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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.