Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- In addition to Barack Obama making history as the first African-American to be nominated for president and Sarah Palin taking her shotgun to the glass ceiling, there was a third civil rights barrier broken at the political conventions this year.

Trig Paxson Van Palin -- pronounced by his mother "beautiful" and "perfect" and applauded at center stage of the Republican convention -- smashed the chromosomal barrier. And it was all the more moving for the innocence and indifference of this 4-month-old civil rights leader.

It was not always this way. When John F. Kennedy's younger sister Rosemary was born mentally disabled in 1918, it was treated as a family secret. For decades Rosemary was hidden as a "childhood victim of spinal meningitis." Joseph Kennedy subjected his daughter to a destructive lobotomy at age 23. It was the remarkable Eunice Kennedy Shriver who talked openly of her sister's condition in 1962 and went on to found the Special Olympics as a summer camp in her backyard -- part of a great social movement of compassion and inclusion.

Trig's moment in the spotlight is a milestone of that movement. But it comes at a paradoxical time. Unlike African-Americans and women, civil rights protections for people with Down syndrome have rapidly eroded over the last few decades. Of the cases of Down syndrome diagnosed by pre-natal testing each year, about 90 percent are eliminated by abortion. Last year the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended universal, early testing for Down syndrome -- not just for older pregnant women. Some expect this increased screening to reduce the number of Down syndrome births far lower than the 5,500 we see today, perhaps to less than 1,000.

The wrenching diagnosis of 47 chromosomes must seem to parents like the end of a dream instead of the beginning of a life. But children born with Down syndrome -- who learn slowly but love deeply -- are generally not experienced by their parents as a curse but as a complex blessing. And when allowed to survive, men and women with an extra chromosome experience themselves as people with abilities, limits and rights. Yet when Down syndrome is detected through testing, many parents report that genetic counselors and physicians emphasize the difficulties of raising a disabled child and urge abortion.

This is properly called eugenic abortion -- the ending of "imperfect"


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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