NEW YORK — While the United Nations has a stated commitment to protecting and promoting the lives of those with Down Syndrome, the Holy See believes some in the international community are abetting what one Washington Post columnist recently termed a “genocide” against such individuals.
At a United Nations event on Tuesday in anticipation of World Down Syndrome Day on March 21, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the apostolic nuncio to the United Nations, charged delegates with failing to uphold protections enshrined in international agreements to protect those with disabilities.
“Despite the commitments made in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, including that of the right to life, by all persons with disabilities, so many members of the international community stand on the sidelines as the vast majority of those diagnosed with Trisomy-21 have their lives ended before they’re even born,” Auza said.
The event, “No Room in Rural Villages, Cities and Homes for Those with Disabilities? Are Girls and Boys with Down Syndrome Being Left Behind?” was sponsored by the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations, and took place as part of the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women.
The event comes at a time when some European countries have stated goals to “eliminate” Down Syndrome, which Auza decried as euphemistic, noting that “elimination” really means parents “choosing to end the life of their son or daughter.”
Down Syndrome is a genetic condition where individuals have an extra copy of chromosome 21. While individuals born with it often experience cognitive delays and other handicaps, the Holy See’s event was meant to establish, in Auza’s words, that “Downs children and their families are simply among the happiest groups of people alive — and the world is happier because of them.”
Among the panelists were Mary O’Callaghan, a public policy fellow with the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture who has a son with Down Syndrome; Patricia White, also a mother to a Down Syndrome son, and co-founder of the Lumind Research Down Syndrome Foundation; Mikalya Holmgren, the first woman with Down syndrome to participate in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant; and Randall Wright, the director of Summer in the Forest, a new documentary about the L’Arche community for persons with disabilities — all of whom offered firsthand accounts of lives being improved by living with, or around, those with Downs.
White lauded the fact that in the past 15 years there have been numerous scientific advances to better understand the condition and to improve the lives of those with Downs, including clinical trials.
“Instead of skepticism, there is now every reason to be optimistic that biomedical research will yield findings that will positively impact the well-being of those with Down syndrome as well as offer important new insights into Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and other conditions of concern to the larger population,” White maintained.
O’Callaghan offered a sweeping overview of European abortion rates following a prenatal diagnosis of Down. She cited the words of Dr. Jérôme Lejeune, the French scientist who discovered that Down syndrome was caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21: “Medicine becomes mad science when it attacks the patient instead of fighting the disease.”
Holmgren, 23, offered a deeply personal testimonial of pursuing her passion for dance, attending the same school where her parents went to college, and eventually competing in Miss Minnesota USA, where she became the first woman with Down syndrome ever to participate in a state Miss USA competition.
“I did not win the crown, but I won so much more,” said Holmgren.
“There are countries that would like to get rid of people like me,” she continued. “What would this world be like without the bright lights that shine through those with Down syndrome?”
The first World Down Syndrome Day was observed at the United Nations in 2012, and, on that occasion, then-Secretary Ban Ki Moon declared, “Let us each do our part to enable children and persons with Down Syndrome to participate fully in the development and life of their societies on an equal basis with others. Let us build an inclusive society for all.”
Citing those words, Auza told the delegates in attendance that a “truly inclusive society is what this event seeks to promote,” adding that Pope Francis has said that “to the extent that one is accepted and loved, included in the community and supported in looking to the future with confidence, the true path of life evolves and one experiences enduring happiness.”
Reflecting on the firsthand testimonials offered, Auza concluded that individuals with Down syndrome “do live happy lives — and contagiously spread their joy to the world.”