Celebrating the dignity of the disabled in a culture that advises aborting them.

Portrait of beautiful young girl smiling in the park

The beautiful video at the bottom of this post reminded me of a time a few years ago when I was privileged to take part in a webinar focused on providing support, Church teaching, and information to families who receive a pre-natal diagnosis that their child will be disabled in some way. Perhaps they are informed that the child will have Down Syndrome, or perhaps a birth defect that will lead either to early death, or to a lifetime of challenges.

The pressure on such families to abort is often enormous. They are told, “It is the right thing to do,” and, “You should not make the child suffer.” Some are even made to feel they are doing something “unethical” by bringing forth such children. There are also time pressures placed on such parents. Doctors often want the decision to terminate made quickly, within a matter of days.

A life not worth living? There seems to be operative a notion on the part of many in our culture that there is such a thing as a life not worth living. We have stumbled upon the very unusual and tragically ironic concept that death is a form of therapy, that the “treatment” for disabled babies is to kill them. Of course, death is neither a treatment nor a therapy; it cannot be considered a “solution” for the one who loses his or her life. Yet tragically, this is often the advice that many parents with a poor pre-natal diagnosis receive. And further, there is urgent pressure that they terminate the pregnancy now.

Ninety percent are lost.  All this pressure goes a long way toward explaining that just over 90% of families who receive a poor pre-natal diagnosis choose to abort. We in the Church cannot remain silent in the face of this. We must reach out prophetically and compassionately to families in such a crisis. Many of them are devastated by the news that their baby may have serious disabilities. Often they descend into shock and are overwhelmed by fear, conflicting feelings, and even anger at God or others. Sometimes the greatest gifts we can give them are time, information, and the framework of faith. Simply considering some of the following may help:

1. They do not have to rush, despite what they are told. Serious, life-changing decisions should never have to be made within a 48- to 72-hour time period. Pressure should never be applied to families by medical personnel, and the family should consider such pressure a grave injustice.

2. Pre-natal diagnoses are not always right. We often think of medicine as an exact science; it is not. Data can be misinterpreted and premises can sometimes be wrong. Further, there is a difference between the result of a screening and an actual diagnosis. Screenings can point to potential problems and probabilities, but they are not an actual diagnosis. Further study is always needed if a screening indicates potential problems. Quite frequently, further tests after a screening reveal no problem at all.

3. Disabilities are not always as terrible a reality as we, in our “perfect-insistent” world, think. Many people with disabilities live very full lives and are a tremendous gift to their families, the Church, and the world. Providing families with further information about disabilities and connecting them with other families who have experience in these areas are both essential to helping them avoid the doomsday mentality that sometimes sets in when an adverse pre-natal diagnosis is received.

4. For those with faith, it is essential to connect them with the most basic truths of our Christian faith. The cross is an absurdity to the world. But to those of the Christian faith, the cross brings life and blessings, even despite its pain. Were it not for our crosses, most of us could never be saved. Bringing forth a disabled child will not be easy, but God never fails. He can make a way out of no way, and do anything except fail. My own sister was mentally ill and she carried a cross. We too had a share in that cross. But my sister, Mary Anne, brought blessings to our family as well. I don’t know if I’d be a priest today if it were not for her. I am sure I would not be as compassionate, and I doubt I could be saved were it not for the important lessons she taught me. I know she brought out strength and mercy, not to mention humility, from all of us in the family. Her cross and ours brought grace, strength, and many personal gifts to all of us. Yes, the cross is painful, but it brings life as well. Easter Sunday is not possible without Good Friday. To the world, the cross is an absurdity, but to us, who believe it is salvation, it is life, it is our only real hope, it is our truest glory to carry it as Christ did.

5. Disability is not an all-or-nothing thing. Disability exists on a continuum. In some way, all of us are disabled. Some of us have very serious weight problems, others diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, etc. Some of us are intellectually challenged in certain areas. Some of us struggle with anxiety, or depression, or addictions, or compulsions. Some experience losses in mobility through an accident or just due to age. All of us have abilities and disabilities. Some of our disabilities are more visible than others; some disabilities are more serious than others. But in most cases, we are able to adjust to what disables us and still live reasonably full lives. We may not be able to do all we would like, but life still has blessings for us. And even our weaknesses and disabilities can, and do, bring us blessings by helping to keep us humble. How much disability is too much? Can you really be the judge of that? Can you or I really decide for someone else that his or her life is not worth living?

6. Life is not usually what it seems. In this world, we esteem things like wealth, ability, strength, and power. But God is not all that impressed by these sorts of things. God has a special place for the poor and the humble. The Lord has said that many who are last in this life are going to be first in the next (cf Mat 19:30). There is a great reversal coming wherein the mighty are cast down and the lowly are raised up. In this world, we may look upon those who suffer disability with a misplaced sense of pity. But understand this: they are going to be the exalted ones in the kingdom of heaven. As we accept the disabled and the needy into our midst, we are accepting those who will be the royalty in heaven. We ought to learn to look up to them, beg their prayers, and only hope that their coattails may also help us to attain some of the glory they will specially enjoy. They have a dignity that this world may refuse to see, but we who believe cannot fail to remember that the last are going to be first. Life is not always what it seems.

What of those who aborted? We as a Church cannot avoid our responsibility to declare the dignity and worth of the disabled. More than ever, our world needs the Church’s testimony, for it is a startling statistic that 90% of parents choose to abort in cases of a poor pre-natal diagnosis. Even as we witness to the dignity of the disabled, and to the wrongness of abortion in these cases, we must also embrace those who have chosen abortion and now struggle with that choice. We are called to reconcile and to bring healing to all who have faced this crisis and fallen. Many were pressured, and felt alone and afraid. We offer this embrace through confession, and through healing ministries like Project Rachael, which offers counseling, spiritual direction, support groups, and prayer services. Even as the Church is prophetic in speaking against abortion, she must also reconcile those who have fallen under the weight of these heavy issues.

For more information:

  1. National Catholic Partnership on Disability
  2. Project Rachel – Post Abortion Healing
  3. Be Not Afraid – an online outreach to parents who have received a poor or difficult prenatal diagnosis
  4. Parental Partners for Life – Support information & encouragement for carrying to term with an adverse prenatal diagnosis and support for raising your child with special needs after birth

Here’s the video I mentioned above that inspired this memory. In case your browser doesn’t support embedded video, click the direct link: HAPPY World Down Syndrome Day

13 Replies to “Celebrating the dignity of the disabled in a culture that advises aborting them.”

  1. Monsignor Pope,

    Where do aborted babies go? If there parents do not or would not wish to Baptize

    I had a miscarriage and DNC, named my baby Angela Crystal. I wished her baptism.
    Did that apply? Is she in heaven? (I dreamt she was so lovely!!) It’s been 13 years…
    I miss her!

    God bless you! Anna

    1. We don’t absolutely know since God has not revealed it. However, as many recent Popes and theologians remind us, we can be confident of their status with God since God is not unjust, and even more is merciful and well considers the circumstances that prevented sacramental baptism. We are bound by the sacraments, But God is not.

      1. Thanks Msgr. I know people get really agitated that the Church has not taught definitively on the fate of unbaptized children, but in an odd sense it is a call to trust God’s infinite Mercy and Justice.

        1. Thank you, Monsignor. I appreciate your response.

          BTW, in the Philippines my friend says down syndrome babies bring good luck.
          It’s considered a blessing.

  2. I have four wonderful teenagers (yes, they do exist) including one with Down Syndrome. DS causes significant physical and cognitive disability nearly 100% of the time. Caring for a child with DS is the most rewarding and difficult thing a parent can do. The difficulties never end, they are life long and often over whelming. They are a cross, but the rewards do outweigh the challenges. Selfishness evaporates, priorities are rearranged and siblings are truly better for it.

    I was very fortunate to learn during my pregnancy that my daughter had DS after screening alerted me to a higher risk and amneocentesis confirmed. I opted for the testing after experiencing the pain and grief and medical challenges that my sister underwent when her daughter was born with dwarfism with no prenatal diagnosis. I knew that I wanted to know of any medical challenges that needed to be faced and to mourn the loss of my image of the unborn baby before she arrived in my arms, so I would expect and love the child she was. I thank God that I was given a chance to know and therefore could always say, I knew and still I had you. That her siblings will always know that she was as wanted and loved as they are. And that others who may face decisions can see that not everyone who knows, aborts.

    I was blessed with an obgyn and geneticists who never pressured me or tried to change my mind or hurry me. No medical professional ever did. Pressure came from family and friends and co-workers who felt they had our best interests in mind. People who claimed they were against abortion, except for the disabled. I was proud to be a witness to them.

    The worst I had to experience on the whole experience actually came from other faithful Catholics who tried to make me feel guilty for having testing done. Many feel strongly that no testing should be done to learn about disabilities so as not to tempt to abort. I wish there was better Catholic understanding that the value of knowing goes beyond just thinking of abortion, but in learning and loving your child, preparing a medical team and place of birth, prenatal heart screening, preparation, preparing family and friends, time to educate parents on the many, many medical issues and mostly, the ability to always know that you overcame temptation and say “I knew and loved you anyway”. To know you had a choice and chose. Life.

    1. I am certainly glad you kept and raised your beautiful child. But otherwise I don’t quite get the tone of your remarks. Here is a priest on a Church blog trying to speak to the dignity of the disabled but you seem to prefer to accuse “faithful Catholics” and even your family of errors. Frankly having worked in the medical world for a long time, I can attest that the Msgr is right when speaks to pressure that the medical community puts on families to abort babies with a poor pre-natal diagnosis. The statistic that 90% of babies with poor diagnoses including down syndrome are aborted is accurate by my experience. Glad you didn’t have that experience of pressure but it certainly is there. But I sense in your remark a thinly veiled attack on the premise of this article and the only “bad guys” seem to be pro-lifers, “faithful Catholics,” and family members. I don’t quite get it. Maybe my English is poor but I puzzled by your tone.

    2. Like Herr Doctor implies, you ought to forgive faithful Catholics. The Culture of Death racks up victory after victory, so it is very easy for the faithful to get frustrated and say and do things out of that frustration to people who don’t deserve it.

  3. My tone is not intended disrespectfully. My intention is to add the perspective of a parent who has been there and to further express that a problem comes not only from outside our Catholic community but also from within. It is not blame I intend to cast, but a hope to educat others to understand what can be painful so that those who care know how to minister to those during a difficult stage in life. I know how much Msgr cares and respects. He was very much there for me when our family learned of my niece’s diagnosis. Yes, the medical profession has much to learn on this and I wish there was universal acceptance. But I just wanted to express my gratitude and let others know not every Dr pressures.

    1. Yes Herr Doctor, Ann and I go way back, and knowing her as I do I took her remarks in the spirit they were intended and also supplied a correction in an error in the article she pointed out to me. I like you only wish that her experience with the medical profession this matter were typical. Sadly it is not.

  4. First, I like how you pointed out how well you displayed that compassion can be developed by helping others, such as your sister.
    Overall you seem to be pointing to a desire, on the part of many, to create an illusion of perfection by doing away with that (and those) which can easily be seen as imperfect. Yet, under the surface there are the things that are mentioned in, “5.” Intangeable things that can be ignored … for now and for a while.
    In Canada the one cent piece has been done away with. When a register shows a final price as $6.41 and, if I pay with exactly $6.40, the clerk often says, “perfect”
    If the register shows $6.44 and, if I pay with exactly $6.45, the clerk will often say “perfect” I’ve practiced saying, “prefetc” until it flows smoothly off my tongue but, it’s being ignored.
    For the business, the lesser or greater payments round off as decreasing or adding a few cents average out over a vast number of transactions. I’ve asked why the tills are not programmed to do the rounding off and, after a lot of, keep asking, have been told that payments through debit or credit cards don’t involve a one cent coin so, in the final transaction, it doesn’t matter just as deleting and adding for cash transaction averages out so that it also doesn’t matter there over millions of transactions. Are they trying to cover up that everyone is stating that the blatantly imperfect is being accepted as perfect, when two different vaues are called perfect in cash transactions? I don’t know but no one seems willing to comment.
    Deleting the smaller vaue of one or two cents may not matter to support an illusion of perfection but; what about deleting one or two babies (many times over) over millions of births? Is it OK to pretend that they don’t matter if their non existance supports an illusion of perfection? Last night I heard a member of the prayer group talk briefly about the trauma in the post abortion parents and the very real pain and sorrow which they feel. The member is very involved in pro life and the pro life’s display of the havoc caused among the families of the aborted fetus but, will it be hidden from view (helped by its intangeable aspect) and be brushed away in the quest for the “quick fix” of an illusion of perfection.
    For over thirty years I thought I had a quick fix in the illusion of perfection found in bottles, reefers, crack pipes, chasing dragons and worse. Finally the pain made it no longer possible to live in an illusion of perfection and I knew that I had to open my eyes and ears as in Isaiah 6:9&10 which was quoted in Matthew 13. Matthew 13, which was my bible reading today as I wend my way through the bible for the third time – a few chapters per day.
    As an aside; could someone please tell me where to find the oft mentioned “harsh God of the Old Testament”
    Three times through the Old Testament and I can’t find it. Or have they heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody who heard… Such things get distorted as they are passed on from an un-memorized, and therefore altered, recall. I’d like a quote (or quotes) that can be openly discussed in their context. Or can such a concept only exist in the darkness where one can find the illusion of perfection? John 3:19-21.

  5. In fact just last week a new report came out saying that 95% of parents who find out their unborn child has Downs will abort them. This is just the most heartbreaking reality of them all!

    We have a young man in our parish who has Down Syndrome. He is the altar server (by himself) at our 8:00 mass every Sunday. His masses are perfect; just like him. He IS what the good Lord intended him to be. How many answers to our problems have we thrown away with these aborted children? May God have mercy on us all!

  6. Singer, song-writer and tenor Andrea Boccelli once sang a song during a concert, paying tribute to the courageous mothers such as his. He said that when she was expecting him, she became ill and that the doctor gave her a pre-natal diagnosis. The physician said her child would probably be born with a serious disability, but he didn’t know which. So she kept faith and chose to continue her pregnancy. Little Andrea was born with a poor eye-sight (he became permanently blind later in life).
    However,he was gifted with a great musical talent and a voice that is a gift to the world.

  7. Sadly, this is our culture of perfection. When mothers contract rubella or other viral diseases that cause developmental problems in the baby, the doctors recommend abortion. Here is one lovely lady whose mother said NO to the doctors and let God decide: http://www.vijayabodach.com/Sangeeta's%20Silent%20World.htm

    My husband and I are often criticized because we were compelled to reverse the vasectomy after our conversion. We are not spring chickens … but we hope and pray for a little blessing, whether or not he or she is perfect in the eyes of the world. Domine non sum dignus.

    I wonder about all the beautiful people who are not living here on earth because their life was snuffed out. I wonder about the children God would’ve given to us had we not sterilized our marriage. Please pray for us.

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