by Deirdre A. McQuade, M.A., M.Div.
November 4, 2005
Recently, The Washington Post ran a revealing opinion piece by Patricia Bauer, the mother of a college-age daughter with Down syndrome. She writes:
"Whenever I am out with Margaret, I'm conscious that she represents a group whose ranks are shrinking because of the wide availability of prenatal testing and abortion. I don't know how many pregnancies are terminated because of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome, but some studies estimate 80 to 90 percent."
She raises an important question: How can society tacitly write off a whole group of people due to their prenatally-diagnosed disabilities?
Her heartfelt account shows how our society condones eugenics culturally, if not explicitly in law – as if destroying a disabled child in utero were more compassionate than giving her the gift of life.
She recounts her dinner party conversation with an elite ethics program director. The ethicist said that "prospective parents have a moral obligation...to terminate their pregnancy to avoid bringing forth a child with a disability, because it was immoral to subject a child to the kind of suffering he or she would have to endure."
What an incredible distortion!
Ms. Bauer's story is one sign we have moved beyond the false freedom of "choice" to a more coercive culture. Abortion is seen as the "responsible" option for parents expecting a child with disabilities, whether or not they are life-threatening. The "choice" of abortion then becomes a "duty" for mothers whose children's lives are considered not worth living.
Even much-wanted, planned-for children are at risk of being aborted if they are diagnosed with a genetic anomaly. In raising the option of "termination," some doctors abuse their medical authority and lay a heavy burden on already distressed parents. Well-meaning friends, family and pastors may concur, justifying abortion by saying it is better for the family.
Those who give birth to children with special needs are sometimes seen as ignorant (as in, "You know you could have prevented this, right?") -- or worse, as selfish, unethical, or unloving ("You let this child be born only to suffer. How loving is that?").
This growing attitude is hardly liberating to women. Indeed, Ms. Bauer's story should make even the most pro-choice citizens take a hard second look at abortion, and the infamous decision that opened the floodgates, Roe v. Wade.
Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) have taken an important step on behalf of parents expecting children with Down syndrome and other genetic anomalies. The Prenatally-diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act (S.609) will ensure access to services and information often not available to parents at the time of their child's diagnosis. Parents could then have vital information at their fingertips, welcome their sick or special needs child into their family, and prepare responsibly for her upbringing.
The proposed act is a sign of hope that should inspire other creative, life-supporting measures. It is time to build a world where human life is always loved and defended ... and to care for those we encounter along the way, especially the most vulnerable.
Deirdre McQuade is director of planning and information, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.