What began with most Americans learning about Sarah Palin, and learning that she chose to give birth to a Down syndrome child, quickly descended into rumors fueled on liberal blogs that the child was really born to her teenage daughter Bristol (whoops, that’s another impending child) with Palin passing off the child as her own.
When wading through the often vitriolic debates about whether Palin should have gotten pregnant in her forties or should have given birth to a disabled child in first place (this from the “stay out of our wombs!” crowd) or whether she went back to work too soon after giving birth or should conduct a rigorous campaign with a Down baby at home (this from both sides of the political spectrum), we can’t lose sight of a discussion that needs to be sparked by John McCain’s pick.
It’s the old quality of life debate, given greater urgency by the sharply declining number of Down syndrome births and scientific advancements that could soon detect any number of abnormalities in the womb.
We can’t miss the opportunity to bring to the forefront the gross discrimination which results in the lives of the disabled being regarded as less worthy or, at worst, completely disposable.
When Adolf Hitler set about his plans to craft the perfect, master Aryan race, his first task was to eliminate the handicapped and mentally disabled; as the first step in this goal, midwives and physicians were ordered to register children born with severe birth defects, and “experts” reviewing the cases ordered the deaths of about 5,000 such children from 1939 to 1945. The vulnerable in our society are the canary in the coal mine: When society decides that any sector of the population is less worthy of protection, less deserving of life than another, we teeter over the edge into an abyss of inhumanity.
Ronald Reagan saw this acutely in 1982, when “Baby Doe,” a Down syndrome baby born with a malformed esophagus, was denied corrective surgery by his parents, who had two “normal” children and knew full well that the baby would starve to death. Illinois prosecutors tried to gain custody of the child to give it proper treatment, but this was denied by the courts.
Reagan was so affected by the Bloomington case that he sprang into action twofold: directing the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to enforce civil rights laws when it came to care and protection of disabled infants, requiring hospitals that received federal funding to post notices advising it was against federal law to deny nutrition to handicapped newborns; and penning a stirring article, unsolicited, for the Human Life Review’s Spring 1983 issue, in which he summed up the tragic “Baby Doe” case: “Retardation was the equivalent of a crime deserving the death penalty.”
And so it remains, as mothers-to-be can selectively abort those children in which genetic abnormalities are detected. In an article last year — focusing on the efforts of Down parents to convince genetic counselors and doctors of the value of their children — the New York Times stated that about 90 percent of those given a Down diagnosis in prenatal testing choose to abort the baby. We’ve morphed from a society that initially encouraged parents to commit their mentally challenged kids to institutions into a society that is using technological “advancements” to ensure that the disabled aren’t just not seen and heard, but not born in the first place.
“The real question today is not when human life begins,” Reagan wrote in 1983, “but, What is the value of human life?” He noted the danger of employing “‘quality control’ to see if newly born human beings are up to snuff.”
Patricia Bauer, a former Washington Post bureau chief, once wrote about her daughter Margaret, who has Down syndrome, in the context of how prenatal testing has made abortion seem like a macabre duty for mothers whose unborn children test positive for the extra chromosome. “In ancient Greece, babies with disabilities were left out in the elements to die,” Bauer wrote. “We in America rely on prenatal genetic testing to make our selections in private, but the effect on society is the same.
“We love and admire (Margaret) because of who she is — feisty and zesty and full of life — not in spite of it,” Bauer added. “What I don’t understand is how we as a society can tacitly write off a whole group of people as having no value. ”
When you meet a Down individual, you quickly understand why he or she was brought into this world. The joy, the appreciation of the world around them, the smiles they can bring to the faces of others not tainted by society’s obsession with “perfect” human beings are immeasurable. George Will once wrote of his Down son, “Jon is an adornment to a world increasingly stained by anger acted out.”
In college, I worked on a day program with severely developmentally disabled adults, far less functional than most individuals with Down syndrome. Seeing their appreciation for the little things in life — and the pathetic response some people had to their very presence — left an indelible impression on me.
The main lesson I learned was that we are not in a place to judge whether the perceived “quality of life” of the mentally or physically challenged meets some sort of politically correct cost-benefit litmus test.
Hopefully, Palin’s candidacy will be about more than screeds on the size of her brood, or obsessing over whether she used abstinence education on her pregnant daughter, and instead will spur a new consciousness of the civil rights of the disabled and the dangers of eugenics.