On World Down Syndrome Day today, the United Nations will, for the first time, officially recognize those with Down syndrome. I'd say it's about time.
Despite huge advances in improving quality of life—life expectancy has doubled from 25 to 55 years in the last 30 years due to medication, therapies, and specialized surgery—the population of those with Down syndrome is barreling toward extinction.
An amniocentesis used to be widely performed on older women who are at greater risk of carrying a child with Down syndrome, but it carried a small chance of miscarriage, so some refused the procedure. Now a simple blood test can tell a woman whether or not her baby has one extra chromosome and thus differentiates a "perfect" child from a child with a life-altering disability.
A 2011 piece in the New York Post declared "The End of Down's Syndrome," noting that 92 percent of women who receive this diagnosis choose abortion. (This was before the quick and less invasive blood test.) And just two weeks ago, a couple from Oregon received a $2.9 million settlement because their doctor failed to diagnose Down syndrome during pregnancy. The parents, through their lawyer, told the media that while they loved their little girl, they would have terminated the pregnancy had they known her diagnosis.
"What you end up having is a world without people with Down syndrome," Paul Root Wolpe, director of the center for ethics at Emory University, told the Post. "And the question becomes is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
We must not be content to live in a world where abortion weeds out Down syndrome and other kinds of disabilities. Those with Down syndrome have challenges, sometimes significant, but they bring abounding joy and expressive love to everyone and to everything they encounter. A good friend of mine has a teenage son who coaches a basketball team made up of Down syndrome children and teens. Watching them play is a pure joy; it's infectious. Even when the team loses, the players act as though they are excited just to be alive, giving each other big effusive hugs. Where else can you see such good tidings involved in competition?
In a world of cynicism, pride, and unrealistic expectations, those with Down syndrome bring authenticity, innocence, a lack of guile, and a burst of unrelenting happiness. Why extinguish that?
With that in mind, please understand that I don't want to diminish the impact and suffering that comes with finding out you are carrying a child with a disability, a unique kind of hardship. My husband and I adopted four children from foster care, two as babies. As they have grown, they have developed special needs such as Tourette syndrome, bi-polar disorder, chronic anxiety, and significant learning disorders—all before the preteen years. Genetics and poor decisions made by their birth parents during pregnancy define their troubles, and define our family's daily existence. For many like us, disability has a financial, emotional, and relational cost.
While our family struggles tremendously, and often daily, under the weight of our children's illnesses, from all outward appearances, the culture would see our children as normal—and even physically beautiful, especially to this mama. However, their challenges drive us to our knees regularly, and the spiritual maturity they articulate and demonstrate, even during the hardest moments, puts us to shame.
Children with Down syndrome and other disabilities have been seen as aberrations throughout history; they have been ridiculed, used, abused, and exterminated without much thought. Even in a modern era, they bump up against our culture's notion of beauty, perfection, and normal. Our bias against people with disabilities reveals an inner defect, a sickness of the heart that is far worse than any physical or intellectual challenge.
For the Christian community, John's story about the healing of a man born blind is particularly meaningful:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. "Rabbi," his disciples asked him, "Why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents' sins?" "It was not because of his sins or his parents' sins," Jesus answered. "This happened so the power of God could be seen in him." (John 9:14, NLT; emphasis mine.)
God's glory is manifested in weakness and imperfection, for he is truly the God of the sick and desperate among us. His power is made perfect in all of our disabilities (2 Cor. 12:9).
It should also be said that children born with imperfections don't surprise God. Scripture tells us he sees us in the womb, imparts wisdom to us in the womb, and knows every hair on our head. With that in mind, we can confidently say that mental, emotional, and physical disabilities don't define our worth. We are all equal in God's eyes, and all of infinite worth. A man or woman who belongs to Christ is his beloved child with a preciousness no man can extinguish.
"Right to life" includes all of human existence, from the preborn to the elderly and infirm, and to every stage and experience in between. I am not given to hostility, acrimony, or argumentativeness where it concerns the sanctity of life. I believe those who advocate for abortion are of infinite worth to God. Lately, however, I have to fight off greater feelings of paranoia as I watch where our society is heading. Are we increasingly embracing a culture of death? Is eugenics creeping in with a vengeance?
With advances in genetic testing and the foretelling of the end of Down syndrome, I have to wonder who's next. If a test can reveal future childhood diabetes or cancer, blindness, deafness, a propensity toward violence, and even ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) later in life, will couples choose abortion? What possible disability or disorder will be eradicated next? What will we as a society become as we strive to avoid suffering and hardship, and raise cultural expectations of normal? And if we see the preborn as just a mass of cells dividing and re-dividing, instead of as a real child with a soul, where will this path lead us?
Even as I fear the answers to these questions and fight for the right of these individuals to a life of dignity, I acknowledge a great God who has the power to change hearts and minds. And when an individual with Down syndrome crosses my path, I will never see it as anything less than a reminder of what is good and holy.
Kelly Rosati is vice president of community outreach and sanctity of human life for Focus on the Family.
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See a related piece on ministries for those with Down syndrome.
Previous articles on children include:
My Perfect Child | What God taught me through my daughter's disability. (November 30, 2011)
A Christian Response to Overpopulation| We can continue to affirm life while acknowledging that unrestricted population growth can put women and children at risk. (May 25, 2011)
Be Fruitful and Multiply?| Observers weigh in on whether Christians have a special responsibility to have children. (July 26, 2010)