In the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, a suicidal George Bailey is given a vision of what life would have been like for his family, his friends and his community if he had never been born.”
George sees his beloved wife Mary as a lonely spinster, and his town of Bedford Falls as a seedy “Pottersville,” named after George’s avaricious rival. He learns that his war hero brother Harry died because George wasn’t there to rescue him when he fell into a frozen pond as a child; the soldiers Harry saved during the war perished, too. Clarence Oddbody, the angel sent to bring George this vision, remarks, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
I often wish that parents who learn through prenatal diagnosis that their child has autism, Down syndrome or another disability could be granted a vision, too — a glimpse into the future to see what a wonderful life awaits them because their child is in the world. But far too often, whether out of fear, convenience, or lack of information on modern advancements — and support for people with Downs and their families — some parents choose to create an “awful hole” in their futures. They end the life of their unborn child through abortion. One-third of individuals with Down syndrome are aborted. New blood tests to accurately and non-invasively diagnose anomalies at an earlier stage of pregnancy will push that number even higher.
In his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis acknowledges this reality and affirms the infinite value of every child. “Scientific advances today allow us to know beforehand what color a child’s hair will be or what illnesses they may one day suffer…. It matters little whether this new life is convenient for you, whether it has features that please you, or whether it fits into your plans and aspirations. For children are a gift” (#170).
The idea that every child is a gift has been under vicious assault in the United States in the four decades since Roe v. Wade. Far too often the unborn child is viewed as disposable, or even worse, a commodity whose body parts are bought and sold. Couples turn to genetic technologies to design babies to their specifications and rent wombs in which these babies can grow. A review by the Charlotte Lozier Institute shows that sex-selection via preimplantation genetic diagnosis and abortion is a persistent problem here and around the world. Babies diagnosed in utero with disabilities are destroyed at an alarming rate.
Despite these horrors, there is hope. Majorities in both houses of Congress support legislation to ban abortion nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy, the point at which an unborn child can feel pain. A bill to defund Planned Parenthood passed last year; only President Obama’s veto kept it from becoming law.
Indiana and North Dakota have enacted laws stopping abortions for reasons related to the baby’s sex, race or disability. Similar measures have been introduced in Missouri and Ohio. Among the most ardent supporters of these initiatives have been parents of disabled children. Their experience confirms research published in 2011 in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, which found that the vast majority of families are enriched by having a child with Downs. Nearly 80% of parents said their outlook on life was more positive as a result; 97% of siblings aged 12 and above said they felt proud of their brother or sister with Down syndrome, and 88% were convinced they were better people because of their sibling. A study of adults with Downs found that 99% said they were happy with their lives. What a contrast to the prevailing attitudes of adults who don’t have Down syndrome!
In my own family, we too can testify to the joy of life with a special needs child. Our oldest daughter Hannah recently reflected as a young adult on what it means to have a sister with disabilities: “My life, my decisions, my relationships, and my communities are a thousand times stronger for having her.”
Dr. Jerome Lejeune is often called the “Father of Modern Genetics” for his discovery of the genetic cause of Down syndrome and other disabilities. He was also a devout Catholic who said, “The enemies of life know that to destroy Christian civilization, they must first destroy the family at its weakest point — the child. And among the weakest, they must choose the least protected of all — the child who has never been seen.”
But the enemies of life can only win if we leave the battlefield, and the pro-life movement shows no signs of giving up. Indeed, it’s energized as never before to fight for the wonderful life of every baby, no matter its circumstances. Like George Bailey’s angel Clarence, we know that the loss of even one life leaves an “awful hole” that diminishes the family, the community and the world.
MARJORIE DANNENFELSER is president of the Susan B. Anthony List and a member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter.