Worth Reading: on Prenatal Testing and the Meaning of Life and what they have to do with each other

Two articles worth reading. One, a Wired Magazine take on prenatal testing: This Simple Blood Test Reveals Birth Defects–And the Future of Pregnancy, and two, an Atlantic essay: There’s More to Life than Being Happy. The Wired article describes a woman’s decision to end her pregnancy after she discovered her baby had Down syndrome:

She says she needed to talk through the decision to end the pregnancy, but her husband never had any doubt. “His coping mechanism was just to be done with it,” Weiss says. But for her, it was a bit different. “You hear this news and you make your decision. But meanwhile you’re still pregnant. I mean, I was still nauseous.”

Weiss terminated the pregnancy last fall at 12 and a half weeks. She and her husband hadn’t told very many people that she was pregnant, and the procedure at that stage is mercifully swift and relatively simple. Some women do not find out their babies have serious medical problems until much later in their pregnancies. At that point, many doctors don’t even perform abortions, obliging patients to travel to distant cities to get one. “It’s huge to know early on,” Weiss says. “Not that what we went through wasn’t heartbreaking, but we were able to put it behind us faster. We get to start over sooner.”

 The article goes on to look at the history of prenatal testing, starting with x-rays over a century ago, and to discuss the vexing questions of how much information do we want about our children? It doesn’t go so far as to question why we want that information, though I wish more people writing about prenatal testing would question the assumptions embedded in the testing itself–assumptions that suffering is to be avoided at all costs, assumptions that because a life will probably be short or involve intellectual disability it might be better to avoid it altogether. I wonder if these assumptions have to do with how we understand the purpose of our lives. Which leads me to the second article, in which Emily Smith discusses the differences between people who pursue happiness and those who pursue meaning. She writes:

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.

For my part, I’d like a life that is meaningful and happy, though the former is more important to me. And having a daughter with Down syndrome, so far, has contributed to a sense of meaningfulness and happiness too.

Thank you Patheos! (And Continuing the Conversation at Christianity Today)
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About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. I read the Wired article a couple weeks ago and it made me want to cry. It was so clinical and non-emotional, I felt like they were talking about some amazing test that could prevent some horrible disease, not a prenatal test to determine if a baby should live. I kept thinking how would that women feel if she met my daughter who is so full of life and tends to capture hearts everywhere she goes. It can’t have been an easy decision for her and in her position there is a chance I might have made the same one as ignorant as I was about DS. I thank God daily that he saw that in me and didn’t reveal his plan for Cate until she was born and I had fallen completely in love with her. Our road may not be the easiest one but I am a better person because of my child with DS – she gives me both happiness and meaning in my life.

  2. Lisa, I couldn’t agree with you more. I am about to work on an article that questions the assumptions about prenatal tests in general. The same “liberal” impulse that led to legalized abortion also led to questions about why we discriminate against people with disabilities and to actions like the ADA and IDEA. I so want women to understand the fullness of life that children and adults with DS can and do experience, and I am grieved to think of the number of women who think such a life is impossible.

  3. How very sad to read: “Some women do not find out their babies have serious medical problems until much later in their pregnancies.” I don’t think the mother found out the serious medical problems that are associated with Down syndrome, e.g. heart or GI issues, prior to aborting at 12 weeks. This is not to downplay the seriousness of the challenges Down syndrome can and does pose, but absent actual health issues, those challenges are emotional, social, educational, not medical.

  4. Mark,
    Thanks for highlighting this line–I had the same response when I read it and I often try to dispel the myth that all babies with DS are “unhealthy.” Most kids I know with Down syndrome, the vast majority in fact, have never spent an extended period of time (other than immediately after birth in a few cases) in the hospital. I sometimes worry about making that argument, though, because it goes back to a view of human life that assumes suffering makes life not worth living. With all that said, I wholeheartedly agree with your comment. Thanks.