One evening thirty-one years ago, I found myself sitting in the grimy yellow light of a medical clinic hallway. In the next room, two nurses prepared my wife for an ultrasound. But it wasn’t an ordinary ultrasound. We’d already done that, and at the time, you could read the unease in the brisk, professional smile the obstetrician used as she recommended a second opinion. The baby in utero, in his eighth month, refused to thrive. And there was something not quite right in the bone structure of his arm.
The second ultrasound machine was bigger and the obstetrician more widely known, but the results were equally inconclusive. Something was wrong, but not so wrong that the problem clearly emerged. The baby was too small, and an amniocentesis—done late in term to minimize harm to the baby—showed anomalies in the fluid.
What I remember most vividly about that night, though, is not the atmosphere of impending trouble, nor my wife’s extraordinary affection as she watched our son swim innocently across the screen.
What I remember is staring at the door directly across from me. Affixed to it was a small plastic nameplate with two words: genetic counseling.
It’s a curious moment when the bill comes due for your personal convictions. In the shadow of a birth defect, all sorts of feelings flood suddenly into your chest: bitterness toward God (we’re good people—why us?), irrational fear (how are we going to pay for this; or, our marriage will be wrecked!), and that thin, compelling voice that tells you, sure, abortion is wrong under most circumstances, but . . .
What you discover is that these feelings come no matter how many times you’ve advised others or game-planned just such an eventuality in your head. You still find yourself at a crossroads where one path leads to an unborn universe of risk, and the other leads to something quite different.
A few weeks later, our fourth child, Daniel Padraic, was born by emergency Caesarean section. Fluid had filled his lungs, and I held his tiny blue limbs in my arms as my wife poured the water and said the words of Baptism right there in the delivery room. Then the nurses wired him up in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for 11 days, and we all waited for the genetic tests to come back from the lab.
I remember pressing my face against the NICU window, watching that little, imperfect body struggle for breath, and telling God: Look, forget all those terrible things I said and thought before—just give the kid a break. Let him live.
He did live, and over the next few days we gradually unraveled the truth about Dan, written in the simian creases on his palms and the slight irregularity to his earlobes, tongue, and toes. Dan has Down syndrome.
Here’s what that means on paper: Dan has a 43 IQ. He lacks muscle tone and language skills. His immune system is compromised. Sooner or later, in the long run, he has a strong chance of Alzheimer’s. And here’s what it means for his ability to love and be loved: nothing.
I’d be lying to you if I claimed the last three decades have been easy.
There’s mourning: In the early years, a great sadness would come over us as we thought about what might have been for Danny, but now would never be. There’s worry: Who will watch over him when we’re no longer here? There’s hurt: Nothing quite compares to watching your disabled son get dumped by his equally disabled girlfriend. But there’s also pride: Dan has worked in a job he loves for the past ten years. There’s joy: Dan has been a Special Olympian since toddling. There’s gratitude: Dan’s siblings will never “not see” the disabled; will never view the weak or infirm as less worthy of life. And there’s grace: Darkness and doubt are part of a disability’s terrain, but for anyone willing to love, they never last.
They don’t last because love is light, and God is peculiarly present in children like Dan, a child now grown into an adult young man. Dan is not a saint; the disabled are not miraculously free of sin and aggravating quirks. But he is, and always has been, a magnet for people who want to learn how to love. The night he was born, fourteen of our friends waited at the hospital to be sure he made it; many finagled their way into the maternity ward. In the decades since, Dan has made scores of friendships with the normal among us—whatever that word “normal” means. Dan takes his friends for what they are: inhabitants of his world and part of his ordinary affairs; persons who become a little better, a little more fully human persons, because of Dan.
The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision earlier this year ended nearly half a century of a poisonous Roe v. Wade regime. It’s been a long, arduous struggle for the pro-life movement, and the challenges ahead will be equally difficult. The “pro-choice” argument has always been built on a foundation of lies. Abortion is not abstract; someone always dies. Catholic candidates and public leaders who stand on such a foundation are inescapably implicated in its hypocrisy and deceit. The ferocity of hatred that Dobbs unleashed from the cultural left is instructive. So are the hysteria and faux piety over abortion “rights” marking the lead-up to the midterm elections. Every choice has substance. Every choice has consequences. And in practice, beneath all the 2022 campaign’s political bloviating, “pro-choice” means the right to a dead baby.
More than 90 percent of children with Down syndrome, or even the possibility of Down syndrome, are now killed in the womb before they take their first breath. Evasive blather about an asserted “right” needs to be weighed against its flesh and blood result.
In a special way this fall, I can’t get Dan’s smile, or the course of his life, out of my head. Every time my family has been tempted to retire from the bitterness of our nation’s latest civil war, we remember the redemption that Dan, and others like him, work in the lives of those who know, or at least want to learn, how to love.
So the questions I offer for consideration this November 8 are simply these: What kind of people do we really want to be? What kind of world do we choose to create? How many other Dans are out there? Can we really afford not to welcome them? And if we don’t fight for them, year in and year out, including when we vote—then who will?
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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