Abortion and mental/physical disabilities
I’ve just read something and I am horrified. I don’t normally delve into very controversial topics, but I’ve been editing a paper on Down’s Syndrome and it included these stats from K.B. Brown (2012):
90% of mothers in the USA with an unborn baby diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome (DS) are choosing to have an abortion, while in the UK three babies with DS are aborted every day.
I’ve never engaged overly much with the abortion debate. I personally believe it’s wrong, though I do think there’s room for mitigating circumstances, specifically when the unborn child poses a threat to the life of the mother – that would not be a black-and-white case for me, and I would probably veer towards protecting the life of the mother, who is already loved and needed by her family and friends. But I could understand someone feeling differently.
As with any sort of discussion like this, I think it’s important from the outset to realise that the purpose is not to heap reproach on anyone who has already had an abortion. We talk about these things not so much because of what has already been done but in the hope that those faced with the decision at present or in the future might think differently about it all. And for those who have had an abortion already and regret it – there is forgiveness in abundance, as Jesus’ blood has the power to cover over anything.
I do however find myself growing angry when I read about women aborting babies with a disability because it “disrupts plans” (a quote!). To kill 90% – NINETY percent – of all babies diagnosed with DS is almost inconceivable!
I am the first to admit that I would be incredibly daunted to learn I am going to have a baby with any sort of severe disability (although I’m not sure I would class DS as severe – more ‘serious’). It would be a shock and a difficulty, and I’m sure there would be all sorts of emotions and frustrations to work through both before the birth and then throughout the child’s life. But it makes me so sad to think that women (and men) think a baby shouldn’t be born if he/she is not going to be ‘perfect’.
I have heard over and over again from friends about to have babies: “We don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, so long as it’s healthy.” I’m not sure they’ve really thought about what they’re saying. My brother-in-law is legally blind and he and my sister weren’t sure if their children would inherit the disability. As I started to worry about it after learning of their first pregnancy, I realised this simple thing: so what? So what if she’s born blind? Will I or anyone else love her any less? No. Will her life have meaning? Absolutely. Will her life have attendant difficulties? Yes. But all lives have difficulties! (And those with disabilities often develop a stronger character.) Incidentally, my sister and brother-in-law today have two beautiful girls, both with great eyesight. But another of my friends has underdeveloped eyes that cannot see very well. Her husband has the same condition, and their baby girl has it. That little girl is a blessing, whichever way you look at it. The obstacles in her future should not be allowed to become an obstacle to her having life.
Now I know mental and physical disabilities can’t always be grouped together in terms of their ramifications. Being blind or deaf is in some ways an ‘easy’ disability compared with say autism or a major head injury. Over the years I’ve gotten to know many individuals with varying types of disabilities, including those who have truly severe mental and physical handicaps combined. It can be so hard from my perspective to find the joy in their situations. And yet I wonder if that’s the problem right there – I am trying to find meaning and purpose to their lives from my perspective. I do not (and sometimes probably can’t) understand all that they feel, experience and know. But if I believe life is precious – and I do – and I believe that God loves everyone – which I do – then I don’t think I should be limiting or reducing others and their lives to what ‘works’ for me or makes sense to me.
I have seen intensely handicapped men and women who praise God and want to express their joy and love for him. I have been so humbled by it. Often normal expression is difficult for them. Do I even know half of what they think and feel? I wonder if it comes down to me letting go of my own preconceived ideas about what makes life good or worthwhile or meaningful or even beautiful.
If we knew we were going to have a ‘normal’ baby that would become a quadriplegic at the age of 5 – would we abort him/her to avoid the heartache to come? Do we abort the baby who will be born with AIDS? I do not think we should determine the value of a life based on our own ideas of what makes for a good life. Moreover the length of a life is not important at the end of the day, as I can live 100 years and have every one of those years be desolate. I would not want to die young because I do not want my family and friends to suffer my loss. When I am old, and the responsibilities on me are less, and my loved ones have had time to accept that I will be going soon – that is when I would like to die. But even if I die tomorrow, I think I should have been allowed to live. The heartache endured by parents having to say goodbye to a short-lived little child must be utterly overwhelming, but abortion still isn’t the answer. Longevity is not a virtue and should not be prized above all else.
If a mother finds she simply cannot love or cope with a disabled child, then I think she should let that child be adopted. I know adopted folks who have grown up in orphanages, and they are well-rounded, secure, happy people. Obviously giving the child up is not ideal, and there are orphanages that are unhappy places, but improving those orphanages is the answer, and more people adopting children is the answer. Not abortion.
My mother gave birth to a little boy who died that same day. Medical intervention had prevented her from miscarrying earlier on. I’m not saying medicine isn’t sometimes helpful, but I think God takes home to himself, whether before or shortly after birth, those little lives that he knows cannot cope. Those that can live – they should be allowed to live. God has created that life, and let’s not overestimate the soundness of our own judgement that it would be ‘kinder’ to not let them live.
I say this all very humbly, as I have never had to walk through the difficulties faced by the parents of severely disabled children. But I do believe there are certain principles that we should cling to, such as: God planned and knew each one of us before we were even conceived in the womb, and because of that each life is precious, even the ones that seem to us to make little or no sense. Even those individuals who do not believe in God know that life is precious; unborn children should not be disregarded simply because we cannot yet see or hold them.
I think society should move away from saying, “But what quality of life can they possibly have or enjoy?” to realising that ‘a normal life’ is not everything. God has ways and means of reaching out to anyone, even the most mentally challenged. It is difficult and heart-breaking at times to see the struggles of those with disabilities and of their families. I may not know or understand what goes on in the minds of the disabled or how God touches them, but I do believe nobody is outside the compass of his love, and that I should not discount anyone’s existence because it is difficult for me to understand or see their purpose.
There are many out there who will disagree wholly or in part with what I’ve said. I’d be happy to hear your views (if shared respectfully). I am open to being persuaded differently on certain aspects – I do not claim to have the definitive way of thinking about it all. My intention is merely to put forth the thoughts I’ve had on the topic in the hopes that it might offer a new perspective to some on how we think about individuals with disabilities and the value or purpose of their lives.
* Image of foetus by Reuters