Back when I was a Catholic school student in the early ’60s, the Dominican sisters seemed intent on telling us about some culture’s ancient custom of leaving deformed children on the mountainside.
Most of my classmates were surprised and offended but then quickly moved on to studying “Lord of the Flies” and algebra. For me, however, the lesson stuck.
I was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita — Greek for “curved joints.” My father and mother wept when they first saw me. Friends urged them to immediately commit me to the state mental institution — the 1949 version of the mountainside.
Thirty years later, my middle son, Jason, was diagnosed with Down syndrome. The bumbling, insensitive doctor suggested that we commit Jason, adding that “some people even take them home.” The mountainside had not changed since I was born.
Today, the mountainside looks a bit different, thanks to the technological tools of the 21st century. New tests and an abject fear of difference have made abortion of Down syndrome babies commonplace. In countries such as Iceland, Denmark and France, most pregnancies with a Down syndrome diagnosis are terminated.
Recently in the Washington Post, columnists Marc Thiessen, Ruth Marcus and George Will have been discussing the wisdom of terminating these pregnancies from radically different perspectives. Will put the big word, genocide, on the table, arguing that an entire class of citizens is being eliminated. Marcus called the state legislative attempts to outlaw abortion because of an in vitro Down syndrome diagnosis “unconstitutional, unenforceable — and wrong.”
Rachel Adams, whose son has Down syndrome, wrote in the Post to plead that kids such as hers be left out of the politically fracturing abortion debate. Bravo to her.
But I think it’s time we talked frankly about leaving countless deformed and genetically challenged babies on the mountainside. And that’s exactly what we’re doing by aborting 67 percent of our diagnosed children. How is this abortion based on medical diagnosis any different from leaving deformed children to the wolves?
It should stop, yet I categorically oppose any bills that force people to keep Down syndrome babies. I find it reprehensible and morally dangerous that our governments would pretend to know best what choice parents should make. I oppose abortion, but I believe the state must stay out of that choice.
My life has been worth living. The mountainside would have been a bad place for me. Jason’s life has been worth living. He makes every person he encounters better. He spreads joy and kindness everywhere he goes. His ready laugh, his obvious kindness and his precious insight enrich our family. When his mother died a few years ago, as I sobbed, he pointed at his head and his heart and said, “Daddy, she’s here and here.”
Everyone who is different deserves respect and celebration. Rather than wasting so much time screaming at each other about abortion, we must build a basic respect for all lives.
We might take a lesson from John Duns Scotus, one of the most important Franciscan theologians, who stressed the concept of “thisness,” or “haecceity.” Mary Beth Ingham, a professor at the Franciscan School of Theology, recently discussed the concept: “What is haecceity? It’s you. It’s the unique identity inherent in each being. Each one of us has been given our gift, and that’s our little ‘haec.’ It’s what makes me, me, and not somebody else. Haec cannot be cloned. It’s the part of me that is not to be replicated.”
Everybody is different in some way and everybody has a special contribution to make to the world. We enter dangerous ground when we decide some gifts are worth exalting and others are worth destroying. Physical and mental deformities do not render people without haec. It may be a smile, it may be an insightful comment, but something about every human being gives life meaning — ours and others.
Every child makes the world more complete. And no child deserves to be left on the mountainside.
Tim J. McGuire, professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, was editor of the Star Tribune from 1991 to 2002. He is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home — A Disabled Dad, a Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey to Acceptance.”