My friend and colleague Amy Julia Becker wrote a lovely post on the Christianity Today women’s blog making the simple but vital observation that life for people with Down syndrome is not tragic and hopeless, but rather just as full of “good and bad things” as other people’s lives. Besides offering a glimpse into life in her own household, where one of her three children has Down syndrome, Amy Julia focused on a story making the feel-good journalism rounds. According to the Washington Times, a Catholic priest in Virginia, upon learning that a woman planned to abort a fetus prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome, asked the woman to hold off for 24 hours. He proposed that, if he could find a family willing to adopt the baby in that time, the woman carry it to term. She agreed, and a plea on the church’s Facebook page led to hundreds of calls from interested families. A selection process is under way, and if all goes as planned, the baby will be born and then adopted.
I am leery of those who present adoption as an easy-peasy win-win solution to the problem of abortion. There’s no doubt that adoption can be a wonderful choice for all involved when a woman has an unplanned pregnancy or decides she does not want to (or feels she cannot) raise a child with special needs—a baby is born, parents who want a baby get one, and a mother who doesn’t want a baby can know that her child will be loved and cared for. But while adoption can be a good solution, it is not an easy one. It is not easy to grow a human being in your body and push it out through your vagina (or have it cut out of your abdomen), and then hand it over to people you barely know. Forever. For adoptive parents (for any parents), it is not easy to bring a new baby home. Forever. All that said, the story from Virginia is beautiful and gratifying. If this situation works out as it is supposed to, and if all parties involved are acting in good faith and of their own volition, I can agree that, yes, in this case, adoption is clearly a better choice than abortion.
But not all pro-choice people see it that way. Amy Julia’s post highlighted a response written by Katie J.M. Baker on the web site Jezebel. Ironically titled Church Saves Fetus with Downs [sic], Everyone Lives Happily Ever After, Baker’s post was a rant, pure and simple, and not a very good one. Light on facts, heavy on sarcasm, the piece argued that the pregnant woman was “coerced” into carrying her baby to term. Coerced how? Did the good father lock her in the confessional until she agreed to his diabolical plan? The pregnant woman’s voice is conspicuously absent from the news stories, presumably for privacy reasons. But if there is no insidious back story, then it appears that this woman made a choice to take the priest up on his well-meaning offer. Seeing as women’s choices are precisely what we pro-choicers are supposed to support, I’m not clear on how changing her mind in response to a creative idea offered by a man in a collar is equivalent to coercion.
Beyond the stark absence of logic in Ms. Baker’s piece is an even starker absence of facts. She states that, “So many mistreated babies and kids with Downs live terrible lives,” linking to stats on how children with intellectual disabilities face a higher risk of abuse and neglect in “certain home environments.” Well, yes, “mistreated babies and kids” generally do lead terrible lives, whether or not they have Down syndrome, seeing as they are, um, mistreated. And yes, some families with disabled children do neglect and mistreat them. But assuming that babies with Down syndrome are better off unborn because they might be mistreated is logically equivalent to assuming that all babies would be better off unborn because they might be mistreated. Ms. Baker scolds the church for caring more about “nonviable fetuses” than “children with Down syndrome that are already alive.” While the fetus in question, at 23 weeks gestation, was not yet able to survive outside the womb, fetuses with Down syndrome are not ultimately “nonviable” (incapable of living or developing); the current life expectancy of people with Down syndrome is 60 years, and it has been rising steadily. The priest and families volunteering to adopt chose to see the fetus as viable in a larger sense, taking a long view of the life this child might have in a loving family. And while our entire society, churches included, still has much work to do to promote acceptance, understanding, support, and opportunities for people with Down syndrome and other conditions, there is robust conversation in Christian circles concerning how to overcome centuries of seeing people with disabilities as less than human, and how to welcome them as full and equal members of Christ’s body.
Perhaps Ms. Baker’s extreme, factually inaccurate views on abortion, choice, and Down syndrome are representative of some in the pro-choice community. But they are not representative of my views. So as much as I appreciated Amy Julia’s telling both her own family’s story and that of the baby in Virginia, I worry that her inclusion of the Jezebel post will serve to further entrench the two sides in the abortion debate (I told her as much, and she read this piece before I posted it). I imagine Christianity Today’s largely pro-life audience patting themselves on the back for holding the obvious moral high ground in contrast to those evil pro-choicers so blinded by their godless ideology that they can’t see the good in a woman choosing adoption over abortion. Amy Julia included the Jezebel post as an example of the “contemporary pro-choice mindset,” but it doesn’t at all reflect my mindset, or that of most pro-choice people, including those who are Christians.
The contemporary pro-choice movement writ large is certainly guilty of, at times, favoring ideology and rhetoric over thoughtful, fact-based discourse that respects the other side in this debate and values practical solutions more than political point scoring. But so is the contemporary pro-life movement, such as when they portray pro-choice voters as murderers, or caricature women seeking abortions as bimbos who just want to have lots and lots of sex with no consequences. But research consistently shows that most Americans are somewhere in the middle on abortion, rather than in agreement with these and other extreme arguments made on both the pro-choice and pro-life sides.
The media loves to focus on extremists over more thoughtful but less colorful supporters of the pro-life and pro-choice causes. But I know that the pro-lifers who harass women entering abortion clinics with posters bearing photos of bloody fetuses, murder abortion providers in church, or think that women’s bodies will prevent conception in a “legitimate rape” are not representative of all or even most pro-lifers. I know they are not representative statistically, and also because the pro-life people I know are not like that. The pro-lifers who know me should understand that Katie J.M. Baker’s Jezebel piece is as abhorrent to me as it is to them. If we have any hope for consensus around abortion and reproductive choice, that hope lies with those of us willing to have hard conversations built on honesty, facts, listening, and the respectful consideration of both individuals’ stories and cultural and political realities, not on sarcasm, overstatement, stereotyping, and deliberate obscuring of the facts.