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« Pictures Worth 1,000 Words | Main | For too many, life is cheap »

January 22, 2007

The Sweeter World We Abandon

George Will's Newsweek column about his son with Down syndrome is a must-read. As is Anthony Esolen's piece "Davey's Song," in the current issue of Touchstone (hard copy only), about his son, Davey, who is autistic.

The pieces are quite different, to be sure. Will focuses on the matter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommending universal genetic counseling and diagnostic testing for all pre-born babies, in order to identify children with Down syndrome:

The ACOG guidelines are formally neutral concerning what decisions parents should make on the basis of the information offered. But what is antiseptically called "screening" for Down syndrome is, much more often than not, a search-and-destroy mission: At least 85 percent of pregnancies in which Down syndrome is diagnosed are ended by abortions.

Medicine now has astonishing and multiplying abilities to treat problems of unborn children in utero, but it has no ability to do anything about Down syndrome (the result of an extra 21st chromosome). So diagnosing Down syndrome can have only the purpose of enabling—and, in a clinically neutral way, of encouraging—parents to choose to reject people like Jon as unworthy of life. And as more is learned about genetic components of other abnormalities, search-and-destroy missions will multiply.

Esolen focuses much more on his son's amazing abilities and sweet spirit, though not without admitting the attendant difficulties:

[I]t is disconcerting to know that, unless the Lord who made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak should will the miracle, it is not likely that Davey will ever really know what his father or his mother loved deeply, or feared, or longed for. That particular bond of understanding which parents take for granted, we will miss.

Yet, as if by compensation, I have never met anyone, child or adult, who so warmly loves people, even a grownup who is too important and busy to recognize the love.

Esolen goes on to explain how he and others who know Davey recognize that the boy simply cannot lie, and observes:

Therefore, he cannot feign emotion.  He cannot do what the rest of us more ordinary autists do all the time: stand at the door, bidding farewell, while counting the minutes, and reckoning up what we will do with the rest of the day once the friend has left.

So what ties them together for me? I confess that I cannot put my finger upon it precisely, except that it seems to me that we miss the trees for the forest (yes, you read that correctly) when it comes to considering and valuing children who are extremely different than the others. Note that I didn't refer to them as disabled. More and more, I'm wondering if they really are "malfunctioning," as we currently deem them via more sophisticated words. In fact, I start to wonder if I don't wish I had some of what they have. When Will claims that, if it weren't for the high rate of Down syndrome baby abortions, "there would be more people like Jon, and the world would be a sweeter place," doesn't this seems absolutely and obviously true?

And so I just wonder what on earth we are doing to the human race sometimes. I think the answer to the implicit question is somewhere in Esolen's self-critique:

For a year or two, when [Davey] was more than a toddler and still not talking ... I would lie awake at night, brooding about it, sometimes weeping, pretending that I felt sorry for Davey, but really feeling sorry for myself.

That's understandable, the sympathetic reader may say. True, it is understandable.  Here I was given a jewel to care for, a human being of incomparable worth, as all human beings are, but this one unusually innocent, and as odd as the shiest of woodpeckers drumming deep in the forest.

And for all that, at times I felt grief, not gratitude. It was if I had childishly stamped my foot before my Maker - little understanding that from the point of view of the Lord, it was I who dwelt in my own universe, and Davey who was sent to break me from that shell.

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