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.