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:
- National Catholic Partnership on Disability
- Project Rachel – Post Abortion Healing
- Be Not Afraid – an online outreach to parents who have received a poor or difficult prenatal diagnosis
- 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