Deem Them Not Useless

One of the last laws in Europe banning abortion, Ireland’s eighth amendment, was decisively rejected by voters on May 25. The plebiscite’s result allows the amendment to be struck from the country’s constitution. Once that happens later this year, Irish women will no longer have to smuggle in abortifacients or cross the Irish Sea to terminate their pregnancies. Eminent news media in Europe and North America interpreted the vote as a glorious victory in the cause of freedom and rights.

The ban remains in the small U.K. province of Northern Ireland, but abortion-rights activists, with the enthusiastic backing of those same news media, have now turned their attention there. On June 7 the British Supreme Court blocked an attempt to strike down Northern Ireland’s abortion law, but only because four of seven justices concluded that the organization filing the suit—the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission—didn’t have legal standing. The court’s presiding justice, writing for the majority, agreed that Northern Ireland’s law is “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights. One may wonder how a medical procedure so dependent on modern technology can be a human right, but such is the unassailable logic of modern liberalism.

The right to abortion, if there is such a thing, is usually spoken of in clinical and abstract terms, but of course the application of this right is hideous and disturbing, difficult even to discuss without blanching. The abolition of the eighth amendment will allow the Irish, to take just one component of this grim subject, to wipe out an entire population—namely those with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder causing moderate intellectual disability and distinctive facial features. In North America and much of Europe, a prenatal screening revealing this chromosomal abnormality usually results in the destruction of the unborn person. It’s difficult to know how many pregnancies end in abortion as a result of a Down syndrome diagnosis, but it’s likely close to 67 percent in the United States. In Europe, that figure is 92 percent and perhaps higher. One rarely encounters a person with Down syndrome in continental Western Europe.

No parents would prefer that their child have Down syndrome, so in a sense it’s understandable that expecting parents receiving the news that their child is affected by the disorder would seek a way to avoid this outcome. Yet government policies permitting abortion for any or almost any reason have meant not just the dramatic reduction of Down syndrome, but the dramatic reduction of a class of persons. What the practical consequences of this reduction may be for the developed world (an ironic term in this context) are perhaps damaging in ways few of us can appreciate.

These thoughts occurred to me recently when my youngest daughter “graduated” from her public elementary school. Among the 200 or so names of students announced during the ceremony was that of a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome. When his name was spoken and he proceeded across the stage to claim his certificate, the assembled crowd of maybe 1,500 erupted in cheers and applause. The sight of this happy and proud young man drew from us an innate impulse to protect and honor the weakest in our little community. The response was spontaneous and beautiful.

It was in a sense a little picture of the ways in which people with Down syndrome draw out kindness and generosity from their fellow creatures. They are hardly the only ones bearing this office, but they are among the ones we have it in our power quietly and clinically to exterminate. The ministerial role of the poorest and weakest among us is the subject of a mostly unremembered poem by William Wordsworth, “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” about an ancient vagrant whose only function is, it would seem, to soften and humanize the villagers among whom he travels.

Him from my childhood have I known; and then

He was so old, he seems not older now;

He travels on, a solitary Man,

So helpless in appearance, that for him

The sauntering Horseman throws not with a slack

And careless hand his alms upon the ground,

But stops,—that he may safely lodge the coin

Within the old Man’s hat; nor quits him so,

But still, when he has given his horse the rein,

Watches the aged Beggar with a look

Sidelong, and half-reverted. She who tends

The toll-gate, when in summer at her door

She turns her wheel, if on the road she sees

The aged beggar coming, quits her work,

And lifts the latch for him that he may pass.

The post-boy, when his rattling wheels o’ertake

The aged Beggar in the woody lane,

Shouts to him from behind; and if, thus warned,

The old man does not change his course, the boy

Turns with less noisy wheels to the roadside,

And passes gently by, without a curse

Upon his lips, or anger at his heart.

Wordsworth was concerned chiefly with government policies meant to place vagrants in workhouses, but his warning transcends the political circumstances of England in the 1790s and is, I think, highly pertinent to the plight of our Down-affected citizens.

But deem not this man useless.—Statesmen! ye

Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye

Who have a broom still ready in your hands

To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,

Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate

Your talents, power, and wisdom, deem him not

A burden of the earth.

Our Down syndrome friends also have a wonderful capacity to rattle social conventions and otherwise keep those around them from becoming too complacent. I think for instance of my friend Simon (not his real name), a member of my church. I recently taught a class on First Samuel, an Old Testament book about just and unjust political power. Former FBI director James Comey had been much in the news that weekend, and I mentioned Comey’s name in passing. Simon awoke from his slumber and raised his hand. I called on him. “My dad,” he stated proudly, “says James Comey is a lying bastard, and I agree with him.”

Whatever a pair of frightened parents might conclude when told bad news about their gestating child, surely no one wants a world with fewer Simons. These guileless people leaven our communities with an undefinable beauty; they evoke compassions we didn’t even know were there and disincline us from cruelty and spite.

What will we become if we rid ourselves of them? Probably not kinder or more lovely.

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