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We’ve heard a lot during this election season about the historic nature of the contest—and the contestants. At first it was either Hillary or Obama—the first female nominee or the first black nominee. Now it’s either Palin or Obama—the first female Vice President or the first black President.

The civil rights movements for women and blacks are well-known, and it is good that these barriers are being broken. Yet Michael Gerson suggests that “there was a third civil rights barrier broken at the political conventions this year” :

Trig Paxson Van Palin — pronounced by his mother “beautiful” and “perfect” and applauded at center stage of the Republican convention — smashed the chromosomal barrier. And it was all the more moving for the innocence and indifference of this 4-month-old civil rights leader.

Gerson has penned a wonderful column, and it is well worth your time to read it all. But here’s one more taste:

Trig’s moment in the spotlight is a milestone of that movement. But it comes at a paradoxical time. Unlike what is accorded African Americans and women, civil rights protections for people with Down syndrome have rapidly eroded over the past few decades. Of the cases of Down syndrome diagnosed by prenatal testing each year, about 90 percent are eliminated by abortion. Last year the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended universal, early testing for Down syndrome — not just for older pregnant women. Some expect this increased screening to reduce the number of Down syndrome births to something far lower than the 5,500 we see today, perhaps to fewer than 1,000.

The wrenching diagnosis of 47 chromosomes must seem to parents like the end of a dream instead of the beginning of a life. But children born with Down syndrome — who learn slowly but love deeply — are generally not experienced by their parents as a curse but as a complex blessing. And when allowed to survive, men and women with an extra chromosome experience themselves as people with abilities, limits and rights. Yet when Down syndrome is detected through testing, many parents report that genetic counselors and physicians emphasize the difficulties of raising a child with a disability and urge abortion.

This is properly called eugenic abortion — the ending of “imperfect” lives to remove the social, economic and emotional costs of their existence. And this practice cannot be separated from the broader social treatment of people who have disabilities. By eliminating less perfect humans, deformity and disability become more pronounced and less acceptable. Those who escape the net of screening are often viewed as mistakes or burdens. A tragic choice becomes a presumption — “Didn’t you get an amnio?” — and then a prejudice. And this feeds a social Darwinism in which the stronger are regarded as better, the dependent are viewed as less valuable, and the weak must occasionally be culled.

Gerson’s op-ed ran in today’s Washington Post . And on the front page of today’s Post is this heart-wrenching yet heart-warming story of a father’s love for his son .

If you ever ran into Nokesville dad Thomas S. Vander Woude, chances are you would also see his son Joseph. Whether Vander Woude was volunteering at church, coaching basketball or working on his farm, Joseph was often right there with him, pitching in with a smile, friends and neighbors said yesterday.

When Joseph, 20, who has Down syndrome, fell into a septic tank Monday in his back yard, Vander Woude jumped in after him. He saved him. And he died where he spent so much time living: at his son’s side.

“That’s how he lived,” Vander Woude’s daughter-in-law and neighbor, Maryan Vander Woude, said yesterday. “He lived sacrificing his life, everything, for his family.”

Vander Woude, 66, had gone to Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville on Monday, just as he did every day, and then worked in the yard with Joseph, the youngest of his seven sons, affectionately known as Josie. Joseph apparently fell through a piece of metal that covered a 2-by-2-foot opening in the septic tank, according to Prince William County police and family members.

Vander Woude rushed to the tank; a workman at the house saw what was happening and told Vander Woude’s wife, Mary Ellen, police said. They called 911 about 12 p.m. and tried to help the father and son in the meantime.

At some point, Vander Woude jumped in the tank, submerging himself in sewage so he could push his son up from below and keep his head above the muck, while Joseph’s mom and the workman pulled from above.

When rescue workers arrived, they pulled the two out, police said. Vander Woude, who had been in the tank for 15 to 20 minutes, was unconscious. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, police said.

. . .

“They always considered Joseph a wonderful blessing to the family,” said Francis Peffley, pastor at Holy Trinity, where Vander Woude served as a sacristan and also trained altar servers. “His whole life was spent serving people and sacrificing himself . . . . He gave the ultimate sacrifice . . . . Giving his life to save his son.”

I’m not a fan of obituaries, but this is one to read in full.

These stories reminded me of this column Rich Lowry wrote on Trig Palin and babies with Down Sydrome in general. A taste:

It used to be that children with Down syndrome were institutionalized at birth. Without the love, care and education that any child needs, they lived stunted lives. Now, a generation of people with Down syndrome has been raised by families that love them. Advances in medical care and education mean they live full lives. Their capabilities differ — as is the case with everyone — but they graduate from high school, hold jobs and live on their own.

When Palin received the news about Trig, she was devastated and scared. She kept it to herself, until her husband got back from a business trip and she confided in him. They didn’t tell anyone else, including their other children. “Not knowing in my own heart if I was going to be ready to embrace a child with special needs,” she told People magazine, “I couldn’t talk about it.” It wasn’t until he was born that she says her fears washed away.

No one should trivialize the challenges Trig and the Palins will face. About 40 percent of children with Down syndrome are born with a heart defect. There will be the cruelty — intentional or not — of other children and the frustrations of struggling with tasks that come so much easier to others. And yet there will be the joy, as unalloyed and precious as any of us experience.

And Lowry has posted some responses he received from parents here .

But none of this really captures Lowry’s emotion as well as his initial blog post on the matter a week or so ago, which I paste below:

When I was thinking of Trig, I was reminded of an encounter I had a couple of weeks ago on the Delta Shuttle from Washington to New York. It was a mostly empty plane, but I went all the back to the very emptiest part of the plane to spread out and enjoy he quiet. And there was a man sitting in the very back row who immediately piped up, “Hi. I’m Ian. Would you like to sit next to me?”

He was a guy with Down Syndrome, maybe in his twenties. I declined the offer, but we struck up a conversation. He was going to New York for a family celebration, including for his birthday. I told him I had a birthday coming up too and he lit up and came over to vigorously shake my hand in congratulations—more delighted by my birthday than his own.

When the plane began to fill up a woman and her daughter came all the way to the back with a huge bag. I began to wonder to myself if I should offer to help them with it, when Ian popped up, told them he’d get it, and lifted it up and shoved it in the overhead compartment. When two men came down the aisle with a box they weren’t sure would fit overhead, he intervened and told them it would—”trust me”—and put it up for them.

He chatted amiably with his neighbors during the flight, and when we landed was up out of his seat first thing to help that woman get her bag down.

From this brief encounter, I dare say Ian is friendlier, better adjusted and more considerate than about half of the people on the streets of Manhattan or San Francisco on any given day. Yet most of those people are perfectly unperturbed by the elimination of babies with Down syndrome in the womb. To hell with them. God bless Sarah Palin for bringing Trig into the world, and may he shower those around him with as much sunshine as the gentleman I met on that flight.



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