A couple years ago, a friend of mine contacted me about someone he knew who was considering abortion because their pre-born child was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. He consulted me about what to say to his friend (who was related to the expectant couple) to try to change their minds. Recently, another friend of mine contacted me about a friend of hers in a similar situation. What are pro-life people to do and say in these situations? Here was my advice:
Further to our text exchange, I am praying for your friends as they face this unexpected and difficult situation of knowing their pre-born child has Down Syndrome. Indeed you are correct that we must pray, for it is God’s wisdom that we must rely on here, not our own. It’s important to remember that our prayers should naturally flow to action, for just as a canoe will go in circles if only one oar is used on one side, but it will glide forward with an oar on each side, so too must prayer guide action, and action flow from prayer.
As I reflect on your friendship with your friend who is the brother of the pregnant woman, I am reminded of Esther in the Bible. As you well know, she was placed where she was “for such a time as this.” Her uncle could not make the appeal to the King, but Esther could. She prayed and fasted in preparation for the verbal appeal she was to make to the king.
Since I am more removed from this situation than you, I will do my best to equip you with perspectives and insights to help you make an appeal to your friend, an appeal asking him to make a similar appeal to his sister. I’m certainly happy to chat further to this e-mail, so let me know.
As I mentioned in our text, time is on the side of life. It is important that she not be rushed into a decision, which is something proponents of abortion in this case may do. There is no need to rush, and rushing only leads to making decisions based on emotion and fear, thus leading to choices that can then lead to heartache and regret.
So, how can you help your friend help his sister? Start with the prayer of St. Francis: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.” Your friend’s sister is devastated. Empathy is so important here. Seeking to understand her and her concerns and fears is very important. Those who have not faced a poor prenatal diagnosis can’t know what it’s like, so while it isn’t accurate to say “I know what you’re going through,” when we don’t, it is accurate to say, “I can’t even imagine how difficult this must be for you.”
From what you’ve told me, it sounds like this couple joyfully embraced the news of their pre-born child so many weeks ago. That news heralded the news of their other child being an older sibling. It filled them all with joy and anticipation—new life meant new adventures for this little, growing family. One plus one equaled three, and now one plus one equals four—their love is multiplying in ways that defy math. And all that seemed dashed with news that their beloved, youngest child is disabled and sick. It is very possible that a negative and depressing picture of the future has now been painted for them. Discouragement, disappointment, and despair are very real emotions they may be experiencing. Let them express that. Then, it’s important for you, and your friend, to be a voice of hope, seeing a future they may not be able to see yet. It’s your job to paint for them how life is beautiful (not easy—but beautiful), even when life brings with it suffering. More on that in a bit.
Asking questions is important. This woman and her husband need to be heard, and they need to feel heard. It’s hard to find the right help when the problem isn’t clearly identified. So what, specifically, do they fear most? That their child will suffer? That they themselves will? Financial costs? No support? What does she fear? Only when fears are verbalized can we seek to alleviate them.
Often in these situations, people can feel very lonely. Over 90% of children who have Down Syndrome are killed by abortion, so there doesn’t seem to be many people around who have what their child has. And yet, 10% do make it out alive, and often the families of these children are beautiful witnesses to the gift of life, even—and especially—a life that is less than “perfect.” I have a friend, Leticia, who has a daughter who has Down Syndrome; in fact, I just visited her in Connecticut. She is interested in speaking with your friend’s sister. She can address concerns they have, such as finances or suffering, as these are real situations she herself has lived. Further, she has written a book on embracing children with special needs, and I can give that to you for your friends as well.
I can also connect this couple with a pro-life doctor in their area if they are open to that, so please let me know. A pro-life doctor would have a more hopeful picture of the future, and provide life-affirming ways to help this family.
Further, I certainly am more than willing to meet with them, or the brother or parents if they are open to it. When I went to Romania I looked after a little boy, Cristi-Daniel, who has Down Syndrome. His little life, accomplishments, and joy were a gift to me and I’d be happy to share my experience. I am back on Tuesday so please let me know if anyone in the family is open to meeting. You mentioned the grandparents are practicing Catholics. Perhaps they’d be willing to get together with me to pray and discuss things? I think they’d appreciate what my friend Leticia received in prayer when holding in her arms her child with Down Syndrome; she thought about Jesus' mom mothering Him, and reflected on her own mothering of her daughter, and meditated on the commonalities between Jesus and children with special needs; she writes,
“Mary bore a Child like no other; A child who did not conform to society's expectations; He was different from the others; He gazed upon Heaven when the rest could only see clouds. He reminded them of their failings, their lack of charity, their shallowness, their impatience, and their rush to judgment. His government tried to kill Him, and eventually succeeded. He had to endure constant misunderstanding of what He was trying to communicate, and bore the frustration of those who misunderstood Him. He was mocked and rejected, and at times, it seemed only His mother still stood by Him. She felt the loneliness of seeing her Son rejected because He was different, yet she bore the pain patiently because she knew that it was for us, the ‘least of these’ that He suffered and died.”
You mentioned that their pre-born child has heart problems. And in the face of this (a common ailment for those with Down Syndrome) they are thinking of ending that child’s life. A good question for them to consider is what would they do if their born child was diagnosed with a heart condition? Why treat this younger child any differently?
Related to that, another good question to put things into perspective is to consider what we do when those we love are not well—do we eliminate the sufferer or alleviate the suffering? Hospitals and the medical community exist to fulfill the latter. This little child’s difficulties can be alleviated without the child being eliminated. And there are people who will rally around this family and help ensure the latter; I know the people and I guarantee we will help.
I’m not sure if the child’s heart condition is so severe that the doctors are saying she or he will not live long after birth, but if that is the case, a good question to consider is this: When we love someone, and don’t have much time left with that person, do we maximize or minimize the short time we have left? Imagine someone you love was told they had only 4 weeks left to live—would you wait until the end of the 3rd week to visit, or go right away? So it is if their child will have a shorter life—if they don’t have as much time with the child, why cut that limited time short with abortion? If they would embrace every month, week, day, minute, and second with a loved one who is born and given a poor diagnosis, why not embrace every moment with this child who is pre-born and given a poor diagnosis?
Often people fear that because of the grief they will experience when the child naturally dies. And that grief is very real. A good question to consider though, is whether they’d experience grief at abortion. You mentioned they wanted this child so that means if they have an abortion they will assumedly experience the sadness of losing the child. There is, however, an important difference between these two kinds of grief—with an abortion they will grieve the death of a child they killed; if the child dies after birth due to illness/disability, they will grieve the death of a child who died naturally.
I have been very moved by this video called “Choosing Thomas.” I cannot recommend this enough. It is a beautiful story (under 10 minutes) of a couple who were given a poor prenatal diagnosis (their child had Trisomy 13) and they were offered an abortion. They opted against it and embraced every moment of Thomas’ short life, from his last months in-utero to his 5 days after birth. One of the compelling quotes in the documentary is this: “The only thing Thomas will ever know in this world is love.” How beautiful, and how true. But tragically the same cannot be said for a child aborted—for the only thing those children will know in this world is rejection, abandonment, and killing. Thomas’ mother also says,
“I’m afraid to say goodbye. But I can’t imagine what it would have been like to not have had this opportunity to go through this with him and to get to know him and to love him. It really has been amazing as opposed to just shoving it down and forgetting about it and pretending that his life didn’t happen and that it didn’t matter.”
Finally, perhaps most poignant, is what his mother says at the end: “We knew it would be a hard road but I think sometimes when you make the toughest decisions you can get the greatest joy out of those. We didn’t not terminate because we were hanging on to some sort of hope there was a medical mistake or there was going to be some sort of medical miracle. We didn’t terminate because he’s our son.”
And so that brings me to another point I wanted to address, which is suffering. We humans naturally recoil at suffering, for it is painful and hard. And yet, suffering is a part of life. Nick Vujicic, a motivational speaker, suffered greatly in his early life, having been born without arms and legs. In the face of suffering he thought about killing (in this case, himself) and then realized that his suffering put him in a unique position to reach out to the world, to offer a message of hope and inspiration to people in a way someone with arms and legs could not. The same can be said for other ailments, whether genetic disabilities or sickness—while painful, these can be opportunities to love and be loved in beautifully unique ways. If we think about inspiring people, what sets them apart from those who do not inspire is not that they face suffering (the uninspiring person faces suffering too) but rather how they respond to their suffering (the inspiring person doesn’t give up on life, but does the right thing even when it’s hard). These stories feature this point:
Finally, it’s important to point out that not only does abortion deprive someone of the opportunity to live the life they were conceived to live, but it directly destroys the body of a precious baby who cannot defend herself. Now, more than ever, this little one needs her parents to be her advocate, not her destroyer.