A World Without the Disabled Will Be the Poorer

Hello. I hope to get back to making semi-regular posts to this blog. (I’ve been busy completing a novel!!-which will be published by Wipf and Stock near the end of this year). What follows is a longer version of an opinion piece I wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper (it appeared on May 23 on the Opinions Exchange page, along with a nice photo of the young man who prompted it):

Grant Petersen was thrilled with his second place medal. While some of the players on the high school basketball team for which he is the manager sulked after losing the championship game, when Grant heard his name called he thrust his hands in the air and celebrated with smiles and jumps and thumbs up to his family in the crowd. Grant has Down syndrome. It is a fact about him, but it does not define him. What defines him more importantly is the daily, contagious enjoyment he takes in his life.

Many know this story because thousands witnessed it and many more read articles and letters about it in the local Minnesota newspapers. Everyone delighted in his delight and praised him for teaching us all an important lesson. At risk of being a dark cloud, I feel it important to point out that the Grants of the world are disappearing, and that we are responsible. (Pointing this out, of course, will make many people angry.)

Those who, among their many characteristics, have Down syndrome (I do not say “suffer from” because I think that is actually one of the questions we must consider), are at risk of extinction because of technology. We can detect the condition in the womb and therefore can abort any fetus with it, and in more than 90% of the detected cases we do. I say “we” and not “the mother” because although the decision is portrayed as an individual one, it is actually in important ways a collective one. We have collectively given ourselves the right to end any life in this first stage, have made the technology available, have made it socially acceptable (even wise according to many), and have encouraged individual women to believe that the “tragic choice” is morally neutral and theirs alone.

And of course the news that a child one has anticipated and dreamed a future for is disabled (fill-in your own term if you object to this one) istragic and crushing and disorienting and deeply saddening. But the decision of what to do with the news is not morally neutral, nor could it ever be so.

And it is also not a place where it is useful to assign blame, either to oneself or to society or to God. I am not interested in assigning blame; I am only interested in having us think about the implications of our being glad that Grant is here to teach us things while at the same time collectively accepting his potential elimination.

Technology and social support for aborting the disabled has already dramatically reduced the number of those with Down syndrome and will do so more completely as screening becomes more common (even mandated by law?). This would be great news if we were curing Down syndrome but in this case—as in all abortions based on disabilities—we are solving the problem by eliminating the person with the problem. We are saying, to quote ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, that having Down syndrome, or any other disability for which we abort, is “an unacceptable way of being human.”

It is important to understand that the rest of us differ from the disabled only in degree, not in kind. I believe we are all disabled at some point in our lives—either physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually, or morally. If you are not physically disabled as yet, you likely will be. To put it less controversially, we are all limited, including in ways that negatively effect our ability to live as well as we could and should. So, if for no other reasons than self-interest, we should be very reluctant to use disability as a supposedly compassionate excuse for eliminating the disabled.

How a society treats its powerless is often cited as a measure of its character. I actually do not believe anyone (including the profoundly disabled) is powerless—witness Grant’s power to delight and inform thousands—but how we treat the disabled, among others, does reveal a great deal about us. It reveals, for instance, our willingness to judge another’s worth (and right to exist) in terms of cost, productivity, usefulness to society, and impingement on the happiness of others.

Everyone, of course, knows the arguments and counter-arguments in any issue involving abortion. Not only “right to choose” and “not a person until viable” but also “no child should have to suffer.” To which, predictably, I say “we have granted ourselves a right we should not have,” “no human being is genuinely viable until years after its birth,” and “our actual fear too often is that we will suffer from our own lives being changed.” (Is either Grant or his family suffering more in life than you or I?) And my assertions of course give rise to rebuttals.

For those widely accepting of aborting the disabled here are some questions: “What is necessary for a successful life and why should anyone be allowed to answer that for someone else?” and “Do you understand why people living with disabilities might be wary of society using those same disabilities as reasons for aborting the unborn?” And for those who argue against aborting the disabled: “Would you feel as certain if it were you or your daughter facing this situation?” and “Have you ever actually helped anyone with a disabled child?” and “Are you willing to pay higher taxes and support government programs that are the necessary consequence of bringing imperfect children into the world?”

The obviously disabled among us—as opposed to we covertly disabled—offer us a test of our humanity. We can see them as candidates for elimination, objects of charity, obligations to be met. Or we can see them as fellow human beings, limited but no less valuable, no less capable of friendship and sources of wisdom, and, even in the most extreme cases, occasions for love. They offer us the opportunity to learn how to be human and how to be a community.

Reason alone will not resolve these issues regarding abortion and the disabled because reason can be used to support any position. But perhaps at least some people on both sides of the divide can agree on this: Grant Petersen’s celebration of his second-place medal teaches us all, it is good that he is with us, and we will be the worse when no one like Grant is any longer around.