Abortion has become a tool for eugenics, aiming to eradicate the disabled population. This is especially true with respect to Down syndrome, a genetic disorder, which now can be detected through prenatal testing and thus aborted during pregnancy. Indeed, a vast majority of women diagnosed with a Down syndrome baby choose to abort, believing both that their children are unwanted and that abortion is more humane than a life of disability and limitation.
Their assumptions could not be farther from the truth. Rather than being trapped by their genetics, people with Down syndrome often live, by their own admission, fulfilling lives, marked with love, success, and esteem. Moreover, they are wanted. Parents and siblings [both natural and adoptive] are shown to find great joy in their Down syndrome family members.
As such, the notion that Down syndrome babies face a life of loneliness and want does not come from the tragedies of real people. Instead, it stems from our culture’s obsession with perfection and the shared belief that an ‘imperfect’ child somehow inspires less love. The real tragedy of Down syndrome then is not the genetic disorder itself, but rather the impression, fueled by the option of abortion, that people with Down syndrome are unwanted.
Public sentiment works against children with Down syndrome. While polls show that Americans are becoming more pro-life, 66% of Americans are still in favor of abortion if there is a “serious chance of defect in the baby.” This is especially troubling when it comes to children with Down syndrome, a condition that can now be diagnosed with prenatal testing. According to The Atlantic, while 50% of American adults describe themselves as pro-life and 64% of American adults believe second-trimester abortions should be illegal, 85% of American women will abort their child after a prenatal Down Syndrome diagnosis—something that usually is discovered in or after the second trimester. Others report this number as even larger. Dr. Brian Skotko, a pediatric geneticist at Children’s Hospital Boston, “estimate[s] [that] 92 percent of all women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancies.”
Are children with Down syndrome truly “unwanted” as these statistics seem to indicate? Not even close.
Last month, Reverend Thomas Vander Woude and the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville, Virginia took to Facebook with a desperate plea:
“There is a couple in another state who have contacted an adoption agency looking for a family to adopt their Down Syndrome unborn baby. If a couple has not been found by today they plan to abort the baby. If you are interested in adopting this baby please contact Fr. VW IMMEDIATELY…We are asking all to pray for this baby and the wisdom that this couple realize the importance of human life and do not abort this beautiful gift from God.”
The day after posting the message, the church received hundreds of phone calls and over nine hundred emails of prospective families wanting to adopt the unborn child. Combined, over a thousand couples were interested in adopting. While the vast pool of potential families was finally narrowed down to three with the help of an adoption agency, the overwhelming response makes clear that this unborn child, despite being diagnosed with Down Syndrome, is anything but “unwanted.”
Not everyone was happy with this outcome. Reverend Vander Woude’s good deed was met with some detractors – namely, pro-choice proponents, such as the Katie J. M. Baker at Jezebel who derided the story as a “fairytale,” as though families wanting to adopt a Down syndrome child is not realistic, despite over a thousand of prospect parents who responded to the Facebook message. Ironically, she postures herself as pro-choice but then describes Reverend Vander Woude’s offer to help the couple find an adoptive family as coercion because it was unsolicited. Vander Woude’s offer to help actually gave the couple a real choice. Whereas before they thought the only option they had was abortion since they mistakenly assumed that no one would want a child with Down syndrome, Vander Woude showed them there was another way, and that it was possible to choose adoption rather than abortion.
Baker bitterly concludes that “so many mistreated babies and kids with Downs live terrible lives,” and thus should be aborted to spare them of their inevitable misery. But Baker’s final assertion that children with Down syndrome can never have their “happily ever after” is also misleading. Because, while “many people assume that raising a child with Down syndrome will be fraught with heartbreak,” the actual reality of the situation is much different. Nearly 80% of parents or guardians of a child with Down syndrome “reported their outlook on life was more positive because of their child with Down syndrome” and “99% of parents said they love their child with Down syndrome.” In contrast, only 5% of parents “felt embarrassed” by their Down syndrome child and only 4% expressed any regret over having a Down syndrome child. Siblings of those with Down syndrome also had an overwhelmingly positive experience: “97% expressed feelings of pride about their brother or sister with Down syndrome and 88% were convinced they were better people because of their sibling with Down syndrome.”
And what about those children born with Down syndrome? Are their lives rife with sorrow and hardship due to their disability, as Baker and other pro-choice proponents suggest? Again, while pro-abortion advocates often paint a dire picture of life with Down syndrome, those who experience it seem to express quite the opposite: “Nearly 99% of people with Down syndrome say they’re happy with their lives, and 96% say they like how they look.”
Moreover, the lives of those with Down syndrome has vastly improved over the years People with Down syndrome now live to an average of 60 years; a generation ago the average was 25. They are able to go to school, with some taking college classes. One even received an honorary doctorate. Others get married and one in five has a job. And, while Down syndrome children are often born with congenital heart defects, now surgeons are able to repair these defects when they weren’t able to in the past. Additional therapies are being offered to children with Down syndrome, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and feeding and swallowing therapy, and other early intervention practices can help improve their quality of life in later years.
However, even with these positive statistics and new medical breakthroughs, some find it unlikely that women will stop aborting their Down syndrome children anytime soon. Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Bioethics, observes that “[Women] are bombarded with messages of perfection in babies and about parenting from all manner of media, and this shapes their view on disability…. One would need to change attitudes overall about disability and perfection in society.” Because society judges those with genetic defects or disabilities as undesirable, parents likewise opt toward abortion. They wish only for “perfection,” a subjective notion dictated by what society tells us, whether it be through the media or the government. Moreover, pregnant women carrying Down syndrome children believe that everyone else shares this same “perfectionist” mentality and that these children will remain unwanted and unadoptable even though, as the response to Vander Woude’s plea shows, this is not necessarily the case.
That is not to say that women are driven by shallowness—far from it. Rather, women are pressured towards abortion, where it seems like the only option available for their child. Society has taught women that disability is a hardship to be avoided at all cost, that forcing a child to tread through distress is selfish, and that abortion exists as a humane solution—evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Adoption is never seen as viable because society makes it appear as if these beliefs are universally shared. When abortion becomes expected, women begin to feel as though choosing life is a selfish act. Abortion becomes the fuel that feeds the impression that children with Down syndrome warrant a scalpel before they warrant familial love. It’s a notion that must be defeated.
Children with Down syndrome are human beings with value. They lead fulfilling lives, and as Vander Woude’s online plea shows, they can inspire sweeping acts of love. Part of society seeks to dismiss them as ‘imperfect,’ but they deserve the same chance at life as any other unborn child. The option of abortion helps fuel the idea Down syndrome children are unwanted. We must show expecting parents that there are other options.
Laura Giunta has a Master’s degree from St. John’s University. She is a children’s librarian residing in New York State