In 1982, I was appalled when I read about the Baby Doe controversy in which the parents of a newborn boy with Down Syndrome refused a common but life-saving surgery, leaving him to die of starvation and dehydration while lawyers were appealing his case to the US Supreme Court. Four months later, I gave birth my third child, a beautiful little girl named Karen Ann who had Down Syndrome and a major heart defect. Picture of Karen’s homecoming.
.In 2000, I wrote an article about Karen. I reprint it here in honor of my Karen and Down Syndrome Awareness month:
“Who Wants a “Defective” Baby?”
“Of course, no one wants to adopt a defective baby. ” This was said with much emotion (and not much charm) by an older gentleman in a class at a local university where I was speaking this past April. I had been invited to discuss the legalities and effects of Roe v. Wade from a pro-life point of view to a class of senior citizens studying the Constitution and the Supreme Court.
While several of these senior citizen students defended abortion as a matter of complete privacy for the mother, their arguments centered around the “need” for legalized abortion as a solution for social problems.
Since I had told the story of my daughter Karen, born in 1982 with Down Syndrome and a severe heart defect, the pro-abortion students were extremely vocal about the personal and societal justifications for aborting a baby like Karen. Hence the statement about no one wanting to adopt a “defective” baby.
“Happily, sir,” I told the senior student, “You are wrong. Even back when I had Karen, I found out from the National Down Syndrome Association that there was a list of people waiting to adopt a baby with Down Syndrome. Just the night before, I added, I had found a new website for matching prospective parents with children who had chromosomal and physical defects.
The student refused to believe that this could be true.
The effects of Roe v. Wade
Life of the mother, incest, rape and fetal defect are the four hard cases usually cited to justify what has now become abortion on demand. All of these are uncommon reasons given in the estimated 1.3 million abortions every year; but the possibility of having a child with a birth defect is a common fear nearly all expectant mothers experience and, not surprisingly, polls show that the majority of the public support abortion in this circumstance.
Although I have always been pro-life, I could understand the fear underlying these poll results. Then my own daughter was born.
Just two weeks before the birth of my daughter Karen, I saw a mother trying to pry her young son with Down Syndrome away from a display case at the supermarket. She looked exhausted.
“Please, Lord,” I silently prayed, “Let this baby be ok. I can handle anything but Down’s.”
When Karen was born with Down Syndrome, I was stunned. But I was quickly put in touch with mothers from the Down Syndrome Association who replaced my fears with information and realistic hope.
Then a doctor told me the truly bad news. Karen had a heart defect, one so severe that it seemed inoperable and she was not expected to live more than 2 months. That certainly put things in the proper perspective.
What “pro-choice” really means
It turned out later that Karen’s heart defect was not quite as bad as originally thought and could be corrected with one open-heart surgery, but I was shocked when the cardiologist told me he would support me 100% if I decided not to agree to the surgery and allow her to die. This was especially hard to hear because, as a nurse, I knew that the doctor would have been otherwise enthusiastic about an operation offering a 90% chance of success — if my child didn’t also have Down Syndrome. Apparently, even though Karen was now a legal person according to Roe v. Wade by the fact of her birth, this non-treatment option could act as a kind of 4th trimester abortion.
It was then that I realized what pro-choice really meant: Choice says it doesn’t really matter if a particular child lives or dies. Choice says the only thing that really matters is how I feel about this child and my circumstances. I may be “Woman Hear Me Roar” in other areas according to the militant feminists, but I was not necessarily strong enough for a child like this.
I also finally figured out that Roe v. Wade’s effects went far beyond the proverbial desperate woman determined to end her pregnancy either legally or illegally. The abortion mentality had so corrupted society that it even endangered children like my Karen after birth. Too many people, like the student in Supreme Court class, unfortunately viewed Karen as a tragedy to be prevented.
Medical progress or search and destroy?
In the late 1950s, a picture of the unborn baby using sound waves became the first technique developed to provide a window to the womb. Ultrasound in recent years has been used to save countless lives by showing women that they were carrying a living human being rather than the clump of cells often referred to in abortion clinics.
But while expectant parents now routinely and proudly show ultrasound pictures of their developing baby, there is a darker side to prenatal testing. Besides ultrasound, which can show some birth defects, blood tests like AFP testing and the Triple Screen to test for neural tube defects or Down Syndrome are now becoming a routine part of prenatal care. Amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling are also widely available tests to detect problems in the developing baby. It seems that every year, new testing techniques are tried and older ones refined in the quest to find birth defects prenatally.
97% of the time, women receive the good news that their baby seems fine; but the tests are not foolproof, and they can only test for hundreds of the thousands of known birth defects. Relatively few such birth defects can be treated in the womb at the present time. Some women want testing so that they can prepare for a child who has a birth defect, but when the tests do show a possible problem like Down Syndrome, up to 90% of women will abort.
While some hail prenatal testing as a way to prevent birth defects, the effects of such testing has led to what author Barbara Katz Rothman calls the “tentative pregnancy” in her 1993 book of the same name. Although Rothman calls herself pro-choice, her studies of women considering amniocentesis led to her conclusion that such testing has changed the normal maternal-child bonding in pregnancy and the experience of motherhood, usually for the worse.
“I might not be pregnant”
I observed this firsthand several years ago when I ran into an acquaintance and congratulated her on her obvious pregnancy. I was stunned when she replied, “Don’t congratulate me yet. I might not be pregnant.”
“Diane”, the mother of a 5-year-old boy, went on to explain that she was awaiting the results of an amniocentesis and said, “I know what you went through with your daughter but I can’t give up my life like that. If this (the baby) is Down’s, it’s gone.”
I reassured her that the test would almost surely show that her baby was ok, but I added that if the results were not what she expected I would like her to call me. I promised that I would give her any help she needed throughout the pregnancy and that my husband and I or even another couple would be willing to adopt her baby. She was surprised, as I later found out, both by my reaction and the information about adoption.
Diane gave birth to a healthy baby girl a few months later and apologized for her comments, saying that she probably would not have had an abortion anyway. But I understood her terrible anxiety. Society itself seems to have a rather schizophrenic attitude towards children with disabilities.
On one hand, people are inspired by the stories of people who have disabilities and support organizations like the Special Olympics; but, on the other hand, many people consider it almost irresponsible to bring a child with disabilities into the world to suffer when prenatal testing and abortion are so available.
But as the vast majority of parents who are either natural or adoptive parents of children with disabilities will attest, all children are born with both special gifts and special limitations. No child should be denied birth because of a disability or even a limited life expectancy.
Women who do abort after a diagnosis of a birth defect are also hurt. Besides depriving themselves of the special joys — which occur along with the difficulties — of loving and caring for such a child, these women often experience unresolved grief, guilt and second-guessing instead of the relief and peace they expect.
A few years ago, a local hospital which performs late-term abortions for birth defects asked a miscarriage and stillbirth counseling group to help with their distressed patients. The group declined, citing the fact that the most reassuring message they give grieving mothers is that there is nothing they did or didn’t do that caused the death of their babies. Obviously, that was not a statement they could make to mothers who abort. There is a very real difference between losing and terminating a child.
How many of these mothers knew before their abortions that, in practical terms, there has never been a better array of services and support for children with disabilities and their parents? Or that their children were dearly wanted by prospective adoptive parents? Such information might have been just the support they needed to choose life for their children.
Despite the best medical care, my Karen died at the age of 5 and 1/2 months, but the impact of her life has lived on. At her funeral Mass, the priest talked about how this child who never walked or talked had transformed the lives of those who met her.
After Karen died, I sat down and tried to put into words what Karen and all children with disabilities have to teach the rest of us. The following reflection was published in the National Down Syndrome Association newsletter in May, 1984.
THINGS NO TEACHER EVER TAUGHT
In 1982 my daughter, Karen, was born with Down Syndrome and a severe heart defect. Less than six months later she died of complications of pneumonia. Karen may have been retarded but she taught me things no teacher ever did.
Karen taught me:
That life isn’t fair — to anyone. That self-pity can be an incapacitating disease. That God is better at directing my life than I am. That there are more caring people in the world than I knew. That Down Syndrome is an inadequate description of a person. That I am not “perfect” either, just human. That asking for help and support is not a sign of weakness. That every child is truly a gift from God. That joy and pain can be equally deep. That you can never lose when you love. That every crisis contains opportunity for growth. That sometimes the victory is in trying rather than succeeding. That every person has a special purpose in life.
That I needed to worry less and celebrate more.