Preaching this past Christmas Eve, Pope Francis once again made it clear that children “not allowed to be born,” along with other marginalized children at risk of being discarded by our throwaway culture, demand our special concern.
Christians, in particular, have a calling to resist indifference and “allow ourselves to be challenged” by those on the peripheries.
The pope could not be more right to describe abortion as a hallmark of the throwaway culture—particularly when it comes to our treatment of prenatal children thought to have Down syndrome.
For those who follow this set of issues, our horrific practices are not new. Somewhere around 8 in 10 babies thought to have Down’s are killed via abortion. Some countries, such as Demark, have abortion rates so high that they may effectively eliminate this population from their society.
All of this takes place in a context in which people who have Down syndrome are happier than those of us who do not.
Some countries are now entering a new era of discrimination against this population. It is one thing to protect the legal right to have an abortion in these circumstances (as terrible as that is), but it is quite another to protect the legal right of those who have such an abortion from the reality of what they have done.
But this is precisely what French authorities have now done.
In 2014, an Italian group which advocates for people with Down’s made an award-winning documentary called “Dear Future Mom,” which told a visual story of children and young adults with the syndrome. The goal was to ease the anxiety of parents who received a positive diagnosis and help educate them about the reality of Down syndrome in a Western culture filled with misconceptions.
The reaction of authorities to the possibility of these images being shown on French television? They banned the documentary because it was “likely to disturb the conscience of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices.”
This is a terrible new low in Western culture’s unjust discrimination against people with Down’s. Not only may they be legally killed as a means of reproductive quality control, but those who decide they should die must be legally shielded from facing the reality of a flourishing disabled life.
Not long after this new low was reached in France, however, a very different story was making the rounds in the United States. Little Asher Nash, a ridiculously adorable toddler with Down syndrome, was chosen by Oshkosh B’Gosh to star in their Holiday advertising campaign.
Asher joins others in his position who have done very public performances—everything from singing the national anthem at Fenway Park to being nominated for a best supporting actor Golden Globe.
In addition to following the stories of famous folks, I’ve been blessed to have multiple personal connections to amazing people with Down’s. Last year I wrote a piece in the Washington Post about my college friend’s sister who has the syndrome—and was able to detail the books she was reading, the job she was working, the horses she was riding, and the man she was dating.
I was also recently part of a panel discussion at St. Catherine’s parish in Riverside, CT which made these realities quite personal. My remarks as a panelist made it clear how important it is to find more and better ways to protect prenatal children, and after the panel a man (probably in his 70’s) and his son (probably in his 30’s) came over to chat.
The older man had tears in his eyes as he explained how much it meant to him to have a professor stand up for life and particularly the life of his son, who very clearly had Down syndrome. He explained that his wife had died and this was his only child.
About 30 seconds into this father gushing about his boy’s accomplishments, the younger man grabbed me without warning and hugged me as hard as I’ve been hugged by anyone. It was a hug that, yes, demonstrated affection and gratitude, but I got the very strong sense it also came from fear and the desire to feel safe.
Given Western culture’s practices surrounding abortion and children with Down syndrome, it isn’t difficult to figure out why this young man felt this way.
It was one of the most moving moments of my life, and reminded me why (despite all the challenges and frustrations that come with it) I will never stop fighting to give the victims of abortion a voice. If there is any vulnerable population on the peripheries who can move us to resist indifference and become small in their service, prenatal children with Down syndrome is going to be it.
Let us heed the words of Pope Francis and allow these children to challenge us.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University and author of Beyond the Abortion Wars: a Way Forward for a New Generation.