A few days ago, I was browsing the headlines of a Catholic news website, and one in particular caught my eye that said Spain aborts 9 out of 10 babies with Down's syndrome. This isn't exactly a new statistic, especially in westernized countries, but to hear that almost 95% of those babies diagnosed with the chromosomal disorder trisomy 21 are aborted, regardless of where, is horrific. This is most certainly not a problem that is unique to Spain, though. Countries around the world report similar statistics when it comes to babies diagnosed with the syndrome prior to birth.
Our society's constant pursuit of perfection – the perfect car, the perfect job, the perfect spouse – has spilled over into our concept of the value and dignity of human life. A person's life is no longer as valuable if they don't fit a certain set of qualities (which includes having no handicaps). As a society we are slowly weeding out those who we deem to be unfit to be a part of the human race. The number of children born with Down syndrome is becoming more and more rare – not because of any cure that has been found, but because those today who are found to have it are slowly being exterminated from society.
Parents who have children with Down syndrome know what joys they bring, which far outweigh the extra work and effort often required in raising these children. Recently there was a somewhat high-profile example of parents deciding against aborting their baby, prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome, although it was not very widely reported. The governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, gave birth to her fifth child on April 18, 2008 and three days later announced that her son, Trig, has Down syndrome. She has said publicly that she is thankful to God for giving her the gift of her son, and describes him as bringing “unspeakable joy” into the lives of her and her family. This sentiment is just about as opposite a person can get from society's general opinion that children with perceived imperfections like Down syndrome are not worth bringing into the world, and it is beautiful to hear her say. There are certainly many more examples just like this one, but so rarely do we hear about the blessings and joys that people with Down syndrome can bring. Governor Palin is a wonderful example for all who might come face to face with this issue (and everyone else, too).
Choosing to end a life just because it is not one society considers to be perfectly healthy and perfectly functioning undermines the dignity of every life. Dignity is not based on how we perform or how we function, but on the fact that we are human beings. A person with a disability is just as much a human being as a person in the most perfect physical and mental condition, a fact that is weakened by the prevalence of aborting babies seen as “imperfect.”
It is so great to hear examples like Governor Palin and others who have gone against the flow and who feel beyond blessed that they were given these children, even while recognizing that many in society would have advised and pressured them to “get rid” of these blessings. They recognize the value and dignity of each life, especially those of their children. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, there is an extensive discussion on the dignity and value of human life, every human life, no matter what that person can offer to society. It's important for Catholics to understand this issue, because if we can't respect even the most helpless lives, how can we respect any lives?
There is another wonderful example of someone who was not afraid to stand up for all human life no matter how small or helpless – Jerome Lejeune. He was the doctor who discovered the link between Down syndrome and its chromosomal abnormality. He lead an extraordinary life, and counted the late Pope John Paul II among his friends. His pro-life stance is an example to the rest of us as well, and you can learn more about his life in the beautiful book Life is a Blessing, his biography written by his daughter Clara.
Catholics need to understand the importance of these life issues, especially with the upcoming election. This is just one aspect of abortion that makes it so horrible and necessary to defeat. It is because of the legality of abortion that our society is losing some of its most special members. Life should always be celebrated, not terminated.
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.