The Decision to Abort When Faced with a Down Syndrome Diagnosis

The New York Times had an interesting article the other day, by Amy Harmon, on how more advanced and widespread testing for Down Syndrome is leading to a shrinking population of babies born with this condition. As evidence, the article cites research finding that 90% of parents choose to abort when they are given a diagnosis of Down Syndrome.

I suspect, though, that many parents of children with Down Syndrome would say that raising that child is incredibly rewarding. As a parent, I have found that the greatest pleasures are in watching your child achieve a goal. It doesn’t matter what; it can be anything. Being up on stage in a first-grade play, buying a trinket at the store by herself for the first time, riding a bike. It is always especially touching when a child overcomes obstacles. A shy child goes off on her first sleepover, for instance. My guess is that the underdog nature of a child with Down Syndrome makes the little accomplishments that much more satisfying for their parents.

When we took my son Andrew to the emergency room just after his first birthday, we were told he had meningitis, likely viral meningitis (which is less serious than bacterial meningitis, which is what it turned out he had). A doctor told us that one possible complication was permanent deafness. Although up to that moment in my life I would have felt awful about having a deaf child, within an instant I embraced the idea that Andrew could be deaf, and in my mind began making plans to learn sign language and thinking about how we would adjust our lives to make his life the best it could be. Life would be harder for him; but as a parent, that just made my job more important.

We were not so lucky, ultimately, to have a deaf child. Andrew died a few days later.

Dan Gilbert has written a great book, Stumbling on Happiness, much of which is about how people are extremely bad at judging in advance what will make them happy in the future. I am pretty sure that, were I faced with a Down Syndrome diagnosis, I would probably lean towards an abortion. But if my wife instead carried the birth to term, I suspect that raising that child would be the most fulfilling thing we would ever do.

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  1. markhew says:

    Thank you for this short piece. I found it both thought provoking and very moving.

    Due to my wife’s work with disabled children we have often thought and discussed the possibility of having a child with a severe disability. She has commented that her experience has challenged her once-conservative views on abortion and made her more sympathetic to those who chose abortion rather than raising a child who will have a v. poor quality of life.

    However…she has also challenged me to reconsider what “quality of life” means. We often impose on children the expectation that they must achieve and contribute to society in measurable (often materialistic) ways in order to have “quality of life” – often a euphemism for “jusitfying their existence”. Perhaps a severely disabled person can contribute in many other ways. And so what if they never “contribute” or “achieve”. Feeling the warm sun on your face or laughing at a simple joke – they are surely marks of a life of “high quality”. Forgive me if any of that sounded patronising…I would not wish a disability on anyone or indeed myself.

    Finally – consider, the reality of life in a human body is that we are all only temporarily able-bodied…

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  2. markhew says:

    Thank you for this short piece. I found it both thought provoking and very moving.

    Due to my wife’s work with disabled children we have often thought and discussed the possibility of having a child with a severe disability. She has commented that her experience has challenged her once-conservative views on abortion and made her more sympathetic to those who chose abortion rather than raising a child who will have a v. poor quality of life.

    However…she has also challenged me to reconsider what “quality of life” means. We often impose on children the expectation that they must achieve and contribute to society in measurable (often materialistic) ways in order to have “quality of life” – often a euphemism for “jusitfying their existence”. Perhaps a severely disabled person can contribute in many other ways. And so what if they never “contribute” or “achieve”. Feeling the warm sun on your face or laughing at a simple joke – they are surely marks of a life of “high quality”. Forgive me if any of that sounded patronising…I would not wish a disability on anyone or indeed myself.

    Finally – consider, the reality of life in a human body is that we are all only temporarily able-bodied…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. chriscal66 says:

    Down’s Syndrome is indeed a severe disability to be born with.That is tovflag up that love for these children and later adults is never spared by the parents I’ve witnessed in my job as a Psychiatrist in Learning Disabilities.

    Down’s or any other such serious disability does fullfil the economics of love though,probably more than having a “normal” child.From both sides it has to be said.It is known that the emotional capacity of people with Down’s Syndrome exceeds the ranges of the “normal” people.
    The simply experience love as an emotion in a wider sense!

    The economics of nature though are totally opposed to the ones of human love.
    down’s simply manifests when mothers of very late child bearing age decide to have a child.
    Nature seems to object to this.
    Natural selection,the great accountant,seems to object,too.

    Just two thoughts then…

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  4. chriscal66 says:

    Down’s Syndrome is indeed a severe disability to be born with.That is tovflag up that love for these children and later adults is never spared by the parents I’ve witnessed in my job as a Psychiatrist in Learning Disabilities.

    Down’s or any other such serious disability does fullfil the economics of love though,probably more than having a “normal” child.From both sides it has to be said.It is known that the emotional capacity of people with Down’s Syndrome exceeds the ranges of the “normal” people.
    The simply experience love as an emotion in a wider sense!

    The economics of nature though are totally opposed to the ones of human love.
    down’s simply manifests when mothers of very late child bearing age decide to have a child.
    Nature seems to object to this.
    Natural selection,the great accountant,seems to object,too.

    Just two thoughts then…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. SilverC says:

    Once I would have considered abortion if I learned I was carrying a child with Down Syndrome. About 10 years ago, however, my dog became a therapy assitance animal assigned to a group home for mentally challenged adults, of whom many had Down Syndrome. The dog loved them, and they loved her, and I believe they gained much from each other. I gained the most, however, as I discovered what wonderful, funny, caring, and — within some limits according to their individual disabilities — capable people they could be. The result is that if I were told today that I would raise a child with Down Syndrome, my first thought would be “Oh, I’m in for an adventure.” My second would be, “Most of it is going to be fun!”

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  6. SilverC says:

    Once I would have considered abortion if I learned I was carrying a child with Down Syndrome. About 10 years ago, however, my dog became a therapy assitance animal assigned to a group home for mentally challenged adults, of whom many had Down Syndrome. The dog loved them, and they loved her, and I believe they gained much from each other. I gained the most, however, as I discovered what wonderful, funny, caring, and — within some limits according to their individual disabilities — capable people they could be. The result is that if I were told today that I would raise a child with Down Syndrome, my first thought would be “Oh, I’m in for an adventure.” My second would be, “Most of it is going to be fun!”

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  7. SilverC says:

    That should say “therapy assistance animal.” I can spell, but not always early in the morning.

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  8. SilverC says:

    That should say “therapy assistance animal.” I can spell, but not always early in the morning.

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