentary, and she wasn’t ready to put herself out there alone.
When Rayna Rapp, the anthropologist who coined the term moral pioneers, interviewed parents undergoing prenatal testing in New York in the 1980s and ’90s, she noticed a certain preoccupation among certain women. Her subjects represented a reasonably diverse slice of the city, but middle-class white women especially seemed fixated on the idea of “selfishness.” The women she interviewed were among the first in their families to forgo homemaking for paid work; they had not just jobs but careers that were central to their identity. With birth control, they were having fewer children and having them later. They had more reproductive autonomy than women had ever had in human history. (Rapp herself came to this research after having an abortion because of Down syndrome when she became pregnant as a 36-year-old professor.) “Medical technology transforms their ‘choices’ on an individual level, allowing them, like their male partners, to imagine voluntary limits to their commitments to their children,” Rapp wrote in her book Testing Women, Testing the Fetus.
But exercising those “voluntary limits” on motherhood—choosing not to have a child with a disability out of fear for how it might affect one’s career, for example—becomes judged as “selfishness.” Medical technology can offer women a choice, but it does not instantly transform the society around them. It does not dismantle the expectation that women are the primary caregivers or erase the ideal of a good mother as one who places no limits on her devotion to her children.
The centrality of choice to feminism also brings it into uncomfortable conflict with the disability-rights movement. Anti-abortion-rights activists in the U.S. have seized on this to introduce bills banning selective abortion for Down syndrome in several states. Feminist disability scholars have attempted to resolve the conflict by arguing that the choice is not a real choice at all. “The decision to abort a fetus with a disability even because it ‘just seems too difficult’ must be respected,” Marsha Saxton, the director of research at the World Institute on Disability, wrote in 1998. But Saxton calls it a choice made “under duress,” arguing that a woman faced with this decision is still constrained today—by popular misconceptions that make life with a disability out to be worse than it actually is and by a society that is hostile to people with disabilities.
And when fewer people with disabilities are born, it becomes harder for the ones who are born to live a good life, argues Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a bioethicist and professor emerita at Emory University. Fewer people with disabilities means fewer services, fewer therapies, fewer resources. But she also recognizes how this logic pins the entire weight of an inclusive society on individual women.
No wonder, then, that “choice” can feel like a burden. In one small study of women in the U.S. who chose abortion after a diagnosis of a fetal anomaly, two-thirds said they’d hoped—or even prayed—for a miscarriage instead. It’s not that they wanted their husbands, their doctors, or their lawmakers to tell them what to do, but they recognized that choice comes with responsibility and invites judgment. “I have guilt for not being the kind of person who could parent this particular type of special need,” said one woman in the study. “Guilt, guilt, guilt.”
The introduction of a choice reshapes the terrain on which we all stand. To opt out of testing is to become someone who chose to opt out. To test and end a pregnancy because of Down syndrome is to become someone who chose not to have a child with a disability. To test and continue the pregnancy after a Down syndrome diagnosis is to become someone who chose to have a child with a disability. Each choice puts you behind one demarcating line or another. There is no neutral ground, except perhaps in hoping that the test comes back negative and you never have to choose what’s next.
What kind of choice is this, if what you hope is to not have to choose at all?
Down syndrome is unlikely to ever disappear from the world completely. As women wait longer to have children, the incidence of pregnancies with an extra copy of chromosome 21 is going up. Prenatal testing can also in rare cases be wrong, and some parents will choose not to abort or not to test at all. Others will not have access to abortion.
These differences worry Hercher. If only the wealthy can afford to routinely screen out certain genetic conditions, then those conditions can become proxies of class. They can become, in other words, other people’s problems. Hercher worries about an empathy gap in a world where the well-off feel insulated from sickness and disability.
For those with the money, the possibilities of genetic selection are expanding. The leading edge is preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) of embryos created through in vitro fertilization, which altogether can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Labs now offer testing for a menu of genetic conditions—most of them rare and severe conditions such as Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, and phenylketonuria—allowing parents to select healthy embryos for implantation in the womb. Scientists have also started trying to understand more common conditions that are influenced by hundreds or even thousands of genes: diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, cancer, and—much more controversially—mental illness and autism. In late 2018, Genomic Prediction, a company in New Jersey, began offering to screen embryosfor risk of hundreds of conditions, including schizophrenia and intellectual disability, though it has since quietly backtracked on the latter. The one test customers keep asking for, the company’s chief scientific officer told me, is for autism. The science isn’t there yet, but the demand is.
The politics of prenatal testing for Down syndrome and abortion are currently yoked together by necessity: The only intervention offered for a prenatal test that finds Down syndrome is an abortion. But modern reproduction is opening up more ways for parents to choose what kind of child to have. PGT is one example. Sperm banks, too, now offer detailed donor profiles delineating eye color, hair color, education; they also screen donors for genetic disorders. Several parents have sued sperm banks after discovering that their donor may have undesirable genes, in cases where their children developed conditions such as autism or a degenerative nerve disease. In September, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that one such case, in which a sperm donor had hidden his history of mental illness, could move forward. The “deceptive trade practices” of a sperm bank that misrepresented its donor-screening process, the court ruled, could “essentially amount to ordinary consumer fraud.”
Garland-Thomson calls this commercialization of reproduction “velvet eugenics”—velvet for the soft, subtle way it encourages the eradication of disability. Like the Velvet Revolution from which she takes the term, it’s accomplished without overt violence. But it also takes on another connotation as human reproduction becomes more and more subject to consumer choice: velvet, as in quality, high-caliber, premium-tier. Wouldn’t you want only the best for your baby—one you’re already spending tens of thousands of dollars on IVF to conceive? “It turns people into products,” Garland-Thomson says.
None of this suggests that testing should be entirely abandoned. Most parents choosing genetic testing are seeking to spare their children real physical suffering. Tay-Sachs disease, for example, is caused by mutations in the HEXA gene, which causes the destruction of neurons in the brain and spinal cord. At about three to six months old, babies begin losing motor skills, then their vision and hearing. They develop seizures and paralysis. Most do not live past childhood. There is no cure.
In the world of genetic testing, Tay-Sachs is a success story. It has been nearly eliminated through a combination of prenatal testing of fetuses; preimplantation testing of embryos; and, in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, where the mutation is especially prevalent, carrier screening to discourage marriages between people who might together pass on the mutation. The flip side of this success is that having a baby with the disease is no longer simple misfortune because nothing could have been done. It can be seen instead as a failure of personal responsibility.
Fertility doctors have spoken to me passionately about expanding access to IVF for parents who are fertile but who might use embryo screening to prevent passing on serious diseases. In a world where IVF becomes less expensive and less hard on a woman’s body, this might very well become the responsible thing to do. And if you’re already going through all this to screen for one disease, why not avail yourself of the whole menu of tests? The hypothetical that Karl Emil’s sister imagined, in which a child’s every risk is laid out, feels closer than ever. How do you choose between one embryo with a slightly elevated risk of schizophrenia and another with a moderate risk of breast cancer?
Not surprisingly, those advocating for preimplantation genetic testing prefer to keep the conversation focused on monogenic diseases, where single gene mutations have severe health effects. Talk of minimizing the risk of conditions like diabetes and mental illness—which are also heavily influenced by environment—quickly turns to designer babies. “Why do we want to go there?” says David Sable, a former IVF doctor who is now a venture capitalist specializing in life sciences. “Start with the most scientifically straightforward, the monogenic diseases—cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia—where you could define very specifically what the benefit is.”
What about Down syndrome, then, I asked, which can be much less severe than those diseases but is routinely screened for anyway? His answer surprised me, considering that he has spent much of his career working with labs that count chromosomes: “The concept of counting chromosomes as a definitive indicator of the truth—I think we’re going to look back on that and say, ‘Oh my God, we were so misguided.’ ” Consider the sex chromosomes, he said. “We’ve locked ourselves into this male-female binary that we enforced with XX and XY.” But it’s not nearly so neat. Babies born XX can have male reproductive organs; those born XY can have female reproductive organs. And others can be born with an unusual number of sex chromosomes like X, XXY, XYY, XXYY, XXXX, the effects of which range widely in severity. Some might never know there’s anything unusual in their chromosomes at all.
When Rayna Rapp was researching prenatal testing back in the ’80s and ’90s, she came across multiple sets of parents who chose to abort a fetus with a sex-chromosome anomaly out of fear that it could lead to homosexuality—never mind that there is no known link. They also worried that a boy who didn’t conform to XY wouldn’t be masculine enough. Reading about their anxieties 30 years later, I could sense how much the ground had moved under our feet. Of course, some parents might still have the same fears, but today the boundaries of “normal” for gender and sexuality encompass much more than the narrow band of three decades ago. A child who is neither XX nor XY can fit into today’s world much more easily than in a rigidly gender-binary one.
Both sex-chromosome anomalies and Down syndrome were early targets of prenatal testing—not because they are the most dangerous conditions but because they were the easiest to test for. It’s just counting chromosomes. As science moves past this relatively rudimentary technique, Sable mused, “the term Down syndrome is probably going to go away at some point, because we may find that having that third 21 chromosome maybe does not carry a predictable level of suffering or altered function.” Indeed, most pregnancies with a third copy of chromosome 21 end as miscarriages. Only about 20 percent survive to birth, and the people who are born have a wide range of intellectual disabilities and physical ailments. How can an extra chromosome 21 be incompatible with life in some cases and in other cases result in a boy, like one I met, who can read and write and perform wicked juggling tricks with his diabolo? Clearly, something more than just an extra chromosome is going on.
As genetic testing has become more widespread, it has revealed just how many other genetic anomalies many of us live with—not only extra or missing chromosomes, but whole chunks of chromosome getting deleted, chunks duplicated, chunks stuck onto a different chromosome altogether, mutations that should be deadly but that show up in the healthy adult in front of you. Every person carries a set of mutations unique to them. This is why new and rare genetic diseases are so hard to diagnose—if you compare a person’s DNA with a reference genome, you come up with hundreds of thousands of differences, most of them utterly irrelevant to the disease. What, then, is normal? Genetic testing, as a medical service, is used to enforce the boundaries of “normal” by screening out the anomalous, but seeing all the anomalies that are compatible with life might actually expand our understanding of normal. “It’s expanded mine,” Sable told me.
Sable offered this up as a general observation. He didn’t think he was qualified to speculate on what this meant for the future of Down syndrome screening, but I found this conversation about genetics unexpectedly resonant with something parents had told me. David Perry, a writer in Minnesota whose 13-year-old son has Down syndrome, said he disliked how people with Down syndrome are portrayed as angelic and cute; he found it flattening and dehumanizing. He pointed instead to the way the neurodiversity movement has worked to bring autism and ADHD into the realm of normal neurological variation. “We need more kinds of normal,” another father, Johannes Dybkjær Andersson, a musician and creative director in Copenhagen, said. “That’s a good thing, when people show up in our lives”—as his daughter, Sally, did six years ago—“and they are just normal in a totally different way.” Her brain processes the world differently than his does. She is unfiltered and open. Many parents have told me how this quality can be awkward or disruptive at times, but it can also break the stifling bounds of social propriety.
Stephanie Meredith, the director of the National Center for Prenatal and Postnatal Resources at the University of Kentucky, told me of the time her 20-year-old son saw his sister collide with another player on the basketball court. She hit the ground so hard that an audible crack went through the gym. Before Meredith could react, her son had already leapt from the bleachers and picked his sister up. “He wasn’t worried about the rules; he wasn’t worried about decorum. It was just responding and taking care of her,” Meredith told me. She had recently been asked a simple but probing question: What was she most proud of about her son that was not an achievement or a milestone? The incident on the basketball court was one that came to mind. “It doesn’t have to do with accomplishment,” she said. “It has to do with caring about another human being.”
That question had stayed with Meredith—and it stayed with me—because of how subtly yet powerfully it reframes what parents should value in their children: not grades or basketball trophies or college-acceptance letters or any of the things parents usually brag about. By doing so, it opens the door to a world less obsessed with achievement. Meredith pointed out that Down syndrome is defined and diagnosed by a medical system made up of people who have to be highly successful to get there, who likely base part of their identity on their intelligence. This is the system giving parents the tools to decide what kind of children to have. Might it be biased on the question of whose lives have value?
When mary wasserman gave birth to her son, Michael, in 1961, kids with Down syndrome in America were still routinely sent to state institutions. She remembers the doctor announcing, “It’s a mongoloid idiot”—the term used before chromosome counting became common—and telling her “it” should go to the state institution right away. Wasserman had volunteered for a week at such an institution in high school, and she would never forget the sights, the sounds, the smells. The children were soiled, uncared for, unnurtured. In defiance of her doctor, she took Michael home.
The early years were not easy for Wasserman, who was a divorced mother for much of Michael’s childhood. She worked to support them both. There weren’t really any formal day cares then, and the women who ran informal ones out of their homes didn’t want Michael. “The other mothers were not comfortable,” one of them told her after his first week. Others rejected him outright. She hired private babysitters, but Michael didn’t have playmates. It wasn’t until he was 8, when a school for kids with disabilities opened nearby, that Michael went to school for the first time.
Michael is 59 now. The life of a child born with Down syndrome today is very different. State institutions closed down after exposés of the unsanitary and cruel conditions that Wasserman had glimpsed as a high-school student. After children with disabilities go home from the hospital today, they have access to a bevy of speech, physical, and occupational therapies from the government—usually at no cost to families. Public schools are required to provide equal access to education for kids with disabilities. In 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act prohibited discrimination in employment, public transportation, day cares, and other businesses. Inclusion has made people with disabilities a visible and normal part of society; instead of being hidden away in institutions, they live among everyone else. Thanks to the activism of parents like Wasserman, all of these changes have taken place in her son’s lifetime.
Does she wish Michael had had the opportunities that kids have now? “Well,” she says, “I think maybe in some ways it was easier for us.” Of course the therapies would have helped Michael. But there’s more pressure on kids and parents today. She wasn’t shuttling Michael to appointments or fighting with the school to get him included in general classes or helping him apply to the college programs that have now proliferated for students with intellectual disabilities. “It was less stressful for us than it is today,” she says. Raising a child with a disability has become a lot more intensive—not unlike raising any child.
I can’t count how many times, in the course of reporting this story, people remarked to me, “You know, people with Down syndrome work and go to college now!” This is an important corrective to the low expectations that persist and a poignant reminder of how a transforming society has transformed the lives of people with Down syndrome. But it also does not capture the full range of experiences, especially for people whose disabilities are more serious and those whose families do not have money and connections. Jobs and college are achievements worth celebrating—like any kid’s milestones—but I’ve wondered why we so often need to point to achievements for evidence that the lives of people with Down syndrome are meaningful.
When I had asked Grete Fält-Hansen what it was like to open up her life to parents trying to decide what to do after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, I suppose I was asking her what it was like to open up her life to the judgment of those parents—and also of me, a journalist, who was here asking the same questions. As she told me, she had worried at first that people might not like her son. But she understands now how different each family’s circumstances can be and how difficult the choice can be. “I feel sad about thinking about pregnant women and the fathers, that they are met with this choice. It’s almost impossible,” she said. “Therefore, I don’t judge them.”
Karl Emil had grown bored while we talked in English. He tugged on Grete’s hair and smiled sheepishly to remind us that he was still there, that the stakes of our conversation were very real and very human.
This article appears in the December 2020 print edition. It was first published online on November 18, 2020.
Christians worldwide are praying for the persecuted Church as religious freedom is increasingly threatened during the pandemic.
Sunday marks the 24th International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP), held each year to unite the global Church in speaking out against persecution.
Release International, one of the UK organisations supporting IDOP, said that even with many parts of the world under lockdown or restrictions due to the pandemic, persecution has only increased.
In China, churches have been demolished, their crosses torn down and pastors arrested.
“Persecution doesn’t just hide in the backwaters. It is taking place in plain sight in the largest and most populous nations on earth,” said Release CEO Paul Robinson.
“Even state-controlled churches are being demolished and destroyed.”
In India, Christians are being persecuted by Hindu extremists.
“Attacks and false accusations against Christians are now almost a daily occurrence – and this in the world’s largest democracy, the second most populous nation on earth,” said Robinson.
In Nigeria, Christians already fearful of Boko Haram terrorists now face additional threats from armed Fulani herdsmen.
In numerous attacks on villages this year, Christians have been driven from their homes or slaughtered.
According to the International Society for Human Rights, around 80 per cent of religious persecution around the world today is aimed at Christians.
China, India and Nigeria are the focus of this year’s IDOP in the UK, with Release, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors and the Evangelical Alliance jointly hosting an online IDOP event on Sunday from 7:30pm to 8:30pm.
Robinson added: “Our prayer for IDOP 2020 is to help our brothers and sisters in India, China and Nigeria to rise above persecution – and remain faithful in their worship and witness.”
Iraqi Christians in Baghdad leave Christmas Mass at St. George Chaldean Church Dec. 25, 2019. (Credit: Khalid al Mousily/Reuters via CNS.)
ROSARIO, Argentina – Ever since the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), there’s been rising alarm regarding the future for Christians in the Middle East. A Catholic priest who recently returned to his village in northern Iraq after six years in Rome described what he found as “shocking,” but doubled down on the need for Christians to survive.
Father Karam Shamasha left the town of Telskuf in the Nineveh Plains headed to Rome back in 2014, only weeks after ISIS conquered northern Iraq, historically the cradle of Christianity in the country.
“Our presence is a salt in this region,” he said. “Our presence in this country is not only religious, it’s also educational. We have the mission of creating a peaceful atmosphere in this country, demonstrating with the testimony of our faith, love and serenity, that there are ways of living that go beyond violence and war.”
Speaking with Crux earlier this week, he discussed the many challenges Christians face still today, two years after the alleged defeat of ISIS: “ISIS has not disappeared,” he said. “We have many problems, including religious ones, because the mentality was not eliminated.”
Shamasha also urged Christians in the West not to take freedom of religion for granted, noting that when the faithful in Iraq hear of terrorist attacks in countries such as France or Austria they “panic” because if these happen in countries with strong governments and law and order, then what’s left for nations facing political instability?
The priest spoke with Crux from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, via Zoom. What follows are excerpts of that conversation, held in Italian.
Crux: You returned to Iraq a few months ago, after studying in Rome for several years. What did you find on your return?
Shamasha: I finished my studies two or three months ago. I was in Rome, and I went straight back to northern Iraq, where my people are and where I’m incardinated as a priest. Slowly, I’m resuming my pastoral activities, while also my educational responsibilities.
What I found on my return was shocking, because most of the people have left, gone abroad, and most of those who remain have many difficulties, including related to COVID-19, as much of the world, added to great economic challenges and political instability. Upon my arrival, I ran into problems that I had never encountered when I was the parish priest of my town before heading to Rome.
It must be said, however, that despite the many challenges we face, there’s much work to be done: from a religious point of view, there’s a lot to do to help the faithful, as they have the psychological scars caused by the violence, horrors and challenges posed by ISIS. Trust that was broken needs to be rebuilt, along with many material things.
When did you leave for Rome, before, during or after ISIS took over your village?
I went to Rome about 20 days after ISIS conquered the Nineveh Plain. I was the priest of Tuluskof. The town was taken by ISIS on August 6, 2014, and I left for Rome around the 20th. I did a doctorate in moral theology, and now I’m back.
Is your family still in Iraq?
Most of them are living abroad, as are most of my friends. Emigration began before 2014, because the discrimination against Christians is something that we’ve had in Iraq since before ISIS: it did not begin overnight.
I would say that today, there’s not a single Christian family in Iraq that doesn’t have relatives living abroad. Those who remained are mostly people who had strong jobs, perhaps teaching or in government.
But of those who left, many had stable jobs, but were victims of discrimination, and the rise of ISIS was a final straw in terms of trust.
For example, in my village, ISIS was defeated a few weeks after the occupation. Yet people were not allowed to go back home for over two years: Teleskuf was still a “red zone,” with ISIS causing havoc seven miles from our homes. In this situation, when people saw that they had lost everything and were not going to be able to return, many others decided to flee.
It must be noted, however, that for the faithful of our parishes who had to flee, things were not easy either.
In what sense?
Christians who decided to emigrate abroad did not find any European country ready to welcome them, nor refuge in the United States or Australia. They chose instead to welcome people of other religions. Nobody wanted to welcome Christians, and I wouldn’t be able to explain why. Hence, many Christian families who fled Iraq are still today in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, and have been for more than five years.
In these countries, they cannot find jobs because they don’t have access to documents as refugees, and they also face the challenge of not speaking the language.
Why this refusal of countries to receive Christians? Is it due to the fact that they don’t go to United Nations-sponsored refugee camps for fear of Muslims?
Many Christian families encountered problems in refugee camps, it is true: they could not, for example, wear the cross around their neck because the neighbors inside the camp were also extremists. We fled ISIS with all these difficulties, and we went abroad to refugee camps to find the same problems.
Iraqi Christians, before ISIS, lived very, very well. It is not easy for families to live in such a bad situation overnight, because before they were fine.
For years the Catholic Church has been trying to dialogue with Islam, with Pope Francis even signing a major declaration on Human Fraternity with the gran Imam of Al Azar University. Is it possible to achieve peace between Muslims and Christians in countries like Iraq or Syria?
We are called to be in dialogue. Christianity is a religion of peace, not one that seeks to create enemies. We always seek to create friends; this is our vocation. Dialogue is a vocation present in our religion and it is something we have to seek, always.
But … with whom can we have this dialogue? Because it is beautiful to see this brotherhood, these meetings, taking place. But in the end, these people who participate in the dialogue, when they return to their countries, can they speak well of Christianity in their mosques, universities, schools? Some may, but for many it is difficult to speak of Christianity in a beautiful way.
Today if we talk about Iraq, when we talk about respect for Christianity, be it from the government or from many of the other citizens, it exists in principle. But when we talk about laws, periodically we see ones that foster discrimination. For example, a few years ago a law came out stating that when a father joins Islam, all his children automatically convert.
So, if we speak of dialogue, we have to clarify that this dialogue must also take place in the countries of the people who participate in this dialogue.
We have to conduct this dialogue in a respectful way. Everyone can have their own particular religious worship, but the freedom that Muslims in Iraq have, Christians should also have.
How do you react to news of terrorist attacks in the West, for instance, what we saw in France or Austria these past days?
They generate panic for us. Because if these attacks against the human person can occur in countries that have strong governments, law and order, how can we defend ourselves, when we don’t have any of these guarantees? It’s very difficult for us to live in peace, continue with our faith, go to church.
We are trying to resume all our pastoral activities after the COVID outbreak, but we always have this fear (of an attack). The daily masses have already returned, with the prayers in Aramaic.
With so much against the odds, why do Christians want to stay in Iraq?
Because, in the end, our presence is a salt in this region. We are not called only to seek a beautiful or peaceful life. Even though we might face challenges, Christianity in our land is so important because we’ve has been here since the first century, with the Apostle Saint Thomas bringing the Good News to this land.
But our presence on this country is not only religious, it’s also educational. We have the mission of creating a peaceful atmosphere in this country, demonstrating with the testimony of our faith, love and serenity, that there are ways of living that go beyond violence and war.
It’s also important to make the West understand that our presence in this region is historical, and very relevant: Christianity is not present only in the West. For us to let others know that we are defending our faith, despite our difficulty, it is the mission that we have facing our siblings who live in the West.
Because many times, Christians in the West, accustomed to a relative religious freedom and peace, they don’t see the importance of praying, of going to church, taking it for granted.
Us who live here here, but also in many countries where Christians are persecuted in Africa or in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to show that despite the difficulties, despite knowing that one can be killed for going to Mass, we remain strong in our faith witnessing it daily.
Anything you want to share with our readers?
We need your prayers. Because we are still living very difficult times. It is not that ISIS disappeared, we still have many problems, also religious, because the mentality was not eliminated. We pray that this country will find a more lasting peace, and we also pray for you.
I would also like to share that what helped us overcome so many psychological problems and from the loss of important material things in that period in which we were away from our homes, was the divine presence. We touched the hands of God who protected us, helped us remain strong. Without his help, we would not have the strength we have, and we couldn’t be faithful to the end.
God’s grace helped us, guided us, and protected us until we reached safety. This safety might not be a material place, but one where we can rest our head in God’s hands and find solace in being close to him.
DESPITE THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC, #RedWeek 2020, a campaign designed to draw attention to the persecution of Christians all over the world, will still take place this year Nov. 18-25. “COVID 19 may have brought many changes, but Christians continue to be the most persecuted religious community in the world.
To raise awareness of this painful fact, cathedrals, churches and public buildings will be illuminated in red in many countries across four continents. Furthermore, a large number of initiatives will be presented online,” confirmed Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). He explained that the initiative is a strong sign of support for all those who are suffering discrimination but cannot speak freely about it themselves and hope that others will raise their voices in their stead.
#RedWeek is an initiative launched in 2015 by ACN. About 250 million Christians all over the world are living in environments in which they are violently persecuted, discriminated against or prevented from freely practicing their faith.
This year the initiative will begin in Austria. On Wednesday Nov. 18 a Mass for persecuted Christians will be held in red-lit St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. On this day, the red spotlight will shine on almost 50 participating Austrian churches and state institutions, such as the Austrian Parliament in Vienna.
Many countries all over the world, from Canada to Australia, will take part in #RedWeek. During this time symbolic monuments will be bathed in red light, such as Bratislava Castle or the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montréal. It is very likely that the statue of Christ, “Cristo Redentor,” in Ri#o de Janeiro, where the campaign first began in 2015, will again be a part of the campaign this year. In years past, the Colosseum in Rome has also been lit red.
A highlight is planned for Nov. 25 with special events in Great Britain and the Philippines. In Great Britain, the day will include the presentation of a report on Christians who have unjustly been incarcerated because of their faith. It bears the title “Set Your Captives Free.” Contributions are expected by Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama from Abuja, Nigeria; the former British member of parliament, Rob Flello; and Maira Shahbaz from Pakistan, whose case of kidnapping and terror is discussed in the report.
In the Philippines, the focus of #RedWeek will be completely on the COVID-19 pandemic this year. The objective is to raise awareness about the many clergy and religious sisters who are working on the frontline, assisting those who have fallen ill, and who are performing their service at great personal risk. Although in previous years the focus was on churches and schools, this year the initiative is also calling upon hospitals to take part and be lit up in red.
CNA Staff, Nov 3, 2020 / 05:19 pm MT (CNA).- Seven months after Northern Ireland’s expansive legal abortion law took effect, pro-life advocates have lamented the lives lost and called for change.
“Tragically, the extreme abortion regime being forced upon the people of Northern Ireland has already resulted in the abortion of at least 719 unborn babies,” Catherine Robinson, a spokesperson for Right to Life UK, said Nov. 3. “Every one of these abortions represents a failure to protect the lives of babies in the womb and a failure to offer full support to women with unplanned pregnancies.”
The latest figures show 719 abortions between March 31 and Oct. 14. Health Minister Robin Swann reported the numbers in response to a question from Member of the Legislative Assembly Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, according to Right to Life UK.
Allister noted that more than 560 people have died of COVID-19 in Northern Ireland in the same period.
“We’re all rightly concerned about the suffering and death caused by the pandemic in NI and across our nation, with every death a tragic loss for families,” McAllister said, according to the Belfast newspaper News Letter. “There is, however, another deadly threat to the lives of the youngest, most innocent and venerable which shamefully is not receiving anything like the same attention.”
“What a contrast – medical professionals strive desperately to save lives, while others abort lives!” said Allister.
Northern Ireland rejected the Abortion Act 1967, which legalized abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland. Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
Robinson said the previous law in Northern Ireland saved lives.
“Northern Ireland is a country where 100,000 people are alive today because they chose protecting unborn babies over accepting the same abortion law that was introduced into Britain in 1967,” she said.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but abortion law was considered a devolved issue to be under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly, known as Stormont. However, due to the collapse of a power sharing agreement in the government, the U.K. Parliament last October was able to pass a broad legal abortion regime. Parliament also voted to require same-sex marriage to be recognized in law.
Before March 31, abortion was legally permitted only if the mother’s life was at risk or if there was risk of long term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health. Now, Northern Ireland abortion law now allows elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortions up to 24 weeks in cases of risk to the mother’s physical or mental health; and abortion without time limit in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal fetal abnormality.
Right to Life UK says the law in Northern Ireland is even more permissive than in other parts the U.K. and allows abortion up to birth for all disabilities, including cleft lip, club foot, and Down syndrome.
“The people of Northern Ireland did not want these extreme abortion regulations imposed on them and still do not want them,” said Robinson. “Northern Ireland politicians must urgently repeal this extreme abortion legislation imposed upon them and begin conversations on how they can better support women and unborn babies.”
Northern Irish women had been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017. They were allowed to travel to the rest of the U.K. to procure abortions during the coronavirus outbreak.
Right to Life UK said the figures from six and a half months of legal abortion suggest the Northern Ireland legislation is resulting in more abortions than previously sought. Throughout all of 2019, 1,014 Northern Ireland women are known to have traveled to England or Wales for an abortion, and fewer than 10 traveled to Scotland for an abortion, according to the U.K. Department of Social Care and Scotland’s Information Services.
The pro-life group Precious Life NI held a “life chain” event outside Stormont Oct. 24 to mark the anniversary and to protest the pro-abortion rights aspects of Parliament’s act, known as Section 9. Seventeen “life chain” events took place across Northern Ireland, following social distancing regulations to limit spread of the coronavirus.
“As long as a single precious unborn baby is in danger, then our work is not yet finished,” said Bernadette Smyth, director of Precious Life NI. “Our life chain events today sent out a clear message to our Assembly: repeal Section 9 and restore personhood for Northern Ireland’s unborn children.”
The group’s Stormont display used hundreds of pairs of baby shoes with a boy’s or girl’s name pinned to them, and arranged to spell the letters “664” the previous count of legal abortions in Northern Ireland.
A heartbeat monitor was held to the stomach of a pregnant mother and the baby’s heartbeat was amplified through the public address system. A mother whose son was born with the help of the Stanton Healthcare pregnancy resource center in Belfast spoke at the event and thanked people for their support.
Under Northern Ireland law, abortions may be performed at general practitioners premises, and Health and Social Care clinics and hospitals. Medical abortions are permitted up to 10 weeks, and the first drug used in the two-drug process, mifepristone, must be taken at a clinic.
Right to Life UK warned that abortion backers seek to expand legal access to “do-it-yourself” home abortions using this two-drug regimen, despite what it says are”serious safety concerns.” The U.K. government has allowed these abortions in England, following consultation with a doctor, as have the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales.
“All three governments made the very substantial change without any public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny or debate,” the pro-life group objected.
NGOs like the British Pregnancy Advisory Services and abortion providers like Marie Stopes International have been pressuring Stormont to allow the abortion drugs to be administered at home.
The Republic of Ireland, where 66% of voters chose to legalize abortion in a 2018 referendum to remove strong protections for unborn babies from the national constitution, saw a total of 6,666 abortions in 2019.
A new report details how North Korean Christians are being persecuted for their faith, including being arrested for possessing a Bible, electrocuted, starved, or even shot in front of their fellow prisoners.
The staff of the initiative consulted with 177 North Korean exiles about religious persecution in the East Asia country, where worshipping anyone other than dictator Kim Jong-Un is strictly forbidden.
According to the report, its investigation documents 273 victims of religious freedom violations. These victims ranged in age from three-years-old to 80-years-old.
The report covers the time period of 1990 to 2019 and reveals gruesome details of torture that reads more like John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs from the mid-1500’s. It tells of cases of people being punished for their beliefs, including public executions, sexual violence, beatings, torture, forced abortions, and imprisonment in North Korean prison camps.
***Warning the following narrative describes some of the abuse endured from the report.
One man who was interviewed recalled that he had just converted to Christianity and his guards forced him into a metal cage that measured only 3 feet high by 4 feet wide.
“There were steel bars on all four-sides that were heated with electricity,” he said. “Usually prisoners lasted only three or four hours in the cage, but I sat there for 12 hours and prayed. I kept praying to God to save me.”
The man said he eventually passed out. When he woke up, he found the guards had removed him from his cage, but had beaten him while he was unconscious. He had severe injuries to his face and right leg.
One female prisoner said, “Men were beaten like dogs, even in the cell. They screamed like crazy because they hurt so much.”
“Even though women were beaten less, I was hit in the face and my skin ruptured and I bled a lot,” she continued. “(Officers) told me to wipe the blood, so I cleaned it. I wept a lot when they hit me again. Blood and discharge ruptured during my next pre-trial examination. They hit me again because I wept.”
The researchers also detailed 32 incidents of sexual violence against female prisoners, who made up 60 percent of victims identified in the report, including forced abortions.
One person told the investigators about forced abortions that occurred in the North Hamgyong province. The person said women would be forced into labor via injections, and would then give birth to live babies. These newborns would then be smothered by the guards using sheets of plastic and cloth sacks with their bodies stored in a cupboard.
Several executions are noted in the report, including one in which a person was executed by firing squad in front of more than 1,000 people. Prisoners were also executed after their guards found a Bible or other religious material in their cells.
Some were killed for smuggling Bibles or pages from the Bible into the communist country from China for people to make prayer books.
Christianity was relatively common in the Korean Peninsula before the Soviet Civil Administration took control in 1945, along with other religions including Buddhism and spiritual beliefs including shamanism, according to The Daily Mail.
But now, as one prisoner recalled, “There is no religion in the world and Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s predecessor) is God.”
All religious worship and the possession of religious items, including crosses and prayer books, is outlawed.
There are still underground networks of Christians in North Korea, but they have to be very diligent as they continue to pray and gather in secret. The state encourages its citizens to act as informants, and they respond by turning in neighbors, family members, their parents or children and even their spouse.
Il-lyong Ju, an exiled human rights advocate who helped put the report together, said in the report’s foreward: “The cruel actions of the privileged few in North Korea who take our lives and control our thoughts must be prevented. North Korean officials, whose crimes evoke thoughts of Auschwitz, must be identified and held accountable. And we must not forget the testimonies of the survivors in this report who have overpowered death in North Korea.”
“This is the least that we, the free North Koreans, and you… who has been granted freedom at birth, can do as our collective act of humanity,” he continued. “We have freedom. The North Korean people do not.”
North Korea is ranked as the number one persecutor of Christians in the world by Open Doors 2020 World Watch List. The Open Doors list says Christian persecution in the country is extreme and if Christians are discovered, they are sent to labor camps as political prisoners or killed on the spot.