Stop Killing the Disabled

I don’t know Shira Rosenfeld, the courageous author of this piece for I don’t know where she lives as it appears she has chosen to keep her biographical information private. However, I would be willing to bet that she lives in Israel. Why is that? Because the attitude of the genetic counselors, who strongly recommended she abort her child due to the likelihood that it may have a genetic kidney disease, which a nephrologist later confirmed would be treatable, fits all too well with the modus operandi of genetic councilors in Israel.

A fascinating book about the different attitudes and outcomes of genetic counseling in Germany and Israel, written by Yael Hashiloni-Dolev and published in 2007, documents the disturbing reality of an abortion-pushing culture among Israeli genetic councilors. By contrast, genetic councilors in Germany are much more cautious.

What accounts for the difference in attitude? The author cites the obvious, that is, German horror at the atrocities of the Holocaust and a genuine determination not to repeat the moral folly of the Nazis. However, the author also mentions differing attitudes to technology and religiosity,

Another key factor is different attitudes about science. Germans are much more skeptical about scientific progress, whether in reproductive genetics or in other realms, so they cast a more critical eye on new reproductive technologies. Israelis, on the other hand, tend to accept any new scientific or technological advance uncritically. Religion also plays a role. Israeli counselors tend to be secular and consider Orthodox Jews as their chief enemy, while German counselors are more religious.

I don’t know what to make of the summary author’s claim that secular Israelis see ‘Orthodox Jews as their chief enemy,’ though if I spent much time reading the Haaretz I might come to believe it, but the divide on this issue seems pretty clearly correlated to religiosity. As a small, non-scientific example: My son goes to kindergarten at ELIYA in Jerusalem. ELIYA is a wonderful organization which helps children in Israel with visual disabilities of varying degrees and their families. Thank G-d, our oldest son suffers from a relatively moderate visual impairment. His current class of 4 visually impaired children comprises him and three albino children. Albinism is a genetic disease which makes one’s skin unable to produce pigment. Along with the direct repercussions of very white skin, such as increased sensitivity to light, there are associated visual problems suffered by people with albinism. Of the four children in my son’s kindergarten, all are from religious families, 2 of them Haredi. The test for Albinism is coming into vogue in Israel, with the clear implication that this is information one might want to ‘do something’ about.

But do genetic councilors in Israel really recommend abortion? Don’t they merely give information and options? Apparently not. As the writer of the book summary puts it (emphasis added),

An Israeli genetic counselor stated, “Right from the start our role is to lead people to abortions. It might sound cruel but this is our job, by definition” (p. 92). German counselors did not see their role this way. In fact, genetic counselors in both countries officially adopt an ethos of non-directive counseling. Hashiloni-Dolev points out that Israeli counselors often adopt a pro-abortion stance when genetic disabilities are detected, violating their own stated professional standards.

This attitude towards the unborn reflects Israeli attitudes about the value of life for people with disabilities more generally. Again, from the summary,

As Hashiloni-Dolev explains, “German counselors strongly rejected the idea that impaired life is not worth living, while the majority of Israeli counselors … supported it. To put it in the harsh words of an Israeli MA genetic counselor, a woman working in a hospital revealed, ‘I don’t see life as something so holy. If life is shit, it is not holy. I don’t venerate life in the garbage.’ It seems that many Israeli counselors feel the same” (p. 126). The Israeli Supreme Court has reinforced this contempt for the life of the disabled by ruling in a 1986 “wrongful life” suit that a disabled child has the right not to be born. According to Hashiloni-Dolev, this ruling means that the only right a fetus has in Israel is the right to be aborted. This notion of “wrongful life” is foreign to German (and European and American) jurisprudence.

Of course, with such prejudices completely dismissing the value of lives lead by disabled persons present in the judicial system, it’s not surprising that Israeli medical staff recommend medical abortions early and often. If they don’t, they might get sued for letting the poor creatures live.

Upon researching for this post I couldn’t help getting the song, “Kill the Poor” by the punk band “Dead Kennedys” stuck in my head. The concept of the song is that society has decided to kill all the poor people with a new weapon they’ve created. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to apply the lyrics to the pre-emptive abortion of disabled people in our own society.

This is not about abortion ‘rights.’ Regardless of a person’s ‘right’ or lack thereof to have an abortion, the morally problematic nature of aborting children for minor and/or treatable conditions should be obvious. Those of us dedicated to creating a compassionate society need to stop viewing the lives of people with illness or disabilities as ‘not worth living,’ and apply that same compassionate, broad-minded attitude to unborn children as well.

About the Author
Rabbi Eitan Levy is a tour guide and organizer in Israel. He grew up in Denver, Colorado, got a BA in philosophy at Sarah Lawrence, and rabbinic ordination at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. He loves to share his love of the Torah, land and people of Israel in writing, lectures, and tours. He lives in Tekoa with his wife and three little gremlins.