Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Yesterday NPR’s Morning Edition reported on advances in the development of precise prenatal tests for Down syndrome and other genetic disorders. The report praised new tests that allow women to know more accurately and more quickly whether their children have a genetic disorder.

Prenatal testing for Down syndrome has become a hot issue in the medical community. Reports about advanced testing seem to make headlines every few months. But yesterday’s story was unique because NPR was clear about the supposed value of advanced prenatal testing. With advanced tests, the story said, women can terminate pregnancies with a high degree of certainty that their children are abnormal.

The story quoted physicians who lamented that inaccurate tests can mislead a woman into “terminating what would actually have been a normal pregnancy.” With prenatal certainty about trisomy 21, the doctors said, women won’t accidentally abort normal children.

The assumption of that logic, of course, is that any rational woman would choose to abort a child with Down syndrome.

I have two “abnormal children,” both of whom were born with Down syndrome. Both are adopted. Both were born to brave women counseled to abort their “abnormal pregnancies.” Their stories are far too typical. Prenatal testing is the reason why more than 70 percent of American children conceived with Down syndrome are aborted.

I’m not naïve about the challenges parents face when children have a disability. My children are significantly delayed. They undergo programs of extensive physical and occupational therapy. My daughter was born just a year ago, and is already facing her second bout with leukemia. Parenting disabled children is hard, and anyone who says otherwise is dishonest.

Yet children like mine spread a kind of joy that begins with their own unflappable optimism. I don’t know why children with Down syndrome, and other profound medical conditions, are this way. But I know that they are. And that we’re in danger of losing their joy because we’ve largely replaced moral reasoning with technocratic idealism.

By their very nature, technocracies work towards the path of least resistance: towards creating systems with fewer exceptions, aberrations, or deviations. Technocrats think in matrices, and exceptions to the norm are viewed as problems to be solved. If children with disabilities spoil the mathematical predictability of the technocratic utopia, they must be eradicated from the equation. Eugenics make perfect sense when paradise is only a problem of engineering.

My children are deviations from the norm. They’re disruptive. They’re sometimes loud, and they process information slowly. They require special attention, and patience, and tolerance. But it is worth paying attention to children like mine. They’re extraordinary, in their own right. And they remind us that happiness can’t be engineered through the ever-broadening possibilities of technology, or the ever-reaching arm of social policy. Happiness is relational. So is Paradise. However we understand salvation, it’s worked out in relationships—to one another, and to the divine.

Abnormal people are not the exception to the rule, or the flaw in the system. Abnormal people are the norm. We’re all the abnormal children of God. If we can rejoice in our own abnormality, we might just save those who point the way to Paradise.

J. D. Flynn is a canon lawyer who lives and works in Lincoln, Nebraska.

More on: Culture

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles