Most parents receive the news that they are "expecting" with joy and excitement. For some, however, the good news turns sour when they learn that their unborn or newly born child has Down syndrome or is afflicted with some other disability like cystic fibrosis. What parents are told about their child's future and how they are told it often influences whether that child is born at all. That's why Senators Sam Brownback and Ted Kennedy have co-sponsored the "Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act".
The act (S. 1810) mandates that health care providers provide the mother of an unborn or newly born child with "up-to-date, scientific, written information concerning the life expectancy, clinical course, and intellectual and functional development and treatment options for a fetus diagnosed with or child born with Down syndrome or other prenatally or postnatally diagnosed conditions." In addition, the health care provider must provide "referral to supportive services providers," including hotlines, resource centers, and support programs. These measures seek to ensure that medical advice to parents of developmentally disabled children is accurate and balanced.
Sadly, in today's post-Roe environment the news that a child is likely to be born with a significant handicap is often a death sentence. According to The New York Times, about ninety percent of unborn children who are diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Moreover, when a prenatal cystic fibrosis test was developed, the number of children born with cystic fibrosis in Massachusetts dropped by fifty percent. No studies have been done to asses the cause of the drop, but the odds of this being simple coincidence are quite low. A likely cause is the prevalent cultural notion that "flawed" human beings do not have lives worth living.
Parents whose child has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis are often apprehensive and frequently terrified. They have little idea what to expect for the future and even less understanding of the resources available to assist them in providing for their child. Unfortunately, their fears are often heightened by doctors who present the news as a tragedy or encourage the parents to pursue an abortion. In their time of trial, many of these parents are not given sound information about the reality of raising a handicapped child.
Sadly, we have entered a period in our history when children who do not measure up to someone else's subjective standard of perfection are consigned to the ash heap of history. Roe v. Wade has produced a disposable man ethic which holds that if people are less than perfect or unwanted, they may be disposed of with impunity. What will be required in the future to secure our membership in the human family? Will we have to be as smart as a Supreme Court judge or as beautiful as Miss America? Will we have to be able to shoot baskets like Michael Jordan or ride a bike like Lance Armstrong?
And have we become so soft and so self-centered that we can't bear the burden of providing for those less fortunate than ourselves? Are we unwilling to learn the life lessons that come from serving the weak and frail and the handicapped? Have we come to the point where we seek only our own comfort and our own pleasure rather than the good of others? Is there no room in our society for those who are counted among the least of our brethren?
Only time will tell. But in the meantime, Brownback's and Kennedy's bill seeks to dispel the myths associated with disabilities and to let parents of handicapped children know that they are not alone.
There were times in America's past when neither blacks nor women were regarded as full fledged members of the human family. As a result, they too were deprived of the full panoply of rights endowed by the Creator to those created in his image. Those were not the best of times in America's history. Thankfully, however, there were other times when Americans were willing to pay the price to see to it that both blacks and women received the protections they were entitled to by virtue of their humanity. Will we be willing to pay such a price for the unborn and the handicapped in our time? Again, only time will tell.