Down, Hero Dad and Palin

In the wake of the financial debacle where the wiles of Wall Street, with the cooperation of politicians, undermined the economy of this nation, there is a growing cynicism about the possibility of anything worthwhile coming from Congress. Their approval rating is at an all-time low. Enter two farmers, one from Kansas, and another from Virginia. Their confluence of compassion, combined with the star power of one special baby, has resulted in a minor miracle: a unanimous vote in the Senate with the approval of the Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act (S. 1810) on Sept. 23.

I first discussed the bill with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., at the Blogs for Life Conference at the Family Research Council in January 2007. I had saved an article about his previous sponsorship of this bill, which went down in flames in 2005. It is aimed at parents whose unborn child has been diagnosed with a disability like Down syndrome, spina bifida, cystic fibrosis or other congenital anomalies. This bill would provide the parents with up-to-date information about the prognosis of individuals with this condition, lists of parent support groups, and a registry of potential adoptive parents, should the couple decide not to keep the baby. Currently, the abortion rate for these diagnoses is 90%. When Sen. Brownback heard this statistic, he told me that he had to do something about it. So he joined forces with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., whose relatives, the Shrivers, have long supported special-needs initiatives like Best Buddies and Special Olympics.

I was enthusiastic about the bill in the manner of one who is new to business as usual in Washington, believing that this bill would pass on its own merits. I needed to do something to help lower the abortion rate of children with Down syndrome. Since my daughter Christina was born with Down syndrome six years ago, this statistic has haunted me. We parents of children with Down syndrome were incensed in February 2007 when the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended universal testing of pregnant women for Down syndrome, and the media felt our ire: The New York Times spoke of us as a grassroots movement. But it was not enough to pass the bill, stuck in committee where good ideas so often die. So we spread the news when the bill was reintroduced in Congress in July 2007 to other involved parents — and to pro-life and Catholic periodicals. Along with Down syndrome advocacy organizations, we kept track of the bill’s progress.

Suddenly, fate took a stunning turn when Sarah Palin rocketed into the national spotlight this month, her son Trig in her arms. He was a tranquil baby who now put a face on Down syndrome. America was completely smitten by the image of big sister Piper, who, while cradling Trig during her mother’s convention speech, licked her hand and smoothed down her little brother’s hair. Trig was the focus of affection in America, and again, parents of children with Down syndrome felt our hopes rise: Our bill might be approved.

Sen. Brownback, feeling the energy, took to the floor of the Senate in a bold move to extract his bill from an omnibus one weighted with pork, by requesting a unanimous vote. He had a silent ally: Thomas Vander Woude, a Virginia farmer, devout Catholic, and 66-year-old father of seven. Just a few days before, Tom saw his beloved 20-year-old son Joseph fall into a sewer, where he struggled to breathe, immersed in filth. Without hesitating, Tom dove into the sewer, holding his son’s head up so he could be rescued, sacrificing his life for a young man whom 90% of expectant parents reject; Josie has Down syndrome. Sen. Brownback told Tom’s extraordinary story in his speech.

Thomas Vander Woude’s mighty expression of fatherly love, combined with Sarah Palin’s gentle example of motherly love — refusing to abort a child whose birth complicated her career as governor of Alaska — brought this once forsaken little bill to victory in the Senate.

The power of courageous love had inspired a lackluster, morally bankrupt Senate to a great act — for which it will be long remembered.

Leticia Velasquez writes from

East Moriches, New York.