My earliest memory of someone with Down syndrome came at a young age. My mom’s closest friend had a son with Down syndrome, and Joseph was just a part of our life. Later, my sister’s friend gave birth to a Down syndrome son, Frankie, who, to this day, is a joy to many around him. He faithfully assists at church, serving at the altar with reverence, and works with ethics that many people don’t have. Just the thought of these two men makes me smile as I think of the joy they have brought to so many lives.
Last week, while at the grocery store, I saw two young adults who happen to have Down syndrome. I could not help but think of how you rarely see young children with Down syndrome anymore. I realized most of these children are being aborted, and it made me deeply sad. In this day and age, Joseph and Frankie may not have had a chance. Between 90 and 94 percent of babies who are diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome are terminated today. That number is likely to increase as a result of a new test that can detect Down syndrome at seven weeks just by drawing a slight amount of the mother’s blood.
The pressure to abort
I have learned a lot about this subject over the past few years, as I have become familiar with more and more couples who aborted because of an adverse prenatal diagnosis. Down syndrome, a genetic disorder, occurs when a baby somehow develops 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. It leads to mental retardation, slower physical development, unusual facial characteristics and a risk of heart defects.
But whether it is due to Down syndrome or another adverse diagnosis, many members of the medical community pressure couples to abort and attempt to instill guilt for even considering bringing a disabled child to term. Sadly, couples are sometimes even given a go-a-head by members of the clergy who mistakenly believe it is compassionate to save them from what society considers a less-than-perfect child. When they realize what they have done, these couples not only experience guilt, shame and profound grief, but also anger at those professionals whom they trusted to have their best interests at heart.
A chance to heal
Fourteen years ago, the Sisters of Life and I co-developed a post-abortion ministry named Entering Canaan: a Sacramental Journey to an Inheritance of Mercy. It is through this work and the work of Lumina: Hope & Healing after Abortion, a post-abortion ministry of Good Counsel Homes of which I am the director, that I began to come in contact with many couples who had aborted due to an adverse diagnosis. It became evident that there were unique dynamics surrounding these abortions, and that these parents needed their own place to work through what had happened.
In answer to this need, Rev. Mariusz Koch, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, and I, with the help of a wonderful couple who had been through our ministry, began retreat days specifically for those who had experienced abortion as a result of an adverse diagnosis.
The interest in the retreat has been amazing and, frankly, heartbreaking, as we have come to realize how many such abortions are committed. We have just begun to touch the surface of a whole population of people suffering. As with all abortions, these couples suffer from guilt, shame, grief and the tremendous loss of a child, but probably the most striking difference is the attempt made by society to make the death of their preborn child seem as if it were a natural occurrence. In the words of one of our couples,
I see how the clinic spent so much effort in making what happened appear normal, but as time goes by, we saw more and more how it is anything but normal… It is as if these deaths were a natural occurrence and the parents need to grieve and we had no part in the death.
Even though I was engrossed in the lies, I still knew in my heart that what we did was wrong. I was embarrassed to have my family come to the cemetery to bury my baby. I felt like a hypocrite because after all, this was a choice that was madeour choice. How could others sympathize if this is what we seemingly wanted to do? It was all very bizarre. Even the simplest thing was shrouded in secrecy and lies.
This work has caused both Father and I to be humbled, and we consider it a great blessing to stand by these couples in their pain. Through this work, we also have developed relationships with a number of other organizations working to support couples who receive an adverse diagnosis. They are usually run by people who have chosen life for their babies in spite of a poor diagnosis. They have heard about our retreat and include it in their resource lists, since they also encounter many parents suffering from the anguish of aborting a disabled or infirm baby.
Help for parents who choose life
In a time when society’s mission seems to be “search and destroy,” it is so important to spread the good news that support is available for those who have gotten a poor prenatal diagnosis.
I admire the perseverance and dedication of those who seek to bring a message of hope and joy not only to expectant parents who face poor prenatal diagnoses, but also to medical professionals and the clergy. I am so grateful to these organizations and individuals for letting these parents know that the lives they choose to bring to term each have priceless value. I am sure Joseph and Frankie would smile at that!
Resources for expectant families:
Elizabeth Ministry International (ElizabethMinistry.com) supports women and their families with mentoring, support, inspiration and resources.
BeNotAfraid.net (BeNotAfraid.net) is a Catholic online outreach affiliated with Elizabeth Ministry. It is filled with stories from other families whofaced the same poor prenatal diagnosis.
Madeline P. Nugent’s book, My Child, My Gift: A Positive Response to Serious Prenatal Diagnosis (see the review in the September-October 2008 Celebrate Life), and her web site (MyChildMyGift.com) offer testimonials and try to “make sense out what seems to be senseless.”
Prenatal Partners for Life (PrenatalPartnersforLife.org) provides information, support and encouragement (see “Facing the Fears of an Adverse Prenatal Diagnosis,” Celebrate Life, September-October 2008)