Kathleen Parker

"Words are things; and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think."
- Lord Byron (1788-1824), from "Don Juan"

Lord Byron never finished his masterpiece, the epic poem "Don Juan," but he might never have begun it had he been conceived today.

For Byron was born with a slight deformity - a clubfoot - that nonetheless left intact whatever degree of self-esteem is necessary to support a galloping libido. He further reduced his handicap to irrelevance by swimming the Hellespont (today's Dardanelles Strait) in tribute to Leander and Hero, the drowned lovers about whom he wrote a verse.

Clearly, Byron's flair for the poetic didn't stop at the water's edge.

So much, meanwhile, for the handicap of a clubfoot, which in those days sentenced one to a lifetime limp. Today, medical advances make it and other minor deformities a temporary inconvenience.

Yet also today, we have little tolerance for imperfection, especially when it comes to our children. If, that is, they're lucky enough to get born. Those who make it to the other side of the birth canal, a crossing no less challenging than Byron's Hellespont, face the pressures of extreme parenting, such as that described in Sunday's New York Times Magazine about parents hauling their would-be actor/children to crying lessons.

The week before, in what could have been a prequel to the child-actor story, Britain's Sunday Times reported that more than 20 babies had been aborted in advanced stages of gestation between 1996 and 2004 in England because scans showed they had clubfeet. Had these parents never heard of Dudley Moore, the British actor who also had a clubfoot?

Another four babies were aborted because they had extra digits or webbed fingers, according to the same story. In 2002, a baby was aborted at 28 weeks because of a cleft palate. Last year, a 6-month-old fetus was aborted when ultrasound revealed that part of a foot was missing, according to the Times.

One doesn't have to believe in the supernatural to wonder what might have been. Not only with the babies who were known to be slightly imperfect, but also with the millions of others worldwide who have been eliminated for reasons less vivid.

Since abortion was legalized in 1973, estimates are that some 50 million of them have been performed in the U.S. Of that number, relatively few have been owing to fetal defects as compared to lifestyle concerns, according to a 2004 Alan Guttmacher Institute study.


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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