J.D. Flynn is editor in chief of Catholic News Agency and a canon lawyer.
A woman conceived a child with Down syndrome, and her doctor encouraged an abortion. The story happens every day. But this woman didn’t have an abortion; she gave birth to a beautiful little girl. The mother wrote a letter to the doctor, expressing her sadness that anyone would encourage the abortion of a child with Down syndrome. The letter was posted on social media, and now it’s gone viral.
I have two children, and they both have Down syndrome, so a half-dozen friends have tagged me this week in posts about the letter.
I admire this mother’s support for her daughter. I am grateful that she brought attention to the plight of children like hers, and like mine, who face the very high likelihood of abortion: by some estimates, almost 70% of children who are prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.
I am always glad when the media take a moment to recognize people with Down syndrome.
But one part of the letter is stuck in my mind. Over and over, the letter insisted, “my child is perfect.”
* * * * * * *
Last week, my son, who is 4, was taking books of the shelf and stacking them on the floor. I sat down to make piles with him. But after a minute, he started to wail. He pushed the books over and kicked at the floor. He was crying. Because he has only a few words, he couldn’t tell me why. No matter what I tried, he was inconsolable.
My son needed something I couldn’t understand or provide. I was completely at a loss. In fact, I was terrified. For just a few minutes, the worst possibilities for his future flashed before me: that he’d always be mostly non-verbal, and locked away in loneliness and frustration. That he’d have perceptions or needs or compulsions no one could understand. That his preference for routines and structure would develop into an unhealthy dependence. That his peculiarities would lead to playground shunning and grown-up isolation.
My wife—far more expert than I—came in the room, and casually explained that my son likes even piles, neat and uniform. We straightened things out, and he calmed down, and gave me a hug, and went off to watch Sesame Street.
My terror abated. But in that moment, I was reminded that my son is not “perfect.” Nor is my daughter. Their genetic abnormality makes life difficult for them in ways that I would have never expected. They have learning and speech delays, and they struggle with impulse control, and certain social situations, and they depend on predictable routines. They carry real crosses, and will, for the whole of their lives.
* * * * * * *
It would be unfair to cast my children as “perfect.” But there is a desire among those who love the disabled, and want to see them survive our brutal times, to minimize their challenges. There is a temptation to pretend their lives are mostly typical. I sometimes fall prey to that temptation.
Jean Vanier says that in modern technocracy, we believe that “to be human is to be powerful.” I don’t usually believe that. But sometimes I want to hide my children’s weakness, or even deny it, to promote their dignity, and emphasize their humanity. My pro-life convictions compel me to tell stories about children who are cute, and clever, and strong. I talk, sometimes, about my children’s extraordinary capacity to love. I tell true stories, but they’re usually incomplete. The stories leave out their suffering, their weakness, their challenges.
My desire that the world accept children like mine obscures my willingness to tell the whole truth. The truth is that they struggle, and so do we.
We all hide our weaknesses. We all try to project perfection. We can all fall prey to the technocratic lie that dignity is connected to productivity, that human worth is drawn from the capacity to contribute.
Were my children not cute or clever, they’d still be beloved in the eyes of God. Were they unable to tell us loudly whispered “secrets,” or dance, or snuggle, they’d still be created in His image. They are not perfect. None of us are. But their rights to life, and to support, and to love—especially—are not contingent on what they have to offer. The place of the disabled in society does not depend on what they they teach us, if anything at all. The disabled deserve a place in our communities for the same reason we all do: because they are beloved by God, exactly as they are.
When we obscure the reality of disabilities, even with good intentions, we concede the source of life’s dignity to the technocrats. When we defend the disabled because of what they offer us, we unwittingly give credence to the idea that some lives are worth living, and some are not. As more kinds of people are judged to be unworthy of life—the disabled, the elderly, the prisoner, the terminally ill—it is critical that the only criteria by which we judge the right to life are the criteria of God the Father.
The Father does not love us for our perfection. He does not love us for our utility. He loves us as his imperfect children. Nothing apart from His grace can bring any of us to perfection. None of us is being perfected for anything but His glory.
None of us is really strong, none of us is powerful, none of us independent. We have worth anyway. We have the right to life anyway. We bring joy to the Lord—our Heavenly Father—anyway.
Each one of us—disabled or not—is imperfect: totally dependent on the Man who came into this world weak, poor, and helpless: like us in all things but sin.