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Accepting the Disabled in a World Obsessed with Physical Perfection

June 15, 2016
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Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lipplemann, Catholic Standard

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Pope Francis recently lamented the obsession of modern society with perfect bodies. Although our first thought on contemplating this might be cosmetics and plastic surgery, he was actually speaking about our increasing rejection of the disabled and the sick.

This rejection is perhaps most sadly evidenced by the fact that more than 90% of unborn children with a “poor prenatal diagnosis” are aborted. Perhaps the parents are informed that their child will have Down Syndrome, or maybe that the child has a birth defect that will lead to a lifetime of challenges or even to an early death.

The pressure on such families to abort is often enormous. They are told, “It’s the right thing to do,” or, “You shouldn’t make the child suffer.” Some are even made to feel that they are doing something unethical by bringing forth such children. In addition, parents are often pressured to make a decision quickly; doctors often want the decision to terminate made within a matter of days.

Is there such a thing as a life not worth living? Many in our culture seem to believe that there is. There has arisen the tragically ironic idea that death is a form of therapy, that an appropriate treatment for disabled unborn children is to kill them. Of course death is neither a treatment nor a therapy; it cannot be considered an acceptable solution for the one who loses his or her life. Yet this is often the advice that parents in this situation are given.

All of this “advice” and pressure goes a long way toward explaining why more than 90% of unborn children with a poor prenatal diagnosis are aborted. We in the Church cannot remain silent in the face of this; we must reach out compassionately to families experiencing 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 towards 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. Despite what parents are told, there is no rush. Serious, life-changing decisions should never have to be made within a short time period. Pressure should not be applied to families (by medical personnel or others); doing so is a grave injustice.
  2. Prenatal diagnoses are not always accurate. We often think of medicine as an exact science; it is not. Data can be misinterpreted and predictions can be wrong. Further, there is a difference between the result of a screening and an actual diagnosis. A screening can point to a potential problem and assess its probability, but it is not a diagnosis. Further study is always called for if a screening indicates a possible issue. Sometimes, further tests after a screening reveal that in fact there isn’t a problem at all.
  3. As the Pope pointed out, disabilities are not always as terrible as we, in our insistence on perfection, might imagine. Many people with disabilities live very full lives and are a tremendous gift to their families, the Church, and the world. Providing families with more information about disabilities and connecting them with other families who have experience is essential in helping them to avoid the doomsday mentality that sometimes sets in when an adverse prenatal diagnosis is received.
  4. It is vital to connect the faithful with the most basic truths of our Christian faith. The cross is an absurdity to this world, but to those of the Christian faith it brings life and blessings in spite of the pain. Were it not for our crosses, most of us could never be saved. Raising a disabled child is not easy, but God never fails. He can make a way out of no way; He can do anything except fail. My own sister, Mary Anne, was mentally ill and carried a cross. We, her family, had a share in that cross. But Mary Anne brought blessings to us as well. In fact, I don’t know if I’d be a priest today if it had not been for her. I’m sure that I wouldn’t be as compassionate, and I doubt that I could be saved were it not for the important lessons Mary Anne taught me. I know that 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. The cross is painful, but it brings life as well. Easter Sunday is not possible without Good Friday. Yes, to the world the cross is an absurdity. To us who believe, it is salvation, life, and our only real hope; it is our truest glory to carry it as Christ did.
  5. Disability is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Disability exists on a continuum. All of us are disabled in some way. Some of us have serious weight problems; others are diabetic, have high blood pressure, or experience heart problems. Some are intellectually challenged in certain areas. Others struggle with anxiety, depression, addiction, or compulsion. Some experience a loss of mobility as a result of an accident or just due to the aging process. The fact is, all of us have abilities and disabilities. Some disabilities are more visible than others; some are more serious than others. But in most cases, we are able to adjust and still live reasonably full lives. We may not be able to do all that 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 we really be the judge of that? Can we really decide for someone else that his or her life is not worth living?
  6. Life is often not what it seems. In this world, we value 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 will be first in the next (cf Mat 19:30). There is a great reversal coming, wherein the mighty will be cast down and the lowly raised up. We may look upon those who suffer disability with a misplaced sense of pity, but they are going to be the exalted ones in the kingdom of Heaven. As we accept the disabled and the needy in our midst, we are accepting those who will be royalty in Heaven. We ought to learn to look up to them, to beg their prayers, and to hope that hanging on their coattails may help us to attain some of the glory they will specially enjoy. The world may refuse to see their dignity, but we who believe cannot fail to remember that the last shall be first. Yes, life is not always what it seems.

What about those who aborted their babies? 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 this 90% statistic is a startling one. But even as we witness to the dignity of the disabled and to the wrongness of abortion, we must also embrace those who chose abortion and now struggle with that decision. 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 Rachel, which offers counseling, spiritual direction, support groups, and prayer services. Even as the Church speaks out against abortion, she must also reconcile those who have fallen under the weight of these heavy issues.

Tomorrow I will write a little bit more on this topic and present a parable of sorts.

Here are some resources for more information:

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  1. I just finished reading the book “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck” by Adam Cohen.
    In the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution, a wave of social Darwinism in the early 1900’s gave birth the the ideology of eugenics, the idea that some humans were genetically superior to others and we ought to suppress the birth or end the lives of the inferior. Eugenics pervaded society and inspired Margaret Sanger to champion birth control for the ‘inferior races’ and disabled whom she called “human weeds.
    The Supreme Court codified this idea in the infamous 1927 “Buck V Bell” decision where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes approving of the sterilization of those the State deemed ‘feebleminded’ said in the 8-1 majority decision; “Three generations of imbeciles are enough!”
    This ideology led directly to the Nazi holocaust, which began with the slaughter of the disabled in the T4 Program, in fact at Nuremberg the “Buck V Bell” decision was cited by those seeking to excuse their participation in the Concentration Camps.

    We congratulate ourselves on having progressed since then; yet we have merely shifted the ‘responsibility’ of killing those deemed inferior to their mothers. I interviewed many mothers of special needs children for my book “A Special Mother is Born” and some claimed the pressure to abort from their doctors was so great, they even tried to make them feel guilty of imposing a disabled sibling on their children. All of these moms said they can’t imagine life without the love of their child. Thank God they are the valiant 10%, braver than those who colluded with the Nazis, and the Supreme Court.

  2. Fr Stephen Petrica says:

    Five years ago I was tentatively diagnosed with a genetic condition that typically leads to blindness. Happily, after a terribly anxious year or two, the doctors concluded that the diagnosis was unlikely. But during that time it occurred to me that mine was the kind of condition that if it were diagnosed in their unborn child, many women would choose abortion. I had already been pro-life for decades, but this made abortion a very personal matter for me. I didn’t relish the prospect of blindness, but never did I think that death would be the preferred alternative.