Women are deformed freaks and Down syndrome is defective: Onion satire cuts deep

In 2013, The Onion said that baby girls are “deformed freaks” and that Down syndrome is a defect. The latter, particularly, made some people mad. 

The first story ran on December 3:

Onion Deformed Freak 12032013It went on to “report” the tragic details:

 In an alarming case that has baffled and repulsed many, sources confirmed Tuesday that a severely deformed freak born without a penis has managed to live with the condition for over 26 years.


“We first noticed something was off about three months into the pregnancy, and I was of course horrified,” said Dr. Mark Joules, the obstetrician who delivered the grotesque—some would say subhuman—abhorrence of nature. “You could clearly see in the ultrasound that a penis and testicles were not developing as one would hope—or at all, in fact—and we immediately knew something was terribly, terribly wrong.”

“Had we caught it earlier, we most likely would have recommended that the pregnancy be terminated,” Joules continued.

* * *

According to reports, the sadly disfigured 26-year-old’s quality of life has been greatly diminished due to such a condition. Sources said the abnormal, visibly blemished creature has been repeatedly passed over for employment opportunities, frequently gawked at and harassed on the street by total strangers, and has faced near constant discrimination for over two decades, all due to the horrific and debilitating birth defect.

Indeed, many are reportedly unable to look past the glaring deformity and simply see the 26-year-old as a human being.

The second Onion story was a short mention in a longer list of proposed Christmas gifts for 2013:

Onion Defective DS

I ran across both stories on Facebook posts by friends who were also moms of children with Down syndrome. For the first story, the comments were full of “LOL” and it was shared widely with many friends enjoying the joke. For the second, there was a decidedly different reaction.

Friends were called on to contact the Onion to express their outrage. The Facebook comments echoed that outrage. And, initially, I felt that outrage as well.

The claimed Christmas list was meant to be funny and shocking. And, the “100 percent Caucasian” baby  was in the same vein as the joke about women being deformed freaks: jabbing at white male dominated society preferring (surprise) white males. But, the asterisk warning that the “Baby may have Down syndrome” was a low blow. At first, it seemed like the Onion was saying it was funny to suggest that the chance that the baby might have Down syndrome was something parents should be warned about.

And that’s precisely what it is saying.

Just as it is deemed societally advantageous, desirable even, to be white and male, similarly, it is a societal norm still to view Down syndrome as something to be warned about. Isn’t that one of the motivations (and business reasons) for prenatal testing? Playing to parents’ fears that there may be something “wrong” with a pregnancy. As the fake OB quoted in the “Deformed Freak” story said:

Had we caught it earlier, we most likely would have recommended that the pregnancy be terminated.

That  is exactly what happens with prenatal testing for both gender and Down syndrome. The termination rate of baby girls is so high in certain Asian and Eastern European countries that it has been referred to as “gendercide.” For Down syndrome, the professional guidelines flat out instruct that following a positive prenatal diagnosis, “The option of pregnancy termination also should be discussed.” (the same professional organization says termination for sex is unethical, the paradox of which I addressed here).

These articles were published by The Onion. When you Google “The Onion,” beneath articles, it notes “(Satire).” Satire is:

Satire definition

The Onion is satirizing society’s male dominance with its exaggeration of calling women “deformed freaks” to criticize people’s stupidity for male preference. Similarly, I expect that the Onion writers were not endorsing the view that Down syndrome should be considered a defect worthy of warning potential buyers of 100% Caucasian babies. Rather, the Onion is ridiculing the notion that future parents should be warned that their child might have Down syndrome so they can select against them through eugenic aboritons. A position that those who were outraged by the Onion Christmas List would likely sympathize with.

But what are those who are outraged and society going to do about it? Is the proper response to criticize the Onion for holding up a mirror to our society’s biases for white, male babies that don’t have Down syndrome?

Or should that letter writing campaign and passion be channeled towards trying to change these societal biases? Like, instead of mailing the Onion editors, simply send a card to your OB showing them what your child with Down syndrome’s life is like, or sharing with them the resources their professional guidelines tell them to provide parents? It seems the latter will actually address the problem the Onion is satirizing, more than mailing the Onion, itself, will.


  1. Why can’t we do both? Fwiw, I just saw my ob and thanked her again for being so amazing during my prenatal diagnosis and pregnancy. Her response, “Why wouldn’t I have beeen? I don’t have the power to tell any parent what their children may or may not be capable of regardless of whether or not they have Ds.” Then we looked at pictures and talked about how great all my kids are (all of whom, she delivered). I don’t disagree with your POV, I just think that some things should be off limits. I know others have said there were many offensive things on that Holiday list, I only read the Ds baby listing. I’m in a chose my battles state of mind, I only have so much energy to devote to being angry and trying to change the world 🙂

    • Thank you, Stacey. You’re right, the two are not mutually exclusive: people can write letters to both the Onion and their OBs. But if choosing battles, I would prioritize a letter to your OB over the Onion as the personal connection is more likely to effect positive change–and if done persistently, may change the cultural view that gives the Onion a kernel of truth for its offensive joke.

  2. Stan d Mute says:

    Right, let’s encourage more Down Syndrome births. Why take a chance on “normal” intelligence range from 90-110 IQ when we can guarantee an IQ below 70? Imagine a world where everyone has Down’s! Of course there may be minor problems like obtaining food and shelter absent higher IQ providers saddled with the expense via taxation and labor, but why muddy up an infantile fantasy with facts or reason? Let’s just create more Down’s kids and force others to pony up for the lifelong bills!

    • I’m guessing you do not have a relationship with anyone with Down syndrome. If that is the case, then you are speaking from ignorance. I’d suggest that your logic that those who cost more in public health care costs should have their numbers reduced would support reducing the number of women being born, since women incur more healthcare costs, but you don’t sound like someone wanting to have a reasoned argument. As such, IQ level is irrelevant when dealing with the likes of you.

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