Last week, Glee aired a “ripped from the headlines” episode meant to capitalize on the debate over gun control. According to the Washington Post, the program featured “long, unsettling stretches of students sitting in the darkness, hiding under tables and desks and sobbing, while leaving devastating video messages for their loved ones, as they waited to see what was going to happen.” Dramatic stuff, and not without controversy; the Newtown Action Alliance, a gun-control advocacy group, urged supporters not to watch.
The gunplay which prompted the dramatics turned out not to be part of a Sandy Hook–style attack on Glee’s fictional McKinley High. Rather, Becky—the character with Down syndrome—brought her father’s gun to school and fired it by accident.
The National Down Syndrome Society was quick to call the decision to make Becky the shooter a “poor choice.” Much of the online reaction from friends and families of people living with Down syndrome was also critical. A blogger asked, “Was Glee school shooting episode offensive to people with Down syndrome?” Many feared that an equivalency was being drawn between developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome and the violent mental illness that appears to have been responsible for the violence in Newtown.
I share this concern, if not the outrage. Down syndrome is generally not associated in the public mind with unhinged or violent behavior. In fact, the reverse is often true. People with Down syndrome have a reputation for being gentle and full of love. While these traits are not universal—my own daughter is what you might call a handful—they are common enough that it’s hard to see how a single plot line on a once-popular program could do any harm to the way people with Down syndrome are perceived and treated. If Becky is supposed to be just one of the kids at McKinley High, then she ought to be just as likely to bring a gun to school (or drive drunk, or sing off-key) as any of the other characters on Glee.
That’s not to say that I’m entirely comfortable with how the material was handled. Early in the episode, before firing the shots, Becky (played by Lauren Potter) tells a friend, “The world out there is really scary . . . Someday, they will make me leave here and I don’t know what I'm going to do.” When asked later by Coach Sue Sylvester (played by series star Jane Lynch) why she brought the gun to school, Becky says, “I was scared, Coach, about graduating, being out in the world with no one to protect me.”
The observant will detect in these lines a hint of an emergent thought pattern that is gaining traction among abortion advocates. It is the notion that people with Down syndrome can’t take care of themselves. It is the notion that they are a financial burden to society.
There was a time when the principal argument in favor of aborting fetuses with Down syndrome rested on the diminished quality of life believed to be associated with the condition. Pregnant women were frequently counseled to abort on the grounds that their children wouldn't live long or healthy lives. Why bring a child into the world just to watch him or her suffer?
But life expectancies for people with Down syndrome have increased dramatically, from just twenty-five in 1983 to around sixty today. One in ten individuals with Down syndrome lives to be seventy years old. And advances in cognitive and physical therapies have ensured that people with Down syndrome are living full and ordinary lives. Indeed, Lauren Potter’s successful acting career is testament to that.
But living longer has brought with it other challenges for people with Down syndrome. Many develop a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s while still in their fifties. Since advanced maternal age is a risk factor for conceiving a child with Down syndrome, many with the condition outlive their parents. These days, the argument for aborting fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome revolves around a different question: Who’s going to pay for your child’s health care when you’re gone?
In the age of Obamacare, the state has an obvious financial interest in every citizen’s health and well-being. It’s easy to imagine how this interest could be used to justify intervention in all manner of previously personal choices ranging from smoking cigarettes to drinking oversize sodas to bringing a baby with Down syndrome to term.
I know the producers of Glee weren’t looking to comment on the abortion debate. They were after ratings. Maybe they thought they'd be able to do some good by getting folks talking about gun control. But I can imagine a time—probably not far off—when water cooler discussions about an au courant television episode won’t be about whether it was unwise to have a developmentally disabled character bring a gun to school. Rather, they will be about whether Becky’s parents considered the costs to the rest of us when they brought a developmentally disabled child into the world.
Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor who lives in New Canaan, Connecticut. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHennessey.