Tuesday, March 21st, was World Down Syndrome Day, an opportunity to recognize and celebrate those living with Trisomy 21. Observed for the past 11 years, its date is no coincidence. March 21st (3/21) was specifically chosen for its numeric relation to Trisomy 21.
Every year, nearly 1 in 700 children will be born with Down’s syndrome, and about 6,000 Down’s children will be born in the US this year alone, making it the most common chromosomal disorder in the world. Although it may be prominent, those with Down’s syndrome can face substantial discrimination. Moreover, little is understood about the connection between the duplicated genetic material and the manifested symptoms.
Learning that her child has a serious developmental disability understandably can distress a mother. In such a difficult time, however, she often receives little support. Medical staff in many countries frequently treat the diagnosis as a great loss and rattle off frightening statistics. As a result, in countries like the UK where there is pre-natal screening for the disorder, 80% of those with Down’s syndrome are aborted. In Iceland, where 100% of pregnant women are screened, children with Down’s syndrome are no longer born. Often, a mother who chooses to knowingly bring a Down’s life into the world faces discrimination herself in countries like these.
Though they may face discrimination in their very first moments of life, there is also a lifelong stigma to being developmentally disabled. Achieving some measure of independence is a major milestone for many, but it is especially difficult for people with Down’s syndrome because of the discrimination they face in the workplace. While for a time there was a cycle of exclusion and poverty, those with Down’s syndrome are thankfully becoming more integrated into society. Many graduate high school, now find jobs, and even go into tertiary education.
Nevertheless, as screening becomes more effective, one can imagine that, through a process of extermination, we may soon find ourselves in a world without Down’s syndrome. The argument often follows that, with an abortion, the parents are really doing the child a favor. Aborting the child, so some feel, saves him or her from much suffering. Those with Down’s of course disagree and often report being happy and enjoying life. Indeed, all that these pro-abortion arguments accomplish is strengthening the stigma that these people do not deserve to be alive and that their lives are somehow not valuable. The implications of these arguments have not, however, stopped countries like France from holding their line on the disability and even banning a pro-life ad showing people with Down’s advocating for their own lives.
Karen Gaffney, a world-class swimmer and woman with Down’s syndrome, gave a TED talk on this very topic in 2015. She acknowledges that, throughout history, society has marginalized those with developmental disabilities. Imagine, she says, that only half a century ago she might have been institutionalized. She is supremely happy with her life and thankful for the opportunities she has regardless of the obstacles she may face. Every life matters, she reflects, no matter how many chromosomes a person may have. Down’s syndrome is a life worth saying yes to and a life worth living.
As medical technology improves, we can better and better predict not only the future qualities of the unborn child, but also manipulate them using gene editing. It raises further questions about the purposes of abortion. Often, those in the pro-abortion side make arguments that rely on the means, or lack thereof, of the mother to justify terminating a pregnancy. One must wonder whether it would matter, then, if an abortion were performed because the child was disabled, or was a girl, or simply did not have the right color hair. Abortion is a grave evil, but the use of it in these ways smacks of eugenics, and it hints at just some of the battles to come.