Salvo 04.27.2023 5 minutes

In a Barbie World


A new doll raises some fundamental questions about the value of human life.

This Tuesday, the Mattel corporation revealed a new Barbie doll with Down’s Syndrome. She will join the “Fashionistas” line, alongside others with wheelchairs, prosthetic legs, vitiligo, and so forth. To this I say: Excellent! People with Down’s are indeed often delightful, creative, and virtuous. Independently of all that, they are endowed like the rest of us with a non-negotiable right to life. How nice that they have a doll to play with that looks like them. Perhaps as the next step in our campaign for their dignity we should stop executing them in the womb. 

Mattel hopes the new addition will “enable all children to see themselves in Barbie.” Long criticized for reinforcing an impossible standard of human physical perfection, Barbie has been extensively remodeled in a variety of permutations to reflect the glorious panoply of human life. “Fashionistas” is Mattel’s “most diverse and inclusive doll line, offering a variety of skin tones, eye colors, hair colors, and textures, body types, disabilities, and fashions.” Barbie descends from the heights of her once-rigidly pointed plastic toes, to walk flat-footed among us with all our maladies and flaws. Truly, she hath borne our infirmities.

On its face, this is not the kind of project that thrills me with enthusiasm. “Inclusion” and “representation” are buzzwords that often signal not just generosity toward certain neglected classes, but also hostility toward the mere idea of any standard or aspirational norm. If Mattel had wanted to keep on stamping Barbie forever in a certain svelte, prim, and shapely mold of feminine beauty, that would have been their right as far as I’m concerned. Ideals are not the same thing as insults, and just because we all fall short of them is no reason to forbid noticing them. 

But since Mattel has chosen to revise its message, to the effect that all kinds of people deserve celebrating, I’m only too happy that people with Down’s Syndrome will be in the mix. It’s better than making a non-binary doll for kids to play with and puzzle over. Down’s Syndrome, unlike gender fluidity, exists. Real people actually have it. And those real people, shamefully enough for the developed world, are in real danger of being devalued, despised, or even singled out as a class for elimination. 

A conservative estimate based on studies between 1995 and 2011 would suggest that parents aborted somewhere between 60 percent and 70 percent of babies diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. That’s in the U.S.—in Denmark, only 18 babies were born with Down’s during all of 2019. One British woman reported aborting a baby with Down’s Syndrome at 20 weeks. “I have never regretted my decision,” she wrote, but “it was pretty harrowing.”

Since a 20-week-old fetus has eyes, ears, and a beating heart, one may well imagine that it would be “harrowing” to see its small and silent life extinguished. Down’s can be detected earlier these days, usually between 11 and 14 weeks, so the babies aborted are less developed—little wisps of voiceless being whose invisible future evaporates as quietly as smoke. But their bodies are solid enough before that fateful moment, molded already in the image we can recognize: two hands, two feet, one head. 

In other words, those babies are like us: small, imperfect, trembling, naked. Down’s Syndrome or no, that is what we all are—not some customizable Barbie figurine but a breakable creature of flesh and spirit, woven whole together. Despite our wounds. Despite our flaws. 

Either we accept this hard saying in full, or we do not. There is no halfway house here. Those of us born with Down’s Syndrome force the question. Do we really mean it when we say that human life is worth preserving in all its variety? Or are we only biding our time until technology perfects the efficiency of our prenatal mercy killings? Perhaps the colorful forced cheer of “diversity” is just a very loud way of denying one painfully obvious fact: that unless we are embodied souls, we are simply primitive machines, to be ruthlessly perfected according to the cold conformist logic of silicone and steel.

Forget unrealistic Barbie dolls: I can think of no more punishing “beauty standard” than the one that treats human beings like factory rejects, our lives unworthy of living if they promise subpar endowment according to whatever metric our parents may select. Judged by that standard, how many of us would have escaped the womb? 

I’m more than happy that there’s a Barbie with Down’s, so long as we all agree to take seriously its implication that human life is of value per se, divinely ordained in its unconditional worth—not just provisionally until the latest upgrade becomes available. If you can agree to that, welcome to the team. If you can’t, then spare me your talk about inclusion for all. 

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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