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, Grant thrust his hands in the air when he heard his name called 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 is the daily enjoyment of his life.
Many know this story because of articles and letters praising Grant in this newspaper (“Out of disappointment comes a learning moment,” March 18). At risk of being a dark cloud, I feel it is important to point out that the Grants of the world are disappearing, and that we are responsible. This observation, 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 actually begs one of the questions we must consider) are at risk of extinction because of technology. Nowadays we can detect the condition in the womb and therefore can abort any fetus with it. And in more than 90 percent 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 collective. 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.
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) is tragic, crushing and disorienting. But the decision of what to do with the news is not morally neutral, nor could it ever be so.
This is 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 have already drastically reduced the number of those with Down syndrome. 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.”
Everyone, of course, knows the arguments and counterarguments 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” and “No human being is viable until years after its birth” and “Our actual fear too often is that we will suffer from our own lives being changed.” (Are either Grant or his family suffering more in life than you or I?)
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? 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? Are you willing to pay higher taxes and support government programs that are the necessary consequence of bringing imperfect children into the world?
Reason alone will not resolve this issue; 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’s celebration teaches us all; it is good that he is with us, and we will be the worse when no one like Grant is around any longer.
Daniel Taylor is a writer in Arden Hills.