I have always felt the need to justify not only my desire for basic human goods, such as affection and employment, but my very existence. My childhood was not to blame, as my parents ensured that I had everything to help me succeed professionally and thrive as a human being. I had no shortage of coaches, teachers, and professors who believed in me and encouraged me to reach my full potential. I had all I needed to flourish, yet I felt compelled to prove that I deserved to flourish.
The source of my anxiety was not hard to find. It was and is all around me: in countless public interactions in which I am assumed incompetent, in educational settings where I have to spend more time begging for equal access than actually learning, and in futile attempts to obtain employment, in which my credentials are dismissed and my seriousness constantly questioned. All of this is because I am blind, a disability still equated with darkness, ignorance, and tragedy. But the source goes deeper still. As a person born with what society deems a severe disability, I am among those who are considered disposable before birth—burdens from which others should free themselves if they can.
My parents never gave me reason to think they saw me as a burden; quite the contrary. During my childhood, they fought tirelessly against an often-intransigent school system to ensure that I had my course materials in braille and wasn’t treated like a dangerous criminal when my cane bumped another student in my school’s crowded hallways. And when my college threw up its hands at the prospect of converting my textbooks to braille or another accessible format, my mother put her life on hold to do it herself. My parents were my advocates and defenders for many years, until I was able to take on that role for myself. And I never questioned the depth and power of their love for me, their only child.
But I did question—how could I not?—whether I would have been their child, if they had known of my blindness before they knew me. My parents, like many in their situation, initially struggled with the prospect of raising a disabled child, dismayed by what they thought it would mean for their lives. They were and are pro-choice, as I was until about six years ago. And when, as a teenager, I asked my mother whether she would have had an abortion if she’d known of my blindness before my birth, she told me that she didn’t know.
I grew up in a secular progressive household, and I thought, like many secular progressives, that religions such as Catholicism were little more than atavistic, reactionary attempts to cling to a past that the vanguard of the human race, which of course included me, had long since overcome. I had little interest in organized religion and certainly no interest in Catholicism, with its complex hierarchies, outmoded rules about family planning, and prohibitions on women assuming certain leadership roles in the Church.
That all changed after I fell in love with and married my wife, who lives the love that, I now see, animates the entire Catholic faith. But even as I overcame my materialism and decided to become Catholic, I faced several stumbling blocks. Chief among these was the Church’s uncompromising opposition to abortion. Could I really embrace such an “extreme” position? As the son of a proudly feminist pro-choice mother, could I subscribe to a view that, I then believed, consigned women to permanent inferiority by stripping them of control over their bodies?
I understood the Catholic position’s logic. If human life begins at conception, it must be protected. But I struggled to accept the implications of that position, and I sought some creative way to retain my pro-choice orientation while still becoming a good Catholic. Perhaps I could follow the familiar path of keeping my religious views out of the public square, of being opposed to abortion in my private life while somehow never getting around to supporting any legal limitations on the practice.
The artificiality—indeed, the absurdity—of this compromise came crashing in on me one day, as I sat through a session of my RCIA program on abortion. At the beginning of class, my eyes would have rolled out of their sockets, had I been capable of moving them. (My eyes generally stay closed, and I cannot move them voluntarily.) But by the end, it was all I could do to keep those same eyes from overflowing with tears. As the presenter droned on, repeating arguments and statistics I had heard and dismissed countless times before, God decided to rip away the cataracts that had long covered the eyes of my heart.
The hard truth that I could have been a casualty of abortion if my disability had been detected before birth hit me with the force of a freight train. For the first time, I faced the real cause of my existential anxiety. My stance on abortion, especially the abortion of disabled children, was tied directly to whether I accepted that I had worth as a beloved child of God, or whether I planned to continue singing for my existential supper.
I inhabit a society that regularly kills people like me in utero. Though there are no comprehensive data in this country on the percentage of disabled children whose lives end through abortion, between 67 and 90 percent of children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome never see the light of day. By some estimates, roughly three thousand infants with Down syndrome are aborted in this country each year. This may surprise those who believe that more social support would decrease the number of disability-based abortions, but progressive Denmark has a 95 percent abortion rate for children with Down syndrome. The United Kingdom, at 90 percent, is not far behind, and a British court recently upheld a law permitting children with Down syndrome or other disabilities to be aborted at any time before birth, while protecting non-disabled children after twenty-four weeks’ gestation. Around 80 percent of children in the U.S. with “life-limiting” diagnoses, including such disorders as Trisomies 13 and 18, anencephaly, and several other potentially fatal conditions, are deprived through abortion of a chance at life, limited or otherwise. And about 90 percent of children with cystic fibrosis are aborted, even though modern medical science now allows people with this disability to go to college, have jobs, and live, on average, well into their forties.
In the secular progressive milieu in which I was raised, my worth, and that of countless disabled children, depended on whether others thought us worthy of life before knowing us. In the world I was now entering, where the Catholic sun shone, my worth and that of all my disabled brothers and sisters, born and unborn, was non-negotiable and inalienable. Our existence was already justified—by the ultimate sacrifice Christ made for all of us on Calvary.
This is not to condemn as evil those who, upon hearing that their child will have a disability, decide to obtain an abortion. I know well that our society is awash in negative preconceptions, stereotypes, and flat-out falsehoods about disabled people. The pressure to abort that the medical establishment exerts upon the parents of children prenatally diagnosed with a disability is, alas, well documented. It would be the exceedingly rare pro-choice person who would not consider abortion in the face of such pressure and fear.
Nevertheless, there is but one answer to the question whether it should ever be permissible to obtain an abortion following a prenatal disability diagnosis: a resounding and uncompromising “no.” Our worth—my worth—is not dependent on our productive capacities, our intellectual abilities, the functioning of our sense organs, or anything other than our membership in the human race, each one of us lovingly made in God’s image. No one should ever feel the need to justify his existence, as I once did and often still do. No one should have to prove that he is not Lebensunwertes Leben—“life unworthy of life.”
But until we eliminate the culture of elimination—the culture that claims to care about people with disabilities once we are born, but encourages our erasure from existence if our disabilities are discovered before our birth—many of us will carry this hidden burden. And far, far too many of us will be snuffed out, casualties of a slow-motion genocide, a form of eugenics in all but name. I thus hope and pray that, as the Supreme Court revisits its decision in Roe v. Wade to create a constitutional right to abortion, a decision that has been interpreted as protecting the “right” to target disabled children for abortion, it hears the silenced voices of the uncounted thousands of disabled children who will never get the chance to plead before it for their right to life.
James Fetter writes from Lake Wylie, South Carolina.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?