“Grace happens,” even in Time magazine

We live in such strange times, in terms of the basic nuts and bolts of journalism.

Take, for example, the recent Time magazine feature story on the moral and ethical storms that are raging all around the evolving field of prenatal tests that help parents discover it their unborn children have Down Syndrome or suffer from some other condition (perhaps their gender is female) that makes them less than perfect and, thus, less worthy of being born.

The online Time site contains a tiny piece of the recent article (full text for subscribers only), which focuses on the life of a Down Syndrome child whose existence is the hook for the story — 4-year-old Gracie Perkins McLaughlin — the daughter of Melanie Perkins McLaughlin. This article, as we say here at GetReligion, has its share of religion “ghosts.”

However, that same Time site search for Gracie’s name also reveals the presence of an online article from late last year that contains much of the information that ran in the dead-tree-pulp version three months later. And that earlier article starts in a way that takes one of the main moral issues linked to this subject and puts it right in the lede:

Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about Melanie Perkins McLaughlin is that she’s not pro-life or pro-choice or pro anything — other than pro-information.

When a distraught pregnant woman phones a Massachusetts hotline for Down syndrome, agonizing over what to do with an unexpected prenatal diagnosis, she will be routed to Perkins McLaughlin, who went through the same awful calculations in 2007.

The article goes on to discuss a wide variety of issues linked to the lives of Down Syndrome children, and the reality of the fact that the lives of so many Down Syndrome children end in abortion. For example, it is highly ironic that modern science is making life much easier for the parents of Down Syndrome babies and making the lives of their children much more fulfilling and well rounded. Yet this trend coexists with the growth of less invasive forms of prenatal tests that make it easier to detect this condition and, if parents choose to do so, to abort these “flawed” unborn children. At some point, will the decreasing number of surviving Down syndrome babies make it hard to justify the financial cost of the programs that make their lives worth living?

If readers want to see this question discussed in openly moral or religious terms, they will need to look elsewhere. That theme is not included in this otherwise gripping Time piece.

But there is one tiny reference that hints at faith content. I would like to let you read this reference in context, but that content is only available to Time subscribers.

However, the EARLIER online version of the story contains a similar passage. Thus, here is the glimpse of this “ghost” in that context:

Perkins McLaughlin says it took her eight hours after her C-section to muster the nerve to go visit her daughter, Gracie, in the neonatal intensive care unit. “There are people out there who feel the test is great,” says Perkins McLaughlin. “In some ways, it is great. But it is scary too. Will more people terminate because it’s earlier in the pregnancy and why not just try again? I don’t know what I would have done if I had found out at 10 weeks.”

Gracie is now 3 1/2. In the two years since Perkins McLaughin, now 44, has served as a parent mentor for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, she’s told the dozen or so conflicted pregnant women who have contacted her that Gracie is bright: she started signing at six months and had accumulated 100 signs by age 2, prompting her grandmother to ask, Are you sure she has Down syndrome? She loves music, dancing and her older brother and sister. Perkins McLaughin tells them how Gracie has added perspective to her life, softening her Type-A edges. “She’s not going to do quantum physics, but I don’t do quantum physics,” says Perkins McLaughin. “Gracie has showed me in a profound way that I am not in control of everything. I have a bumper sticker that says, Grace Happens.”

Now, I know that “grace” means different things to different people.

However, if you read the whole story — either version — it’s hard not to wonder if little Gracie is alive, in part, because her mother had a bit of faith that made her open to seeing her daughter’s life as a gift. Perhaps this rather obvious question should have been asked.

Just saying.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • CarlH

    Because I approach life from a faith-based perspective, I understand and agree that some probing of the “ghosts” in this story would be very interesting, regardless of where that effort might lead.

    But given the source of the story, I’m not surprised that those issues were left untouched. Indeed, I wonder if the fact that the article is silent on those very issues may in fact give the story a greater impact, especially to the extent that it might touch people for whom an exploration of the religious ghosts would have been “inciteful” rather than insightful.

  • http://nathaniel-campbell.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel Campbell

    I would also point out that there was a time in Christian history when grace was precisely what was thought to abound in people with Down’s, other forms of mental retardation, and even many forms of mental illness. These “holy idiots” were understood to be closer to God, not further away. They were cherished because their child-like simplicity and innocence was a spiritual gift. Freed from the heavy weight of worldly corruption–the conniving, cheating, swindling greed we see all around us–people with Down’s syndrome live “holy” lives, graced with beautiful guilelessness.

    If only our society still looked upon these folks as gifts, not burdens.

  • Steve

    So what can we do to help change the society to not just tolerate a disabled child but help embrace that child and family? The culture of death is so pervasive. Gracie’s mom is promoting the culture of life by the existance of her daughter and her work with the hotline. My daughter was severely disabled. I feel helpless now to help other people see how important her life was even though she suffered daily. It wasn’t just me not wanting to suffer myself. What do I do now and what should each Catholic do to make the society change. I love reading blogs but most of the readers are in the choir.

    Jesus, Mary and Joseph pray for us.

  • Romulus

    the programs that make their lives worth living

    I’m sure you didn’t really mean this.

  • sari

    the programs that make their lives worth living

    I’m sure you didn’t really mean t



    The point has been made by parent and other advocates and was also mentioned in the article. The fewer children there are with any given disability, the harder it is to obtain quality programming for the child at school and in other venues. I know this from advocating for my own children. Districts can only hire and maintain necessary staff (OT/PT/Speech/ APE/counselors/learning specialists/paraprofessionals) when they have some critical number of students to generate state and federal disability dollars. Otherwise, they will try to substitute unqualified/underqualified teachers in an attempt to deliver minimal services.

    In addition, parents fear that schools and government will be less generous in the knowledge that deciding to continue the pregnancy is a personal decision rarely taken. Make a choice; deal with the consequences.

    I read the article when it first came out and thought it very balanced in all directions. As to changes to encourage the births of these children, families need to know that they will have support from their communities. Too often they go it alone: financially, socially, and spiritually.

  • sari

    I thought the article painted a pretty balanced picture of what it’s like to raise a child with Down’s. That said, one thing it downplayed was the enormous range of potential disability. Some children grow up capable of employment and independent living. Others are severely retarded and/or behavior-disordered. Like autism, the disability with which I am most familiar, there is no way to predict how Downs will present. So, while I am in agreement that using abortion to practice eugenics is bad, life is often not rosy for the affected individual, the parents, and siblings. It’s just not.

    And it’s more than denial–raising children with chronic disabilities never ends; it’s grueling. We knew one family with a severely impacted child with Downs. He’d had all the best therapies; in his late teens, he’d functioned on the level of a 3-4 year old. He often had massive tantrums and spent hours licking window glass ( I observed him in the car, but his Mom reported similar behavior at home). Last I heard he was evaluated as unemployable; his parents have a permanent child who requires constant supervision.

    Perhaps the journalist could have explored options for expectant parents contemplating termination. Are there organizations, faith or otherwise, which provide foster care and adoptions? Right now, disabled children–any disability–are incredibly hard to place. Do programs exist to provide no or low cost help in the home? What programs have faith-based organizations put into place to serve the cognitively delayed, behavior impaired, and/or physically challenged? Will volunteers babysit to give couples alone time to relax and regroup? Were Time to run a series, answering these questions could account for a whole ‘nother article.

  • http://www.juliaduin.com Julia Duin

    I did a similar piece for WaPo on people who adopt Down Syndrome kids and I was amazed to find there are 200 families willing to adopt such a child should the birth parents feel they cannot handle it, yet do not wish to abort the child. This information is not hard to find.
    Seems that most people who decide not to abort do so for religious reasons; the director at the National Down Syndome Adoption Network told me the vast majority of folks willing to adopt such children are Christian.

  • http://cause-of-our-joy.blogspot.com Leticia Velasquez

    Thank you Julia, for pointing out that no parent has to raise a child with Down syndrome with such an enormous waiting list. We know of another organization, Reece’s Rainbow where foreign children with Down syndrome are adopted out of the horrible institutions they are in. Hope abounds for these beautiful souls!
    I believe the Time magazine article to which you refer mentioned the study completed by Dr Brian Skotko in the American Journal of Medical Genetics which reported that 99% of parents are happy with their child with Down syndrome and 99% of the children are happy.
    No one asked how able they were. Just how happy!