What My Son Who Sings at Mass and Has Down Syndrome Can Teach the World

We need others who we think aren’t like us to sing out to people other than ourselves

It’s always delightful when we go to Mass and Paul sings. The pews in front of him and behind become more vocal as the liturgy progresses. Why? Because my youngest son, a 9-year-old boy with Down syndrome, is singing with all his heart, even though he doesn’t know many of the words. When he first holds the music book and sings along, people turn. They notice. They smile. As parents, we love how It also helps prevent any of his siblings from opting out. By the Responsorial Psalm, after hearing Paul giving all of his attention to participation, people locate their hymn books. And by the time of the Offertory, more and more people are singing.

It’s one of Paul’s gifts. It’s a gift you can’t find on a standardized test or through genetic markers, and one we’d never have known we missed. The Church would be more silent if his garbled voice never came into being, and not merely because he would not be singing. If I could convey one thing to the people who think we should be fine with aborting the disabled because they’re disabled, it would be that we need these people more than they need us, for reasons we’ve yet to discern.

In the Washington Post, columnist Ruth Marcus informs us she would have chosen to abort her child if the prenatal testing available at the time would have revealed Down syndrome. She insists she would have grieved and moved on. However, she can’t know that would have been her response, because she hasn’t endured that reality. It’s quite one thing to boast of one’s liberty to do something, it’s quite another to actually do it with all of the ramifications we know and those we don’t acknowledge.

I’d ask her to look at her children, whatever ages they are, and imagine they had this flaw or that, and how impossible it would have seemed to deal with such a difficulty, and yet how impossible it would seem now to not have these people in her life now that she knows them. The same holds true for those where we have some pre-existing knowledge — there’s far more we don’t know, and far more they teach than we should dare to presume. We all understand that the children we have come with unknowns, even if we have a map of all of their chromosomes. Anyone who has a toddler or a teenager knows this reality. They aren’t merely what we gave them, nor are they only what we offer them in the course of living. They’re always all of that and more. Like Paul’s singing in the Mass, each of us, no matter our genetics, is made in God’s image, which means we’re all always something beyond what we could anticipate no matter our expectations or hopes. We’re all bequeathed with the gift to pour out God’s love in greater capacity than one could imagine. 

What she does not address, though she admits it should be vigorously debated, is the threshold for making those decisions as technology advances, allowing us to know much more than the count of chromosomes in a child’s DNA. Her quote: 

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion. Nearsightedness? Being short? There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate. But in the end, the Constitution mandates — and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores — that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Her thinking indicates that while one might be squeamish about the why of abortion, in the end, the “vigorous debate” is not something she thinks society should have but only the individual with her conscience. Why is it creepy if a woman decides to abort because of Down syndrome or Autism or the sex of a child or the gender preference of a child? Because she knows it’s opting not to love whatever we can know is not perfect, in favor of the illusion of having a more perfect child. 

Ruth seeks to define abortion both ways, as the most sacred right proving women’s liberty, and as a ghastly act. She’s hoping to seem reasonable by acknowledging the reality that abortion is ghastly, and that there is something disturbing (though she can’t quite bring herself to admit what it is) about “Mater-familia” style family planning.

She’s right to say, if you believe abortion is the taking of a human life, there isn’t a caveat that one can grant — because he’s got Trisomy 21 or is nearsighted, because she’s learning disabled, because she’s short, because he’s got a predisposition to depression or whatever other genetic markers we might find along the way of mapping out the human genetic code. Ruth Marcus tells us, some may call her cruel or cowardly for saying she’d opt for what she wants, rather than what she receives. However, calling people names is a quick way to short-circuit any discussion that might lead to better places, to a kinder world.

So as a mom of a son who sings in Mass and has Down syndrome, I’ll just offer my hope she would have allowed herself the chance to discover she could be kinder, she could be all kinds of brave, more than she imagined. That’s what all children invite us to discover — especially those who surprise us with their singing.