Thursday, November 27, 2008

amos yong’s theology and disability chapter 3

Chapter 3 – Medicalizing Down Syndrome. Disability in the World of Modern Science, pp. 45-77.
At first this chapter is surprising, for it is rare to find medical history in a theology book. Yet it is consistent with Yong’s methodology and theology; his quest to be interdisciplinary and his belief that the Spirit is at work in the world, in unity and diversity (and hence in a plurality of disciplines).

This chapter provides a broader framework around Yong’s Chapter two. Just as attitudes to disability have shifted throughout church history, so they also have through medical history. “My claim, however, is that social and theoretical perspective have not remained static, and there have been substantial shifts in how intellectual disability has been conceived, examined, discussed, and engaged.” (47)

Modernity privileges science, medicine and technology and these have framed the way Down Syndrome has been conceived. Yong divides modernity into three periods: one of institutionalization, one of sociomedical control and another of independent living.

Technology is now a threat to the existence of those conceived with Down Syndrome. Development of IQ test. During 1930s-1960s, 50,000 people were sterilised in US, based on having a lower IQ and concern that they would reproduce their kind. In Nazi Germany, 2 million “defective” people were sterilised and more than 275,000 mentally and physically disabled were exterminated.

Jerome Lejeune, in 1959, discovered the chromosomal mutation from which Down Syndrome is derived. The development of prenatal testing has contributed to the fact that since 1989, 70-90% of Down Syndrome fetuses are aborted.

Does this allow them to avoid suffering? Yet is suffering caused by their impairments, or by the social prejudices and lack of support provided by society? What about the narratives of parents who find themselves transformed by the experience of parenting a mentally retarded child? What should decide the value of human life anyhow, instrumental or intrinsic worth?

At turn of 21st century, it is estimated there are 5 million people with Down Syndrome worldwide. With further technological advances now comes a whole new set of questions regarding schooling, marriage, parenting, aging.

“[W]e cannot but observe in the most forceful of terms the injustice perpetrated against people with intellectual disabilities over the last 150-plus year, much of it with the backing of the medical establishment.” (76) “The modern Enlightenment was anything but kind to those who did not measure up to the alleged standards of universal reason.” (77)

Where you aware of this “darker” side of modernity and medicalisation? How might churches care for couples and families who have a pregnancy diagnosed with Down?

Posted by steve at 07:58 PM


  1. One of our friends made the journey into faith during her pregnancy, following the discovery that her unborn child had down syndrome. Her heart and inclination was to simply love this child and the only place in which this attitude was mirrored was among the Christians that she knew through her older child’s school. She sensed that God was especially involved in this baby’s life and it was from there that the discussions moved deeper. She once told me that he doesn’t trust her son with medical specialists who believe that the right response to Downs is to terminate.

    My brother has 3 sons with haemophelia. The oldest was diagnosed at 9 months by which time my sister-in-law was already pregnant again. They were encouraged to have testing, then pressured to terminate, by the same medical staff who were treating their first son. It was exceedingly traumatic for them. They accidently conceived a third time and refused all testing. My brother is ambivalent about faith but he has often observed that the only people who agreed with their decisions were “churchy” and he is grateful for the support.

    Comment by Kerry — November 28, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  2. Thanks Kerry. That is a really valuable insight and fascinating perspective.

    Comment by steve — November 28, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

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