April 28, 2014

David Watson: The Social Justice Issue the UMC Doesn’t Want to Deal With

Rev. Dr. David Watson is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of New Testament at the UMC’s United Theological Seminary. This originally appeared on his personal blog. Republished with permission. 


Imagine that there was a pre-natal test, commonly recommended by medical personnel, to identify children who would experience depression throughout their lives. Upon receiving a positive test, parents were counseled: You know, you might not want to go through with this pregnancy.  You’re headed down a very difficult path. You may very well see your son or daughter descend into misery. His or her quality of life will likely suffer greatly. This could lead to all kinds of other problems, including various forms of self-medication.  Plus, this nation spends billions of dollars every  year on mental health costs. Think of all the good we could do with that much money! Therefore, terminating this pregnancy is a reasonable option. It may be best for you and for all involved.

This would never happen, right? Don’t be so sure. It’s already happening, not with people who will experience depression, but with children with Down Syndrome. According to an ABC News article, 92% of women who receive a pre-natal diagnosis of Down Syndrome terminate the pregnancies. Right now, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that all pregnant women be offered a Down syndrome screening test. Why should this test be offered as routine? The obvious answer is that children with Down Syndrome are not understood to be as valuable as “typical” children.

By the way, there’s a word for this kind of thing: eugenics. What we’re talking about here is the elimination of a people group. Many of us are uncomfortable talking about this matter because it relates to topic of abortion. Yet regardless of how we may feel about abortion, can we not say that the selective termination of pregnancies based upon genetic characteristics is unethical and unacceptable? If we think, moreover, that we can limit this kind of thing to Down Syndrome, we’re fooling ourselves. As genetic testing becomes more sophisticated, will we act in the same way toward children with other forms of cognitive impairment? Children with autism? Children who are blind, deaf, or missing limbs? We can imagine a host of other traits that could be considered “undesirable.”

I have a son with Down Syndrome. His name is Sean. He is seven years old. He loves to jump on his trampoline, play angry birds, and watch Veggie Tales. He loves dogs. He doesn’t always want to go to school. He idolizes his big brother and sometimes drives him crazy. In other words… he’s a kid. He’s just a kid, pretty much like any other kid, but with a set of challenges brought about by his having an extra chromosome. Sean, however, is no less valuable to this world than I am, or you are, or anyone else is. He’s a person, created in the image of God. He matters. Kids like him matter. They matter just as much as any other kid.

Many people don’t see things in this way. More and more commonly, people are regarded from a utilitarian perspective. What can they produce? How smart are they? How good looking are they? A particular understanding of utility determines the value of a person. Christians, however, cannot adopt this perspective. As Paul writes, “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:16-17). Is Paul specifically addressing what I’m calling a utilitarian perspective? No, but it is inescapable that if you are part of God’s new creation, your perspective changes. You no longer view others from a human point of view. God changes the way that you see.

Why is my denomination largely silent about the fact that our culture is eliminating a people group, one to whom people like Sean belong? We have no problem speaking loudly about homosexuality. Some of our bishops have been arrested in immigration protests. The General Board of Church and Society has a long list of legislative priorities for this year.  We talk about social justice more than we talk about God. Why, then, are we silent?

Unlike many other minority groups, people with Down Syndrome cannot always speak up for themselves effectively (particularly because this minority is being removed from the conversation in utero). Although some go to college, are quite articulate, and hold down good jobs, others have more difficulty articulating their thoughts, and particularly abstract ideas. Other minority groups have an abundance of articulate and savvy spokespeople who can speak on their behalf. Who will speak up for these folks with Down Syndrome? If not the Church, then who?

My wife and I will be presenting on the topic of raising a child with Down Syndrome at United’s upcoming Light the Fire! conference. I hope you can attend this event, not just to hear us, but to learn more about what churches can do to welcome and be in ministry with people with disabilities.

5 Responses to David Watson: The Social Justice Issue the UMC Doesn’t Want to Deal With

  1. Marco Bell says:

    I have only praise for you and your family, and I know what life can throw at us at any moment.
    However, if science has provided such tests that will allow parents to have some modicum of control over how their respective family will develop, why would it be wrong to take the steps to ensure that?

    I have a challenged older brother. My parents knew that going in, yet he was born, and raised the same as all my other siblings.
    With love and understanding. [I don’t suppose it matters that he’s Gay, but that’s another topic].

    Now, if he were aborted, we wouldn’t have any knowledge of how he would have developed.
    And that, is just that! Not born…no history! Too many ‘what-if’s’ to the conundrum of abortion.

    Not every conception is met with such unbridled joy, so there must always be a path to choose between abortion, or delivery. Thankfully, it’s a law, whether you wish to endorse it or not. Just please don’t decide for others that may wish to go that route.

    I am happy for Sean, that he has such a loving family, and that you also, can take pride in raising a child in today’s troubled world. God bless you, and your family.


  2. eMatters says:

    Abortion is the ultimate social injustice. Any “social justice” advocates who aren’t pro-life should be mocked then ignored.

    Anyone who votes for Democrats is pro-abortion. From their platform: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”

  3. Pastor Casey says:

    Great insight and thank you for calling our attention to it.

    Part of UM silence may be due to official ambivalence on abortion. Our Discipline basically says, “Abortion is bad but necessary sometimes.” It’s very vague and some UM supported and/or affiliated organizations regularly press for abortion rights. Like sexuality, we’re not of one mind so no one stands up.

  4. Byrom says:

    I do not think it was mentioned here, but the screening for Down’s syndrome is not 100% perfect. That being said, I applaud the courage of those parents who respect the sanctity of human life from conception and continue a pregnancy after a “positive” Down’s syndrome screening. Also, let us not forget that the founding purpose of Planned Parenthood was eugenics – eliminating the “undesirables” from society.

  5. Pastor R. says:

    Dr. Watson, thank you for your article and raising awareness around this
    justice issue. I just came across a link to this article on my Annual
    Conferences Facebook page. I do not go to it very often or I would have
    come across your article sooner. And, I guess, that is part of what
    strikes me as well. This is dated April 28, 2014 and today is May 15,
    2014. Why am I the first to comment? I have spent part of the morning
    reading other posts and they are filled with comments. I believe the
    issues you raise within the UM Church and its silence are magnified by
    the lack of response. Again, thank you fro sharing and writing. I
    truly felt and heart the Holy Spirit as I read and I will continue to
    seek to follow the Spirit’s nudging around seeking justice.

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