Because Down (not Down’s) syndrome is caused by three copies of the 21st chromosome instead of the usual two, some bright person chose March 21 (3/21 – get it?) for an annual celebration of World Down Syndrome Day.
People with Down syndrome tend to have more medical issues than the general population, physical growth delays, and mild to moderate intellectual disability. Their characteristic physical features and speech patterns make them easy to identify in a group. Most parents, upon finding out that their child has Down syndrome, are deeply saddened, and many medical professionals, especially in the West, encourage pre-natal testing so that children with Down syndrome can be aborted. The abortion rate is somewhat difficult to identify, but may be between 60 and 92 percent of all fetuses who have Down syndrome.
As the parent of a 28-year-old who has severe, multiple disabilities (not Down syndrome), I understand the fear, disappointment, and grief that parents feel when they learn that their child has a disability. Unlike Peter Singer and many others, I do not agree that children with disabilities should be aborted or euthanized.
The Down Syndrome Effect on Marriages
Some couples may fear that having a child with a disability will strain their marriage to the breaking point. While it is true that, in general, having a child with a disability slightly increases a couple’s likelihood of divorce, couples who have a child with Down syndrome have a lower divorce rate than the general population. I’m not suggesting that raising a child with Down syndrome is a piece of cake, but raising any child involves challenges and triumphs. Citing a study from Vanderbilt University, Maureen Wallace, parent of a child with Down syndrome, says that the study found the following rates of divorce of couples who have children with
- Down syndrome – 7.6 percent
- No disability – 10.8 percent
- Other disabilities – 11.2 percent
Knowing this, why would any couple, eager for a healthy marriage, want to abort a child with Down syndrome?
What’s the problem?
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, medical advances have allowed people with Down syndrome to live nearly as long as the non-disabled population, “As many as 80% of adults with Down syndrome reach age 60.” (Understanding a Down Syndrome Diagnosis, available free online, was created for parents and medical professionals to understand Down syndrome better and to give a glimpse of what Down syndrome may be like for individuals and their families.)
People with Down syndrome tend to be particularly relational, loving to make connections with other people, feeling life deeply – both the highs and the lows. When I led communion a few weeks ago with a Friendship group, one woman with Down syndrome wept openly, talking about her grief over her father who passed away. After the service, a man with Down syndrome talked excitedly with me about the Bible’s teachings.
Vinnie Adams, a disability ministry leader, says, “The most disabling condition in any community or church community is the attitudes and worldviews of the majority. . . . to view someone as less than or dispensable is not only wrong, it’s counter to the heart and Word of God.”
The “problem” with Down syndrome is the societal stigma attached to people who are different from the majority. Most people in the world are appalled when hearing about attempts to extinguish a particular population or ethnic group. We even have a name for it: genocide. Yet this very action is happening when whole societies attempt to keep all children with Down syndrome from being born.
I don’t want to speculate what society would lose if we had no one among us who has Down syndrome. That would put a utilitarian value on a people group and invite a cost/benefit analysis. Instead, I’d like to conclude where the Bible begins. We are all made in the image of God whether our chromosomes have extra copies are not, and that’s something to be HAPPY about! (Check out the video below.) So let’s celebrate World Down Syndrome Day.
We told stories a few years about people with Down syndrome in our newsletter Breaking Barriers. Do you have a child or grandchild with Down syndrome? Please share a story in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.