Last week, British judges upheld a law that permits children with Down syndrome or other disabilities to be aborted in the U.K. at any time before they are born, while abortions of children without disabilities are prohibited after twenty-four weeks’ gestation.
The law was challenged by a British woman with Down syndrome, who said it discriminates against people like her: Children with disabilities are killed even as other children in utero enjoy the protection of law.
The judges disagreed, and dismissed her suit.
The plaintiff in the case is Heidi Crowter. She is twenty-six, lives in Coventry, works at a salon, and has spent the last three years pushing back against British laws that make it possible for 90 percent of children conceived in her country with Down syndrome to be aborted.
Heidi plans to appeal, and has gained some public support. But last Thursday, she had to stand before two judges who said, effectively, that women shouldn’t have to put up with someone like Heidi being thrust into their lives—that permission to kill people like her is a fair way to balance the rights of people with Down syndrome and the rights of their own mothers.
I suspect that Heidi is exhausted, and am amazed that she will keep up her campaign. I pray she has not internalized the message those judges articulated so definitively—that people with disabilities are such a burden, the law should make special allowances to kill them.
Imagine living with that around your neck.
Of course, whether because of fear, or unfamiliarity, or the perception of insufficiency, or a burgeoning wave of social expectation, people with Down syndrome are killed in utero at appalling rates throughout the West. And people like Heidi, who are trying to fight against this trend, are losing the battle. It probably won’t be long before people with Down syndrome only exist among quirky religious families, who find abortion appalling, and are inclined to believe that children, whatever their conditions, are a gift.
Mine is one of those quirky religious families, which is how my wife and I came to adopt two children with Down syndrome. We didn’t adopt them as an act of virtue, or even altruism—we just wanted children, couldn’t have them, and found that those happened to be the ones who came into our lives. Our oldest child, Max, will turn ten in December. That means that for ten years, we’ve found ourselves advocating for people with Down syndrome—calling out discrimination and speaking out for an openness to life, whatever chromosonal count comes with it.
Part of my advocacy is writing things like this. I’ve found over the years that every six months or so, when Down syndrome is in the news, a publication asks me to write down a few thoughts.
I’m not sure anymore that they’re doing much good.
Believers—the kind of people likely to be reading this—know already that abortion is a moral evil, and that aborting someone because of a genetic disability is especially heinous. We continue to decry the situation in places like Iceland or the U.K., where abortion rates for people like my children are among the highest. We continue to say that people with Down syndrome reveal to us some unusual spark of the divine, or some unique and beautiful aspect of being human.
Those things are true, to be sure. But if we’re going to actually protect the lives of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities, we have to do more than cheerlead, or give money for the quixotic campaigners like Heidi Crowter, who throw themselves into a legal arena that will almost certainly smile condescendingly, pat them on the head, and tell them their lives are a burden.
We have to become signs of contradiction. We have to become communities with a preferential option for the disabled. We have to demonstrate that a culture of life is a place where everyone belongs—even when that requires sacrifice, and patience, and inconvenient commitments on our part.
The people making efforts along those lines deserve our thanks. But even in our communities, people with disabilities find themselves too often standing with their noses pressed against the glass, listening to very nice people explain why accommodating them is too much, even as they cluck their tongues at the pro-choice monsters at Planned Parenthood and in Scandanavia.
Catholic and Christian schools need to do more to welcome children with disabilities—federal special education dollars don’t get to our classrooms, which makes it easy for us to say that inclusion is too expensive, and something we hope to do in the future, when things get easier.
We can’t allow that to be our answer.
What’s more, denominations and dioceses need to develop religious education programs designed for people with intellectual disabilities. Business owners need to hire people with disabilities and advocate for job inclusion programs. Charitable, political, and religious organizations need to invite people with disabilities to a seat at the table where decisions are made.
We need to consider whether we’ve asked people with disabilities already on the peripheries of our communities how they might like to contribute and be included.
And all of us need to examine our hearts, to ask if we’ve done anything at all to welcome into our communities of friendship and fellowship the kind of people whose lives, we say, have so much value.
These things are matters of justice. People with disabilities shouldn’t need to wait for charity to be included. They already belong, even if that rarely gets them in the door.
Our good sentiments are not enough to change law and culture. But maybe our good actions will be.
For a place to start, we could probably just ask Heidi Crowter.
J. D. Flynn writes from Denver, and is a board member of the Denver FIRE Foundation, which works for inclusion in Catholic schools.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Photo by Hannah McKay via Reuters. Image cropped.