Last year, CBS News reported that Iceland is close to “eradicating” Down syndrome due to the high numbers of women aborting children diagnosed with the condition in utero. More recently, five days before World Down Syndrome Day, The Washington Post published a column by Ruth Marcus headlined, “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down Syndrome. Women need that right.”
How should Catholic faithful respond to this troubling attitude? Yesterday, the Holy See gathered panelists at the United Nations to speak against disability-based abortion and what one called “the greatest hate crime of this generation.”
“Here at the United Nations there is much sincere talk and normally passionate action to fight against any form of discrimination,” said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, in opening the conference. Yet, he claimed, “in practice many states, U.N. agencies and members of civil society tolerate gross violations of these commitments.”
The Holy See invited persons with Down syndrome, their families, advocates and research professionals to explore various challenges facing individuals with the condition and cultural attitudes towards those with disabilities.
"People with Down syndrome have beauty that starts from the inside out."
After a tear-filled viewing of a video of children with Down syndrome sharing the joys and struggles of their lives, Mikayla Holmgren shared her own story. The 23-year-old woman from Minnesota made headlines last year as the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in a Miss USA pageant. “My parents were told that because of my Down syndrome diagnosis,” Ms. Holmgren explained, “I might never be able to walk or talk.” Yet, “I found my passion for dance.”
An award-winning dancer, Ms. Holmgren said she sought to show “the world that people with Down syndrome have beauty that starts from the inside out.” She also made a reference to Iceland, saying, “there are countries in the world that would like to get rid of people like me.”
Parents of children with Down syndrome were also invited to speak about the dignity of the disabled. Kurt Kondrich, a retired police officer, spoke about how his daughter, Chloe, had a significant impact on his own life. He noted that the United States has laws to protect the eggs of bald eagles and sea turtles, but none to protect unborn children with Down syndrome. “I can’t think of any greater hate crime than identifying a population for termination because they don’t live up to our culture’s standards of perfection,” Mr. Kondrich said.
“Down syndrome kids bring us peace. They unite us.”
As an advocate for children, he helped pass “Chloe’s Law,” which requires health care providers to inform women who have received prenatal Down syndrome diagnoses that they can receive care and support from the state of Pennsylvania. This law received rare, nearly unanimous, bipartisan support. He is now trying to pass a law that makes abortion on the basis of a disability diagnosis illegal under protections against discrimination. “Here’s a population of people whom I will never have to arrest,” Mr. Kondrich said. “Down syndrome kids bring us peace. They unite us.”
Deidre Pujols, vice president of the Pujols Family Foundation and wife of baseball player Albert Pujols, spoke about her advocacy on behalf of her daughter with Down syndrome, Bella. “Maybe one day we will live in a world without disabilities. Wouldn’t that be perfect for modern-day Hitlers?” Ms. Pujols asked. She compared the current practices in Iceland to Nazi eugenicist ideals.
In addition to personal testimonies, medical professionals shed light on the current state of Down syndrome research. Mary O’Callaghan, a developmental psychologist at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and the mother of a child with Down syndrome, discussed the discrimination against children with the condition in obstetrics and in society at large.
Dr. O’Callaghan highlighted studies that show a correlation between the widespread use of prenatal genetic screening and high incidences of abortion. Nations like the United States are considering pain-capable abortion restrictions, but Dr. O’Callaghan said that exempting fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome or other disabilities from such laws would be discrimination. Looking at examples like Iceland, she concluded her remarks by noting the hypocrisy of trying to eliminate a disease “not with treatment, but by eliminating patients.”
Iceland is trying to eliminate a disease “not with treatment, but by eliminating patients.”
Patricia White Flatley, co-founder of the LuMind Research Down Syndrome Foundation, noted the advances in medical treatment for persons with Down syndrome. “Instead of skepticism, there is every reason to be optimistic,” said Dr. Flatley. She reported that in recent years, there has been renewed interest in the research community to improve quality of life for Down syndrome patients. Dr. Flatley said that this is a “critical moment” because there are numerous clinical trials now testing ways to ameliorate cognitive challenges.The final panelist was Randall Wright, director of “Summer in the Forest,” a documentary about Jean Vanier, an 89-year-old philosopher who rescued individuals from restrictive institutes for the disabled in Paris and created L’Arche, a commune on the outskirts of the city. L’Arche is now an international organization of communities that bring together people with and without intellectual disabilities. Mr. Wright applauded the conference’s energy for activism but also noted that there was “a great cry coming from the room.” The disabled and their advocates are angry, he explained, at being left out of conversations.
“Jean Vanier answered that cry,” Mr. Wright said. “He proved that these ‘rejects’ are people.”