Archive for the ‘children/child’ Category
Canadian Study Calls for Greater Responsibility in Use
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, OCT. 21, 2007 (Zenit.org).- An explosion in media technology means both parents and society need to be more alert to the dangers children face. This was the warning contained in the Oct. 15 report entitled “Good Servant, Bad Master: Electronic Media and the Family,” published by the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family.
Author Arlene Moscovitch reviewed Canadian and international research on the media, and in her report she acknowledged the positive side of the media, which is a useful source of education and entertainment. As well, new technologies also help families stay in contact with greater ease.
At the same time the report warned of some more negative consequences.
— Heavy users of electronic media in all age groups spend less time interacting with partners, children and friends.
— Researchers fear that excessive exposure to media among very young children may lead to problems of attention control, aggressive behavior and poor cognitive development.
— With growing problems of obesity and diabetes among children, it is a concern that the vast majority of food advertisements during children’s programs are for foods high in sugar, salt and fat.
— Many parents worry about children being online for long periods and the kinds of things to which they are exposed.
Moscovitch noted that according to the Consumers Electronics Association of America, the average U.S. home now boasts 26 different electronic devices for communication and media. In Canada only 1% of the population owned a DVD player in 1998, now they are present in 80% of households.
Also in Canada, 94% of young people have Internet access at home. Half of grade 11 students, and surprisingly even 20% of those in Grade 4, have their own Internet-connected computer, separate and apart from the family.
Mobile phones are used by 44% of young Canadians to surf the Internet, and 22% have webcams.
Citing data from a time use survey carried out in 1995 by the government body Statistics Canada, the report noted that Canadians aged 15 and over spent just over 2 hours each day watching television, compared to more than 3 hours in 1998.
Radio use remained relatively stable between 1998 and 2003, at about 3 hours a day, but 30-45 more minutes a day is going to telephone usage, and time spent on the Internet has risen.
A study of 5,000 youth carried out in 2005 by the Media Awareness Network found that on an average weekday, Canadian students spend — sometimes simultaneously — 54 minutes instant messaging; 50 minutes downloading and listening to music; 44 minutes playing online games; and only 30 minutes doing school work.
Overall, in Canada and the United States many young people are spending less time with print and television media, and more time plugged into interactive media like mobile phones, video games and Internet-connected computers. Moreover, this media activity is increasingly done in their own bedrooms, rather than in communal family spaces.
Infants at risk
One of the main forebodings in the Vanier Institute’s report is how very young children are exposed to the media. Moscovitch cited a recent study that showed 50% of U.S. infants and preschoolers live in homes with three or more TVs, 97% have clothes or toys based on media characters and three-quarters share their living space with a computer.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under the age of two years, yet a 2003 study of the media habits of U.S. children from birth to six years of age found that almost 70% of children under two years spend on average two hours every day watching either television shows or videos. In fact, 26% of toddlers under the age of two had a TV set in their bedroom.
Other recent reports confirm the deleterious effect of television for the very young. On May 27, the Boston Globe reported that a study by pediatric researchers found that about 40% of 3-month-olds watch television or videos for an average of 45 minutes a day, or more than five hours a week.
The study was based on 1,009 random telephone interviews with families in Minnesota and Washington, and published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine journal.
This early exposure can have a negative impact on an infant’s developing brain and put children at a higher risk for attention problems and diminished reading comprehension, according to the researchers.
Turning to older ages, the Vanier Institute reported that media usage evolves to become more active and socially oriented. A 2005 study of young Canadians carried out by the Media Awareness Network found that among young people, 28% have their own Web site, 15% have online diaries and blogs, and that by grade nine, 80% of all teens are listening to music online and instant messaging daily.
By late 2006, 55% of all U.S. online teens were using social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, and 55% had created online profiles.
The dangers of social networking sites was confirmed by a report dated Oct. 14, published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
The study entitled “Teens and Online Stranger Contact” reported that 32% of online teens had been contacted by someone with no connection to them or any of their friends, and 7% of online teens say they have felt scared or uncomfortable as a result of contact by an online stranger.
Those who have posted photos of themselves and created profiles on social networking sites are more likely to have been contacted online by people they do not know, according to the study.
Among teens who have been contacted by someone they do not know, girls are significantly more likely to report feeling scared or uncomfortable as a result of the contact compared with boys.
Many parents, the Vanier Institute report observed, are uneasy about the media’s impact on their children. Apprehensions include not knowing who their children are in contact with, what sort of songs they listen to, and if they are falling prey to temptations such as online gambling and pornography. Moreover, many parents are unskilled in the technologies being employed by their children.
Parents can, however, influence their children’s media habits. The report recommends a number of steps.
— Limit the number of individually owned devices and move them out of bedrooms and into public spaces.
— Limit the times at which they can be used. For example, don’t have the television on all the time, particularly during meals.
— Limit also the total amount of time kids spend with their devices on a daily basis.
— Make rules about giving out personal information or visiting certain sites on the Internet.
— Help children, particularly those who are younger, to distinguish between fantasy and reality by talking with them about the content they encounter in the media.
— Discuss with children their experiences on the Internet and ask them about the games they play, the sites they create and the way they interact socially.
The report also recommended that parents help instruct their children in the values they need, and not just leave it to chance through the values that the media communicates. By doing this young people will be more prepared to critically judge the information and goals coming from the media.
“Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media,” recommends No. 2496 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences.”
A responsibility that becomes more indispensable than ever in this age of rapidly developing media technologies.
Catholic Schools in the Spotlight
Role of Faith and Education Debated
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, OCT. 7, 2007 (Zenit.org).- State funding of Catholic schools has been a hotly debated topic in the lead-up to Oct. 10 legislative elections in the Canadian province of Ontario.
John Tory, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, raised the issue when during the campaign he questioned why Catholic schools in the province are state-funded while other faith-based schools are not, reported the National Post newspaper Aug. 25.
Tory, who is hoping to unseat the ruling Liberal Party Ontario premier, Dalton McGuinty, proposed extending public funding to other faiths, at an estimated cost of 400 million Canadian dollars (US $407).
The newspaper article explained that the decision to fund provincial Catholic schools dates back to the 1867 Constitution Act, which established in Canada two systems of publicly funded education: government and Catholic. Other provinces have since changed their education funding, but this has not been the case in Ontario.
In reply to Tory’s proposal some critics proposed simply eliminating any public funds for all faith schools. “The best course of action would be to simply eliminate public funding for Ontario’s Catholic schools,” opined an editorial in the Globe and Mail newspaper on Sept. 6.
The editorial echoed a censure heard with frequency in some quarters, saying: “As we struggle to avoid the polarization of ethnic and religious minorities, governments should not be contributing to it by encouraging kids to interact only with members of their own faith.”
An opinion supported by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in an open letter dated Sept. 21 written to Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, said: “Public funding of religious schools will drain resources from the public system and promote private schools at the expense of public schools.”
The province’s Catholic bishops had their say in the altercation, reported the Ottawa Citizen newspaper on Sept. 10. “The public funding of Catholic schools recognizes that parents have the right to make educational choices for their children, and that the state should assist them,” said a statement issued by Bishop James Wingle, head of the Diocese of St. Catharines and president of the Ontario conference of bishops.
“The primacy of parental rights in education is a value which should be realized not only by Catholic parents, but also by others,” the prelates’ continued.
The bishops also stated that they “respect and support the wishes of parents in other faith communities for religion education in the public school system or for alternative schools which reflect their beliefs and values.”
Faith-based education was also criticized in England recently, by columnist Zoe Williams, in a commentary written Sept. 19 for the Guardian. Her article came after the decision of Catholic schools in Northern Ireland to disband their support groups for Amnesty International, owing to its adoption of a pro-abortion stance.
Williams accused Christians of “prosecuting an agenda that is repugnant,” through their schools and argued that they should not receive any public funds.
Times opinion columnist Alice Miles previously expressed similar sentiments. In a May 23 article, she accused the middle classes of using the faith schools “as a barely covert form of social and academic selection.”
Selecting on belief
Schools run by Anglicans or the Catholic Church, Miles argued, should not be allowed to select pupils on the basis of belief, but should simply accept anyone who applies to enter.
The question of using religious criteria to select pupils also came up recently in Ireland, reported the Irish Times newspaper on Sept. 15.
Replying to criticisms of Catholic schools, Bishop Leo O’Reilly, chairman of the Irish bishops’ education commission, said that the schools were founded by the Church to provide a Catholic education for its members.
Parents have a right to have their children educated in Catholic schools, and having contributed through taxes to fund public education, it is not unfair that the faith schools receive government funds, argued Bishop O’Reilly.
The right of parents to choose what sort of education they wish for their children, he added, is supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.
Shortly afterward, Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh spoke about the topic of faith schools in a speech given Sept. 21 for the launch in Belfast of a Web site for the Consultative Group on Catholic Education.
At a time of moral confusion, he argued, Catholic education defends the dignity of the human person and offers a set of values based on the Gospel.
Labeling such an education as divisive is simply not the truth, Archbishop Brady maintained. “Reconciliation, love of neighbor, respect for difference: These values are intrinsic to Catholic education because they are intrinsic to the message of Jesus,” he said.
“We do not abandon children to the ‘whatever you think yourself’ approach to morality so often associated with a purely secular or state-based education often found in other countries,” the archbishop added.
The advantages of a Catholic education were enough to persuade even an atheist to make a large donation, as an article posted May 23 on Bloomberg.com explained. Retired hedge-fund manager Robert W. Wilson announced he was giving $22.5 million to the Archdiocese of New York to fund a scholarship program for needy inner city students attending Catholic schools.
“Let’s face it, without the Roman Catholic Church, there would be no Western civilization,” Wilson said.
Nevertheless, Catholic schools face trials in some areas. In Washington, D.C., Archbishop Donald Wuerl is proposing to convert eight out of the 28 Catholic schools into charter schools, due to financial pressures, reported the Washington Post on Sept. 8.
The plan means the schools lose their religious identity, as they would be run by a secular body. Archbishop Wuerl said this was the only way to continue providing education for many low-income families.
Chicago is also facing a time of transition, as an article published Sept. 11 in the Chicago Tribune newspaper reported. Chicago’s Catholic schools educate 98,000 students, but responsibility for this task now depends on laypeople instead of members of religious orders.
Citing data from the National Catholic Education Association, the article noted that while in the 1950s about 90% of the Catholic teaching staff was made up of religious brothers and sisters. Today, there are only 206 religious teaching in Chicago’s Catholic schools, or 4% of the staff.
Meanwhile, Catholic schools in Australia face a different kind of situation. Private schools, many of them Catholic, are flourishing. An article published Feb. 27 by the Australian Associated Press reported that the number of students at independent and Catholic schools had risen by 21.5% since 1996.
Over the same period, numbers in government schools increased by just 1.2%. By the end of last year, 66.8% of Australia’s 3.36 million full-time school students went to government schools, down from 70.7% in 1996.
In spite of the numerical success there are concerns over the Catholic identity of the Church schools. On Aug. 8 the bishops of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory issued a statement titled “Catholic Schools at a Crossroads.”
In it, they observed that over the past two decades the proportion of children in their schools from non-practicing Catholic families has risen considerably. As well, enrollments from non-Catholics have more than doubled to 20% from 9%.
The bishops urged school leaders to study how to maximize enrollment of Catholic students and also to work in order to maintain the religious identity of their institutions. The document recommended a greater space for prayer and liturgy, along with sound religious education. Maintaining the Catholic identity of schools in clearly no easy task in today’s world.
Churches Face Challenge in Postmodern Culture
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, JULY 8, 2007 (Zenit.org).- With just a year to go before World Youth Day takes place in Sydney, data on religion from the 2006 national census in Australia reveals several challenges facing the Church.
The June 27 press release from the Australian Bureau of Statistics explained that Christianity remains the dominant religion in the country. Since the 1996 census the number of people reporting that they are Christian grew from around 12.6 million to 12.7 million. This is, however, a significant fall in terms of a proportion of the total population, from 71% to 64%.
The Catholic Church continues to be the largest Christian group in Australia. Since 1996 the number of Australians affiliated with the Catholic Church grew by 7% to 5.1 million. Nevertheless, this growth was not enough to keep the proportion of Catholics from declining as a proportion of the country’s overall population, from 27% in 1996 to 25.8% by 2006.
The Anglican Church is the second-largest group, accounting for 19% of the population. Their numbers are in decline with a 5% fall over the decade between the census surveys of 1996 to 2006. The fastest-growing Christian denomination was Pentecostal, increasing by 26%, to around 220,000 members.
Australia’s three most common non-Christian religious affiliations were Buddhism (2.1%), Islam (1.7%) and Hinduism (0.7%). Their numbers are growing strongly, with Hinduism more than doubling from 1996 to 2006, to 150,000. The numbers of Buddhists doubled in the ten-year period.
The number of nonbelievers also continues to grow. Since 1996, the number who stated they had no religion increased from 2.9 million to 3.7 million — boosting their proportion from 16.6% to 18.7% over the period 1996-2006.
New South Wales, whose capital Sydney will host World Youth Day, had the smallest proportion — 14% — of any of the nation’s main cities not affiliated with any religion. It is also the state with the highest proportion of Catholics, at 28.2% of the population.
Pentecostals are also strong in New South Wales. From a small base, their numbers grew by no less than 48% in the state over the decade leading up to 2006, reported the Sydney Morning Herald on June 28. Among other groups Sydney is home to the Pentecostal Hillsong Church, which claims 19,000 members.
Its pastor, Brett Macpherson, commented that the number of Pentecostals was in all likelihood even greater than the census figures indicated, as some would have just ticked the more generic Christian box on the form. His comments came in an article on the census data published by the Australian newspaper June 28.
The newspaper also published an analysis by Bernard Salt of the situation regarding young people and religion. He commented that the proportion of believers aged 20-35 contracted by no less than 5% between 2001 and 2006. The latest census data, he added, suggest that people in this age group are much less inclined to hold traditional beliefs than were their age counterparts in the 1980s.
One interesting initiative to put young people in greater contact with religion was the launch of a national program to fund chaplains in schools. The National School Chaplaincy Program was launched by Prime Minister John Howard last October.
The program is voluntary and provides annual funding of up to 20,000 Australian dollars ($17,176) a year for both government and nongovernmental schools, according to a presentation of the scheme on the Web site of the federal government’s Department of Education, Science and Training. The government will provide up to 30 million Australian dollars ($25.7 million) a year for the next three years.
Education Minister Julie Bishop said that more than 1,500 applications were lodged around the country — around 15% of Australian schools, reported The Age newspaper May 30. After reviewing the applications, Prime Minister Howard announced that the government allocated funding to 1,392 schools for the first round of grants, reported The Age on June 27. Moreover, due to the high demand, he said that an extra 25 million Australian dollars ($21.4 million) in funds would be made available for the three-year program.
There is a reawakening of interest in religion and spirituality in Australia according to a book published last year by Monash University academic, Gary Bouma. In “Australian Soul,” he notes that Australia is a typical example of a secular, postmodern and post-Christian society. This does not mean, however, that it is irreligious, he argues.
Compared to the 1960s and 1970s, when secularism seemed triumphant, Bouma detects much more interest these days in religion and spirituality. Nevertheless, this is both good and bad news for the traditional churches, because much of this resurgence in religion is often not directed within the formal structures offered by established religion.
Studies of attendance at Catholic and Protestant churches, for example, show that regular churchgoers tend to be older and more likely to be female. One study revealed that the traditional Protestant congregations lost nearly half of those who were raised as young people in these churches.
Furthermore, the traditional predominance of Christianity is under challenge due to a burgeoning of other faiths, in part due to immigration, in part due to a growing desire for religious experimentation. Thus, not only have numbers of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims risen, but also those who declare themselves followers of New Age type spiritualities or even forms of paganism is on the increase.
A closer look at the situation of the Catholic Church came in another book published last year: “Lost!: Australia’s Catholics Today,” by Michael Gilchrist. The Australian experience after the Second Vatican Council was similar to that of many other Western countries, he commented, with severe inroads made due to the forces of secularism and relativism.
Moreover, declining numbers of priests and a severe decline in many of the religious orders, who staffed the Church’s schools, has notably weakened both parishes and Catholic education. Gilchrist also devoted considerable space in his book to describing the theological and liturgical experimentation that led to a marked dilution in Catholic doctrine.
Gilchrist suggested a number of steps to improve the state of the Church in Australia. These ranged from recommending strong leadership by the bishops, to renewing the Catholic identity of the Church’s schools and revitalizing devotion and liturgical life.
He also urged that efforts continue to promote vocations and ensure good formation in seminaries. Over the last decade or so substantial progress was made in this area and the seminaries that have undergone reforms are seeing a steady increase in numbers.
Even though the task ahead is difficult, Archbishop Philip Wilson, president of the Australian bishops’ conference is hopeful. In a speech given this April at a conference for Church administrators he declared certain optimism for the future of the Church. This is based, he explained, both on a conviction of God’s faithfulness, and also because he believes that there is openness in Western culture to receive the Gospel message.
Transmitting this message to today’s world also requires a sustained effort on our parts, he added. In part we can achieve this through living “faithful, vibrant, intelligent Christian lives,” Archbishop Wilson commented. Being able to do this will require a serious religious and moral formation.
To achieve this, the archbishop noted the importance not only of educating young people through the Catholic schools, but also of forming adults in their faith. Not easy tasks, but essential ones to ensure a healthy future for the Church.
Pope Calls for Greater Solidarity
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, JULY 1, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The number of refugees rose in 2006 for the first time since 2002, according to data published June 19 by the United Nations. The information came in the “2006 Global Trends” report, from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The report was issued for the occasion of World Refugee Day, marked by the United Nations on June 20. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, former prime minister of Portugal António Guterres, commented that numbers are continuing to grow in 2007.
Guterres, in an interview published by the Reuters news agency June 20, explained that the increase in refugee numbers last year to 9.9 million was due to a combination of crises in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I have very grave concerns about the way things are moving ahead for refugees in many parts of the world,” said Guterres. Moreover, he added, in many cases the international community does not have the capacity to help them.
A look at the report quickly reveals that the figure of 10 million is only a part of the problem. The introduction explains that the report only covers populations for which UNHCR has a mandate, leaving out, for example, groups such as the estimated 4.3 million Palestinian refugees who fall under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
In fact, the report speaks of no less than 32.9 million people who are termed as forming the group of “persons of concern to UNHCR in 2006.” This is a sharp increase on the numbers in 2005, when this group was calculated at 21 million.
The most important cause of the notable rise last year was an increase in the numbers of internally displaced persons. As of the end of 2006, a total of 12.8 million internally displaced persons were receiving humanitarian assistance in some form through the UNHCR. Countries with large numbers of these persons include Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon and Sri Lanka.
The report also explained that there was a significant increase in the number of stateless persons, calculated to be 5.8 million in 2006 compared to 2.4 million in 2005. Even this larger number, however, does not fully reflect the magnitude of the phenomenon of statelessness, according to the report. The UNHCR noted that many stateless people have not been properly identified and that statistical data on the numbers of these people is not yet available in many cases.
Turnaround in numbers
In the case of the estimated 9.9 million refugees by the end of last year, the report noted that from 2002 numbers had declined, reaching a low of 8.7 million at the start of 2006. One of the main factors in the increase during 2006 was the exodus of 1.2 million Iraqis, who fled their country for refuge in Jordan and Syria.
The picture for last year was not all negative. The UNHCR reported that large reductions in refugee numbers took place in some African regions, mainly due to successful voluntary repatriations to Liberia and Angola. There was also a reduction of almost 100,000 refugees in Germany, and some 37,000 refugees in Serbia obtained citizenship.
When it comes to countries that are host to large numbers of refugees, Pakistan is in first place, followed by Iran. Together the two nations house around 20% of the total number. Even though during 2006 an estimated 387,000 Afghans returned to their country, the official numbers of refugees in Pakistan and Iran barely changed, as most of those returning home had not been part of the officially registered refugee population.
Other countries that support large numbers of refugees include the United States, with an estimated 844,000 refugees in 2006. Syria had 702,000 refugees and Germany 605,000. Last year Jordan moved into the top 10 asylum countries, hosting an estimated 500,000 Iraqi refugees.
In terms of the country of origin of refugees Afghanistan continued to be in first place, with around 2.1 million by the end of 2006, spread among no less than 71 countries. Iraq was the second largest source, with 1.5 million. Sudan followed, with 686,000 of its nationals outside the country. Three other countries, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi accounted for just over 1.2 million refugees.
During 2006 some 734,000 refugees repatriated voluntarily, one-third less than in 2005, which had a total of 1.1 million returnees. An estimated 11.6 million refugees have returned home over the past 10 years, according to the report.
In addition, a total of 71,700 refugees were admitted by 15 resettlement countries last year. The leading nation was the United States, which accepted 41,300 refugees, followed by Australia — 13,400 — and Canada — 10,700. The overall total of those resettled was 11% below the 2005 number. Some refugees were also able to receive citizenship in the country that had originally accepted them, for example, 98,500 in the United States.
Showing evangelical love
The U.N.’s World Refugee Day on June 20 coincided with one of the regular Wednesday papal audiences. At the end of his address Benedict XVI referred to the refugee question and called for hospitality toward refugees in the name of human solidarity.
From a Christian perspective, the Pontiff continued, making refugees welcome is a way we can show our evangelical love. “I wish with all my heart that our brothers and sisters who suffer will be guaranteed exile and the recognition of their rights, and I invite the leaders of all nations to offer protection to those who find themselves in need,” the Pope concluded.
The Church also dedicates a day to commemorating refugees and also migrants in general. The Pope’s message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees, marked on Jan. 14, focused on the situation of families.
The Holy Family of Nazareth, the Pontiff commented, was forced to flee to Egypt shortly after the birth of Jesus. Their experience can help us understand the painful difficulties of all migrants, but especially the experience of refugees, he added.
The value of the family needs to be recognized for those who are migrants and refugees, Benedict XVI insisted in his message. In addition to its advocacy on behalf of migrants, the Church also offers its aid through a number of charitable institutions and centers.
The Pope mentioned the plight of refugees who suffer great problems in maintaining their families intact, or in unifying their members after being separated. In addition, he continued, refugees also have sometimes undergone trauma or emotional stress, and the living conditions in the camps where they are placed are often difficult. Benedict XVI also commented that women and children refugees face the additional risk of sexual exploitation.
“Aside from giving assistance capable of healing the wounds of the heart, pastoral care should also offer the support of the Christian community, able to restore the culture of respect and have the true value of love found again,” the Pope recommended. “Everything must also be done to guarantee the rights and dignity of the families and to assure them housing facilities according to their needs,” he added.
As well, the Pope recommended that refugees cultivate “an open and positive attitude toward their receiving society and maintain an active willingness to accept offers to participate in building together an integrated community that would be a ‘common household’ for all.” A community called upon to accept ever-growing numbers of migrants and refugees.
Babies Eliminated as New Eugenics Gains Force
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, JUNE 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The desire for perfect babies combined with the possibilities of biotechnology is taking an ever-higher toll. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and other forms of screening enable the detection of genetic defects, leading either to embryos being eliminated before implantation when combined with in vitro fecundation, or to abortion in the case of pregnancies already in progress.
Philosopher Michael J. Sandel considered some of the ethical questions involved in this practice in the book “The Case Against Perfection,” published in May by Belknap Press. A professor of government at Harvard University, Sandel starts his brief book by asking if, even when no harm is involved, there is something troubling about parents “ordering up a child” with certain genetic traits.
Sandel’s approach is nonreligious and does not fully embrace the position of the Church. For example, he defends embryonic stem cell research. Nevertheless, the book provides a useful series of reflections which invite the reader to consider the implications of both eliminating individuals with genetic defects and also efforts to “improve” physical or mental capabilities.
This “drive to mastery,” as Sandel terms it, runs the risk of destroying our appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements. In other words, “that not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise.”
When it comes to parenthood, Sandel comments that unlike our friends, we do not choose our children. “To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition.”
Thus, he continues, the problem with wanting to choose children with or without certain genetic characteristics is in the hubris of the parents. Such a parental disposition, he adverts, “disfigures the relation between parent and child.” As a result the unconditional love that a parent should have toward a child is placed at risk.
Sandel also warns that if we erode the sense of the gifted character of human powers and achievements we will damage three important elements in society: humility, responsibility and solidarity.
A school for humility
Parenthood is a school for humility, according to Sandel, in which we care deeply about our children, and also live with the unexpected. When it comes to responsibility, the more we become involved in determining our genetic qualities, the greater the burden we will bear for the talents we have and how we perform.
For example, once giving birth to a child with Down syndrome was considered a matter of chance. Today parents who of children with Down syndrome or other disabilities feel blamed for not having eliminated the child before birth.
In turn, this growth in responsibility could well damage solidarity, Sandel continues, because there is a very real risk that those who are less fortunate will come to be seen not as disadvantaged, but as simply unfit.
Sandel is not the only one to be worried over what happens to those who are less fortunate in the genetic stakes. A number of press articles over the last few months have taken up the matter of the elimination of embryos detected with Down syndrome.
On May 9 the New York Times published an article reporting that, following a new recommendation by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, doctors have begun to offer a screening procedure to all pregnant women, regardless of age, for Down syndrome. About 90% of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis normally choose to have an abortion, the article reported.
The article then went on to describe the efforts by some parents to educate the medical profession about the fulfilling lives that children suffering from disabilities can lead. Advances in medical treatment and appropriate attention means that, despite not inconsiderable difficulties, Down syndrome children can achieve much in their lives.
The New York Times returned to the argument on May 13 with another article. Among other testimonies was that of Sarah Lynn Lester, a supporter of abortion rights, who nevertheless continued her pregnancy after learning her child had Down syndrome. “I thought it would be morally wrong to have an abortion for a child that had a genetic disability,” she told the newspaper.
Earlier this year the Canadian Down Syndrome Society launched a public awareness campaign to counter the trend toward genetic testing, reported the National Post newspaper Jan. 10.
The campaign came just as the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada released a recommendation that all expectant mothers undergo screening for Down syndrome.
The article also quoted Dr. Will Johnston, president of the Vancouver-based organization Physicians for Life, who said his members find the move toward more fetal screening to be troubling.
“I think it shows our inability as a culture to be as inclusive and accepting of diversity as we would like to think we are,” he said.
Italy is another country where genetic screening is increasing. According to a March 11 report in the national daily newspaper La Repubblica, by 2005 no less than 79% of Italian women were having three or more ultrasound examinations during pregnancy.
The tests, however, can sometimes have a tragic outcome. On March 7 the Italian news agency ANSA reported on the case of a 22 week-old fetus aborted because of a mistaken diagnosis of a defective esophagus.
After the ultrasound examination, which erroneously seemed to reveal a problem, the mother decided to abort. The baby survived the abortion, but the following day ANSA reported that it had died.
As biotechnology develops, genetic screening seems destined to expand even further, with ominous consequences for babies. On May 6 the London-based Sunday Times reported that the Bridge Center Fertility clinic had received the go ahead from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to screen a couple’s embryos in order to create a baby without eyes affected with cross-eye, also known as a squint.
The article also noted that screening has now started for some forms of cancer and early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“We will increasingly see the use of embryo screening for severe cosmetic conditions,” Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the clinic, told the Sunday Times.
David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, was critical of the decision to allow such screening. “We moved from preventing children who will die young to those who might become ill in middle age,” he noted. “Now we discard those who will live as long as the rest of us but are cosmetically imperfect.”
Concern over such trends was also expressed by Benedict XVI in an address given Feb. 24 to members of the Pontifical Academy for Life. “A new wave of discriminatory eugenics finds consensus in the name of the presumed well-being of the individual, and laws are promoted especially in the economically progressive world for the legalization of euthanasia,” the Pontiff warned.
In today’s increasingly secularized world our consciences face increasing obstacles in distinguishing the correct path to take on these and other issues, the Pope added. This is due both to a growing rejection of the Christian tradition and also to a distrust of the capacity of our reason to perceive the truth, he explained.
“Life is the first good received from God and is fundamental to all others; to guarantee the right to life for all and in an equal manner for all is the duty upon which the future of humanity depends,” the Holy Father concluded. A duty made increasingly urgent in the face of increased pressures to manipulate life.