Iceland Is Not Alone in “Freezing Out” the Disabled

Most of you have probably heard or read the reports trumpeting the “eradication” of Down syndrome in Iceland). The problem is that what is being termed “eradicating” the “problem” actually means that those with Down syndrome are being put to death. The celebratory language is all too similar to the way we once spoke of wiping out malaria by killing infected mosquitoes. But of course children in the womb are not mosquitoes; they are human beings, love and willed by God. Imagine saying that we had eradicated malaria by killing every person who had it!

A low point in the article linked above comes at the end, when a proponent of aborting babies who likely have Down syndrome is quoted as saying,

“We don’t look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication … preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder—that’s so black and white. Life is gray.”

Well, pardon me for considering murder to be so black and white! One minute a heart is beating heart, the next minute it’s not. The “thing” that you ended is a human life. Calling such a child a “possible life” is scientifically dishonest. A beating heart does not exist in something that is possibly alive; he or she is alive. No linguistic gymnastics can legitimately describe the situation otherwise.

Further, “preventing suffering” by killing the patient is an illustration of the twisted logic of the culture of death. Death is the increasing being proposed as the solution to today’s problems. If you—or more perniciously, “we”—decide that your life is not worth living, we will kill you and call ourselves compassionate for doing so.

The greatest tragedy in all of this is that we veto the gift of God. Some of God’s gifts come in paradoxical packages; those with disabilities and special needs have much to teach us and many ways to bless us. Without them we may never reach our full humanity, which is meant to include compassion, humility, reverence, and respect. Not one of us is perfect. All of us have difficulties that require support from others. When we forget or reject this we lose an important aspect of our humanity: interdependence.

Iceland is not alone in this; much of the rest of the world has also refused to accept the disabled into our communities.

Here in the United States, this is perhaps most sadly evidenced by the fact that more than 90% of unborn children with poor prenatal diagnoses are aborted. Perhaps the parents are informed that their child will have Down syndrome or a birth defect that will lead to a lifetime of challenges and an early death.

The pressure placed on such families to abort is often enormous. They are told, “It’s the right thing to do,” or, “You shouldn’t make your 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 may 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. A “therapy” increasingly proposed in today’s culture of death is killing the patient in order to solve the “problem.” People, it would seem, do not have problems, they are the problem, and thus their elimination makes the problem go away. Never mind that a human person of inestimable value is actually killed … Problem solved! Thus has arisen idea 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 given to parents faced with this situation.

All of this “advice” and pressure goes a long way toward explaining the dismal abortion rates of the potentially disabled unborn. 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 emotions, and even anger toward 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 period of time. Pressure should not be applied to families (by medical personnel or others) in order to force a quick decision; doing so is a grave injustice.
  2. Prenatal screenings 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 definitive diagnosis. Further study is always called for if a screening indicates a possible issue. Sometimes, further testing reveals that in fact there isn’t a problem at all.
  3. As Pope Francis has 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 tremendous gifts 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 can easily set in.
  4. It is vital to connect the faithful with the most basic truths of our Christian faith. To the world, the cross is an absurdity, 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; it exists on a continuum. All of us are disabled in some way. Some have serious weight problems; others are diabetic, have high blood pressure, or experience heart problems. Some are intellectually challenged. 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. In most cases, though, 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. He 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 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 having made 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:

National Catholic Partnership on Disability
Project Rachel (Post-abortion healing)
Be Not Afraid (Outreach to parents who have received a difficult prenatal diagnosis)
Parental Partners for Life (Support information and encouragement for carrying to term after receiving an adverse prenatal diagnosis as well as support for raising a child with special needs)