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Were Nazis More Tolerant of Down Syndrome than Some European Countries Today?

Down Syndrome

Richard Dawkins lashed out at Pope Francis for the latter’s comparing modern eugenic efforts to Nazi precedents that sought to “create a pure race.” Dawkins fumed, “Abortion to avoid birth defects is not about eugenics. It’s about the avoidance of individual human suffering.”

The Daily Wire observes:

As noted by LifeNews, the “human suffering” that Dawkins refers to here is disingenuous, considering that many parents of Down children report loving their children and having much joy in their family.

Dawkins advised such families to just “Abort it and try again” in 2014 when one Twitter follower asked what to do about her Down syndrome diagnosed baby. “It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice,” he said.

The atheist lamenting about what’s “immoral” makes little sense.

In Denmark, only four Down syndrome babies were born in 2016. In the neighboring country of Iceland, the eradication of Down syndrome babies has reached near 100%. France has gotten in on the race, too; most recently, the country banned a television commercial featuring Down syndrome children because it upset the mothers who previously aborted them.

I wondered if there are sources for how the Nazis thought specifically of Down syndrome and how that fit into their eugenics program. Our colleague Richard Weikart, the historian and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, would know. So I asked him. He answered:

I’m not sure to what extent the Nazis targeted people with Down Syndrome. It was not one of the hereditary illnesses listed in the compulsory sterilization law of July 1933. I suspect it may have depended on their ability to do useful labor. The Nazis generally targeted people with disabilities that were unable to do productive work.

Down syndrome was already well known by 1933, having been identified and named for John Langdon Down in 1866.

Weikart checked The Origins of Nazi Genocide, a book by Henry Friedlander, “which is probably the best work on the Nazi euthanasia program,” and found no mention of Down syndrome. He added:

One factor influencing this may have been that the Nazis only killed disabled people who were institutionalized, and many people with Down Syndrome do not require institutionalization.

Now, it may well be that the Nazis sterilized and/or killed some people with Down Syndrome (I would actually be surprised if they didn’t target those with more severe cases), but I don’t know.

What this sounds like is the Nazis likely permitted people with Down syndrome to live, if they could work, or if they could live outside of an institutional setting. They do not appear to have been specifically targeted. But Dawkins along with Iceland and other European countries today aren’t impressed by that. They are unsatisfied with anything less than total erasure of these human beings who can in many cases do “productive work” but who also give abundant joy and love. More important than what they can do or give, of course, is that they are individual humans with inherent dignity like yours or mine.

And remember, eradicating Down people is not something that Iceland and the rest do in secret or shame, either. They are proud of it.

Comparisons with Nazi Germany are obviously perilous, and I think I would have advised Pope Francis against this one if he had asked me, as I would have advised former CIA director Michael Hayden against his foolish Nazi comparison from a few days ago.

Still, while Europe isn’t sick in the same way it was at the low point of the 20th century, the old continent is sick all right. And we know that this sickness resonates — it makes sense, a model for emulation — with many Americans as well.

Photo: A bus for transporting “patients,” Hartheim Euthanasia Centre, where Nazis gassed 30,000 victims, via Wikimedia Commons.