Before I met my son Max, I’d never spent much time with anyone who has Down syndrome.

There was a disabled man in the small town where I grew up. He was big, and to a child (at least to me) he seemed dangerous. He violated personal boundaries. He seemed to leer at people, especially women. I likely misunderstood him, but he frightened me. In the absence of other experiences, that fear left an imprint.

Before I met my son Max, I was afraid to talk with disabled people.

Two of my children have Down syndrome. I often marvel that their schoolmates don’t seem to be afraid of them. Max and Pia are different from other children. Their speech is often incomprehensible. They play differently, and they learn differently. They interrupt, and sing loudly off key, and sometimes bolt from the classroom.

But their schoolmates don’t seem to be afraid. My children are greeted with hugs and high-fives each morning at school. When they walk the halls, older children make it a point to call out their names and say hello. One boy regularly angles in the classroom to be seated next to Max. Their schoolmates know my children, and in knowing them, they’ve come to love them.   

If I’m being honest, I still find it difficult sometimes to talk with intellectually disabled adults I don’t know well. I don’t know where to begin. Their world is different—they are different—and their other-ness provokes, in many of us, a kind of fear.

That fear has led to a great deal of discrimination against intellectually disabled people. It’s led to their isolation and institutionalization. It’s led to loneliness. And for many children with Down syndrome today, it leads to abortion.

Abortion activists often mask their fear in the language of compassion. They say that no one should have to live with the challenges of Down syndrome. That it’s unfair, or even unhealthy, for parents to face the burden of caring for a disabled child. That the disabled ought to be spared their short, difficult, and painful lives. But in large part, it’s the fear of living with people who are very different from us that causes the staggering abortion rate of children with Down syndrome.

I understand the fear of otherness. But I also, from the experience of my own family, know that familiarity will overcome that fear, as will friendship, and, eventually, love. The best hope we have for ending the propensity to abort children with Down syndrome is to help people overcome their fears.

This is why it is so discouraging that Down Syndrome Ireland has condemned the use of images of children with Down syndrome in campaigns opposing the liberalization of Ireland’s abortion laws. The group calls it “exploitation” to show the faces of a people who face eugenic eradication throughout much of the developed world. This advertising isn’t exploitation. It is a plea for help.

It would be wrong for pro-life campaigners to whitewash the real lives of people with Down syndrome. It would be wrong to pretend that they don’t face difficulties, or to advance the falsehood that intellectually disabled people can easily live typical lives. But it is not wrong to show their smiling faces. It is not, as some Irish abortion advocates say, “emotional blackmail.”

Campaigns that show the faces of people with Down syndrome aim to overcome the fear that leads to exclusion, marginalization, and, in many cases, death. An advocacy group that fails to realize this has lost its way, or has forgotten what advocacy is supposed to be about.

Down Syndrome Ireland says its mission is to promote “respect and acceptance of people with Down syndrome as valued members of Irish society.” But people with Down syndrome won’t be respected or accepted until they are known, and until they are loved. If their faces are hidden, and fear is allowed to fester, it will be easier to kill them.

J. D. Flynn is editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency.

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