Recently Richard Dawkins created a stir with some thoughtless tweets about aborting people with Down Syndrome, and Live Action has a column about the motives of some who abort their babies with Down Syndrome. With respect to author Sarah Terzo, it is an untempered treatment of deep complexities not at all explicated in the article, nor even hinted at. In the interest of truth and justice for many post-abortive mothers, here is a deeper exploration. It comes by way of my own experiences as the father of a special needs child.
When Regina became pregnant with Joseph (our first) it was pure magic. This child we feared might never be conceived after four years of prayers and disappointments, our first baby, was on the way. Early on we were offered the AFP, which tests for fetal anomalies and has many false-positive results.
Why chance a positive result which would require amniocentesis to confirm, especially when amniocentesis kills one in every two hundred babies on which it is performed? There was no way that we would abort our baby, no matter what. “Besides,” I added to our bewildered Ob, “If God has X number of handicapped babies He needs to send into the world, we’ll take one. Children with needs require more love, not less.”
I never really thought He would take me up on that little bit of bravado.
It just didn’t make sense to have tests, to eat our hearts out if there were some potential anomaly that couldn’t be fixed. (Fetal surgery was just getting going at the time.)
Freeze frame. That’s an incredibly vulnerable time in every way for a woman. Physically she is immunocompromised, and increasingly uncomfortable toward the end. There’s the exhaustion of the first and third trimesters. There’s all sorts of concerns. At precisely the moment that a woman needs all the support she can get, when standing by her means everything for the father, for family and friends, she is hit with a devastating diagnosis.
Joseph was turning five when after years of misdiagnoses he was finally correctly diagnosed by some of the best minds in the field:
Autism, moderately profound.
Mixed Expressive/Receptive Language Disorder (half of all tests he didn’t respond enough to establish a basal score)
Speech equivalent of 2.1 years
IQ tests: half very low average, half borderline.
Sensory Integration Disorder.
Shattering doesn’t begin to describe the pitch blackness I found myself in. It was a blackness so black that I couldn’t even see my wife’s pain and bewilderment. The upshot of it all was “What happens to Joseph when we’re gone?”
For the first time in my life I knew not only fear, but panic. So, I can relate to the parents who get the news when their baby is still in utero, when they are in a far more vulnerable state than we were. They also have an additional burden that I didn’t. I had Joseph for nearly five years. We had developed a relationship: I fed, bathed, changed, played with him. I dressed him, and took him everywhere I went. These parents know their child less concretely, more abstractly.
No one suggested that Regina and I kill our child. But it isn’t that way with poor prenatal diagnoses. I’ve met scores of women who were beset by the medical geneticists and their Ob’s to abort the baby. Far too many have recounted how they were burdened with blame:
“What do you mean you want to keep it? Why would you make your baby suffer that way?”
Lovely. Were that not bad enough, such news often comes when women have only one or two weeks left before they can no longer have an abortion (Statutory regulation).
Worse still are the fathers who pressure the mothers to abort, threatening financial, emotional and physical abandonment. “You’ll raise that freak on your own!” What a betrayal of trust and love, of all those little promises whispered when making love and begetting the baby.
More tragic still is the pressure from family and friends, and all too often, there stands the frightened, unsupported and completely besieged mother at precisely her most vulnerable moment.
So much for respecting women, for love and fidelity, for choice, for patient autonomy, for informed consent: Especially informed consent.
Parents are frequently not told of the surgeries, the therapies (medical, occupational, physical, speech, educational) that are available. They aren’t told of the Early Intervention program, of the advances made by those with Down Syndrome, of how many are now attending and graduating from college.
In other words, they are deprived of hope.
Comments made when they show up at an abortion center need to be evaluated in that light. In psychology the comments quoted by Terzo can be a good example of the defense mechanism called, “Reaction Formation,” which is the tendency to express the opposite of what one is feeling and threatened by, but cannot face.
So, how do we proceed?
Three years ago when I was National Director of Medical Students for Life, I approached some like-minded folks and with them brought to fruition a medical conference I had long envisioned as a means of enlightening the medical community. So, on January 21, 2012 at Family Research Council headquarters in Washington, DC, we held the first conference on Poor Prenatal Diagnoses and Therapeutic Interventions. It was live-cast and recorded and the entire conference can be viewed here. There will be more such conferences in the near future.
The purpose of the conference was to enlighten not only the medical community, but the rest of society; to give hope to those whose fear begets some of the ugly quotes in the Terzo article.
Regina and I were blessed with many beautiful and wonderful people who came into our lives and helped teach Joseph, most especially Mr. Robert Marinello who is one of the finest and most gifted speech therapists in the field. He got Joseph communicating in very short order, and gave me back my son. In the eleven years since we received the shattering diagnoses, Joseph has come into his own. He is poised to become an Eagle Scout in October at the age of fifteen, scored in the 98th percentile on his end of year testing this year, and is an accomplished athlete and dancer.
It took years, several years, to relax and trust that all would be well, to realize:
That God’s definition of well is not my own.
That God’s plans and dreams for Joseph are quite different from what I had envisioned when Regina gave birth.
That God was right beside me all of those sleepless nights I sat in the rocking chair beside Joseph’s bed, contemplating his future.
That God has an army of healers who do as a matter of routine what required the laying on of hands by Jesus two thousand years ago.
That God will use our fear and turn it into sacrificial love’s engine.
That God will then use special parents as the evangelists of this Gospel of Love.
In retrospect, what most made for the experience of being shattered was the fear of a loveless world and what it would do to our son. But God is faithful and He has shown us through our son an army of people who offer love, and hope, and opportunity.
Joseph is in good company among his peers with his particular style of learning and being in the world. The many therapists and professionals with whom he has worked have brought him and his peers not only into the realm of functionality, but of competitiveness with peers who are neurotypical. The same may be said of those with Down Syndrome.
News reports of parents seeking abortions for their special needs babies rightly anger and disgust us, but they don’t accurately portray all who receive these diagnoses. They also don’t delve into that pitch blackness in which I found myself, and in which these parents find themselves. The difference between us?
In my heart I knew that God would be faithful and what I was despairing of most of all was my own sense of smallness and inadequacy regarding the task before me. It was God’s fidelity as my father that empowered me.
I don’t judge these people quoted by Terzo. I agonize for them in their helplessness and hopelessness.
Take some time and watch the entire conference linked here. Then share this good news far and wide.
For many, all they need is the light of truth to begin to embrace their babies, to embrace their parenthood.