“Knowledge is power,” said my doctor as he offered me the screening test for my first pregnancy. Thanks to developments in prenatal screening, it is possible for expecting parents to detect whether or not a child in the womb will have Down syndrome. My doctor is pro-life and I agree with his words. But power can be used for good and for ill, and for many this knowledge has proved fatal.
Though it’s hard to pin down an exact number, some studies have ranked the number of babies aborted after being diagnosed with Down syndrome at 90%. Parents are understandably overwhelmed by the news that their baby has a chromosomal condition that will result in cognitive delays and probably come with various other medical complications. But why does that drive many who are usually opposed to abortion to consider it? There are at least three prevailing myths surrounding Down syndrome babies that we absolutely must clear up.
Myth #1: A child with DS will lead a life of suffering.
This lie displays our vast culture ignorance about individuals with Down syndrome. In a 2011 study done by Brian Skotko, a clinical fellow in genetics at Children’s Hospital Boston, nearly 99% of the almost 300 Down syndrome individuals surveyed said they were happy with their lives. Children with Down syndrome are perfectly capable of achieving the kinds of things that give our lives meaning and satisfaction, such as having relationships, holding jobs, and being a part of their community. Parents might be concerned that their child will suffer due to medical complications. While it is true that Down syndrome individuals are more prone to certain complications, advances in medical research are being made daily. In the last thirty years the life expectancy of a DS individual has more than doubled, jumping from 25 in 1983 to 60 today. Why would we deny a child the right to live a full and meaningful life merely because he might have some challenges?
Myth #2: A child with DS will only be a burden on other family members and society as a whole.
Renowned scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins has said that it may in fact be the moral choice to abort a baby you know has Down syndrome if he ultimately decreases the happiness and increases the suffering of those around him. Dawkins defines a good choice as that which maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering, which is a faulty moral compass to begin with. But even by his standards, there is no justification for aborting a DS baby.
It is true that parenting a child with Down syndrome is a unique challenge – we should in no way downplay that. But it is also true that with that challenge come a multitude of rewards. In another study of Skotko’s, he surveyed the family members of DS children. 88% of siblings said they were better people because of their brother or sister with DS. 79% of parents said their outlook on life is more positive because of their child with DS. Only 4% said they regretted having their child with DS. DS children are also a benefit to society. As the National Down Syndrome Society says, “People with Down syndrome are active participants in educational, social and recreational activities. They are included in the typical education system and take part in sports, music, arts programs and any other activities in the community. People with Down syndrome are valued members of their families and communities, and make meaningful contributions to society.”
Myth #3: If a parent is not up to raising a child with DS, abortion is their only option.
There are abundant resources for parents that don’t feel like they are equipped to raise a Down syndrome baby. In the first place, there are support groups to be found all over the country for parents of Down syndrome children, as well as organizations that offer services especially for families with Down syndrome children. But even for those who feel it is impossible or doubt their ability to be the kind of parent they want for their child, there is an alternative – adoption. The National Down Syndrome Adoption Network is a non-profit organization that maintains a registry of families interested in adopting a Down syndrome child. The NDSAN works directly with expecting parents of DS babies, inviting them to call at any time of day or night to talk to someone about their needs and concerns. Abortion is never the only option.
The justifications given for aborting Down syndrome babies are groundless. But at the end of the day, it is wrong to end the life of a child in the womb, and it is wrong without question, regardless of whether or not that child has Down syndrome. Even if they were born into suffering, even if they were burdens on society, we would still be called to defend their lives, to love them and protect them, and to ease their suffering by whatever means possible. Psalm 82:3 says to “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed.” Who is more fatherless than the child who’s parents abort him? These children with Down syndrome are not oppressed by their chromosomal condition, they are oppressed by a society that can tolerate anything – any race, religion, sexual preference – anything except weakness. The sick, the aged, the cognitively delayed – these our world has no place for. But we know better. We know that they will be numbered among those “of whom the world was not worthy” for any suffering they underwent at the hands of a hostile society. But let us in turn be faithful to these children, for the Kingdom belongs to such as these.