Why Does Our Culture Celebrate Down Syndrome?

Why Does Our Culture Celebrate Down Syndrome? January 13, 2014

In an article for the Catholic World Report, Leslie Fain writes:

In the last two or three years, at high schools from Florida to Illinois, students have been forsaking quarterbacks and cheerleading captains and electing teenagers with Down syndrome to be homecoming kings and queens.

Last year, Target featured a boy with Down syndrome in one of its ad circulars, and the clothing company Wet Seal recently signed as a model a spunky teen with Down syndrome named Karrie Brown, after she received more than 11,000 likes on her Facebook page thanks to a little cheerleading from the company . . .

While the lives of babies with Down syndrome are quietly snuffed out, our culture will likely continue to celebrate the accomplishments of older children and adults with Down syndrome. Why the disconnect?

Enjoying a cupcake on her 8th birthday

It’s a good question. Leslie Fain interviewed me for this article, and we had an interesting conversation about what I have in the past called the “two stories” of Down syndrome. One story is a story of eradication–an increasing number of women who have access to technology for prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome who then choose to terminate. The other story is one of inclusion–increasing supports for individuals with Down syndrome and their families at school, through medical advances, and in the workplace. I have seen these stories as competing ones, and I have tried here and elsewhere to tell (and show–thus the pictures of Penny that overpopulate this blog) a “good story” about Down syndrome through our daughter Penny’s life and her place in our family. (See also George Estreich’s piece for this blog, What We Think Today, in which he contrasts the way the Today show examines advances in prenatal testing and heartwarming stories about children with Down syndrome.)

But Fain wonders whether these two stories are not in competition but are rather intimately linked to one another, whether our culture is becoming nostalgic about individuals with Down syndrome precisely because fewer of them exist around us.

And a dance party with her best friend

I’m not sure her hypothesis is right (and neither is she, by the way). Due to increased maternal age, which increases the incidence of Down syndrome, the birth rate for children with Down syndrome has remained steady even as the number of abortions has increased in recent years. In other words, though there are more terminations, there are not (yet) far fewer births of children with Down syndrome.

I’m hopeful that the positive stories about Down syndrome pose a challenge to the abortion rate rather than an indication that we are marching down a slow but steady and inevitable path to the extinction of babies with Down syndrome. Still, I think Fain’s question is worth considering, and I would love tok now what you think. Why, at a time when more and more fetuses with Down syndrome are aborted, are we celebrating the lives of the children and adults growing up in our midst?

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