“Trig Palin’s moment in the national spotlight is a milestone of the civil rights movement for those with Down syndrome. But it comes at a paradoxical time. Unlike the legal protections accorded the rights of minorities and women, civil rights for people with Down syndrome have rapidly eroded over the past few decades. Of the pre-natally diagnosed cases of Down syndrome, about 90 percent are eliminated by abortion. Last year the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended universal, early testing for Down syndrome — which has only been recommended for older pregnant women. Some expect this increased screening to reduce the number of Down syndrome births to something far lower than the 5,500 annually we see today, perhaps to fewer than 1,000” — Michael Gerson, Op-Ed in Washington Post, Sept. 10, 2008. The painful irony we parents of children with Down syndrome have been enduring for decades is this: If our children make it to birth, they are offered panoply of therapies, benefits, and Special Education. IF they make it to birth. And there’s an increasingly slim chance they will in America.
The abortion rate of children with Down syndrome is even higher in France, land of both Charles De Gaulle who had a beloved daughter with Down, and Dr Jerome Lejeune who discovered its cause in 1959 and spent the rest of his life seeking a cure.
These men’s lives are inspiring examples of respect for the people whom David Gerson describes as “learning slowly and loving much”. Tom Vander Woude’s death is another. A sixty-six-year-old father of 7 boys, Tom, a retired Vietnam War pilot, bought a farm in northern Virginia to raise his family. Tom’s youngest son, 22-year-old Joseph whom he called Josie, has Down syndrome. Friends say that wherever Tom went, Josie was with him and that Tom was a tireless advocate for the rights of those with Down syndrome. Three weeks ago, Josie fell into a 10 foot deep septic tank on the property and was drowning in sewage. Tom dove into the tank telling a worker, “You pull, I’ll push”, immersing himself in the muck to save his son. Josie did survive the ordeal, but tragically, Tom didn’t. There could be no stronger affirmation of the worth and human dignity of an individual with Down syndrome than that given by Tom to his son. But sadly, examples like these are the exception.
Mothers of children with Down syndrome are often asked the pointed question, “Did you know?” the cruel implication of which is, “How did this happen when testing is available?” For most people, the only excuse for giving birth to a child with Down syndrome is ignorance. If a mother knows her child has a genetic anomaly, and has the baby anyway, like Sarah Palin or myself, she is considered a hopeless ideologue, or just plain foolish. She doesn’t care about the good of her family, global warming, or the fact that her child probably won’t get into Harvard. “Haven’t you heard about their quality of life?” they murmur. “Children like this are a burden on society.” Eugenics is alive and well in America with the search-and-destroy methods of pre-natal diagnosis funded by organizations like the March of Dimes. Statistics on birth defects are effectively lowered when those who posses them are eliminated, and the unique contributions these people offer society are denigrated to justify such actions.
This injustice has been challenged by the recent passage of the “Pre-natally and Post-natally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act”. Last month, it was approved by both Houses of Congress and is currently awaiting President Bush’s signature. This bill insures that expectant parents whose child has an unfavorable diagnosis will not be forcefully counseled to abort their children and frightened with grim, outdated images of life with Down syndrome, but will be fully educated in the true potential of individuals with their child’s disability. These families will be told of the thousands of educational and support groups available, the promising medical advances to help their child’s health and cognitive development, and if the family still doesn’t feel able to raise the child, a registry of adoptive parents will be made available.
Though Senator Ted Kennedy has scarcely merited praise from the Catholic community since he became intractably pro-abortion, he deserves praise for his support of this bill, which, after three years of being stalled in Congress, has finally passed. Senator Kennedy’s support of the Act is a tribute to the charitable example of his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who began Special Olympics.
I hope that he repents of his pro-abortion stance and returns to his Catholic roots, so that he may once again be an acceptable candidate for faithful Catholics.
Our Catholic grandparents were ardent Democrats because of the Party’s support for the little guy. Democrats supported the rights of workers, immigrants and the poor; therefore most Catholics joined its ranks. My Grandmother voted Republican for the first time in her life when Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 because she was horrified that the “party of the little guy” supported aborting the littlest guys of all. Something had happened to her party.
Somehow compassion for the poor became support for the poor’s right to abort their children. Abortion rates among the poor are twice as high as among the middle class. Surely another approach, such as supporting school choice for children in failing schools, would be a more just solution to the problems of the poor than opening the door to the abortion clinic. The Democratic Party needs a leader like the late Bob Casey Sr. who will lead it back to true compassion for the underdog. A party that makes support for abortion a plank in its platform is no place for Catholics.