If the mark of a convincing argument is that it makes you rethink an existing deeply held viewpoint, then this lovely recent article in The New York Times surely qualifies.
The recent op-ed by Tim J. McGuire, professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s journalism school and former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (1991-2002), is titled “Aborting fetuses with Down Syndrome should be legal. But it’s still wrong.”
Of particular relevance here, McGuire is also the proud father of a Down Syndrome son and the author of this memoir: Some People Even Take Them Home: A Disabled Dad, a Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey to Acceptance.
What made McGuire’s article so powerful for me is that despite his apparently strict Catholic upbringing, including regular Mass and parochial school, his argument nonetheless was supremely rational and humanist. Even though I’m sure his Catholicism in some way informs his understanding of morality, this article was all about the real world.
My admittedly limited experience with Down Syndrome people left me with the impression that these uniquely different souls, while seemingly happy-go-lucky, necessarily bring a host of extra built-in difficulties, labors, heartache and costs for their families and wider societies.
Therefore, it seemed entirely understandable that couples might abruptly hesitate upon discovering the pre-person in the mother’s womb would almost certainly bring many unique difficulties to their lives, some perhaps overwhelming. Such problems would conceivably exceed those of a less-afflicted baby. So it seemed rational and not inhumane to me, a qualifiedly pro-choice person, if their choice were to abort very early in the pregnancy, as parents commonly do when other, more ominous, defects appear in prenatal scans and tests.
But McGuire views the issue from an entirely different vantage — and, in my view, one that is far more compelling. He himself was born in 1949 with body-contorting arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, Greek for “curved joints.” He said his parents cried when they first saw him, and the physician and friends urged them to consider committing their sure-to-be-disabled son in the state mental asylum, as was usual at the time for such congenitally unsound children. It was the equivalent in ancient times, McGuire said, of leaving such infants “on the mountainside” to be devoured by wolves.
McGuire said the doctor, unenthusiastically, also offered this offhand option: “Some people even take them home,” which became his book’s title.
That was the option his parents happily chose.
Many parents in the modern West figuratively opt to put their Down Syndrome infants “on the mountainside” by placing them in institutions, or aborting. In countries such as Iceland, Denmark and France, for example, most pregnancies with a Down syndrome diagnosis are terminated. But, happily, a good many other parents warmly and enthusiastically take such children home with them. That is what McGuire recommends, for deeply moving reasons that he can very personally vouch for. He wrote:
“My life has been worth living. The mountainside would have been a bad place for me. Jason’s life has been worth living. He makes every person he encounters better. He spreads joy and kindness everywhere he goes. … Everyone who is different deserves respect and celebration.”
Everybody’s natural “gifts” are different, McGuire believes, and everybody has a “special contribution” to leave the world.
“We enter dangerous ground when we decide some gifts are worth exalting and others are worth destroying,” he wrote.
I still believe that couples, especially the mother, should have a legal choice available to either continue or responsibly terminate (meaning very early) a Down Syndrome pregnancy, or even consider institutionalization, if that makes moral sense. But McGuire offers valuable, important information from first-hand experience that many people may be unaware of: Down Syndrome children can be happy and bestow enormous joy on others throughout their lives, which, due to medical advances, can be as long as anyone’s.
So, it’s not an either-or situation. For those perhaps struggling with their own Down Syndrome pregnancies, McGuire’s loving, joyous experience with his own son proves that such a child is not a life sentence but a rich potential.
Such a child, indeed, could bring wings to people’s lives.