One of the reasons behind legalizing abortion was the anguish of parents having disabled children.

Ironically, the ability to prevent many cases of retardation via vaccines (e.g. against Rubella, a common cause of profound retardation in the past), treatment (congenital syphillis), or surgery (meningomyelocoel and hydrocephalus) has improved over the last 40 years.

Other diseases that in the past were thought to be incompatible with a full life, such as cystic fibrosis or polycystic kidneys, no longer result in childhood death.

But one of the common screening tests is the one for Down’s Syndrome, a common cause of retardation that in the past was “treated” with the children being placed in institutions.

But things are changing, and thanks to the Kennedy family’s involvement in the cause of the retarded, these children now usually live at home, get special education, and are accepted as part of the community.

As a result of society’s change in attitude toward these children, one result is that more parents are refusing advice to abort these children, and are choosing to raise these children. The reasons are surprising.

From the BBC:

A fifth said they had known somebody with Down’s, a third cited religious or anti-abortion beliefs and 30% felt life had improved for people with Down’s….

Most respondents said they felt supported by their family and friends and considered that the future was far better today for those with Down’s syndrome.

They pointed to integrated education in particular and a greater acceptance of what it means to be different.

One respondent said: “I don’t subscribe to the notion of the ‘perfect human being’ and found the idea of selecting one child in preference to another abhorrent.”

The opinions are in contrast to much of the critical sniping against Sarah Palin by some partisan blogs.  The refusal of the Palins to abort their child with Down’s syndrome was used to snipe at her as a religious nut, yet the UK study suggests the decision to carry the child with Down’s syndrome to term has more to do with an acceptance of the handicapped child as a person who is valuable and can be loved.

Down’s syndrome has come a long way in the last fifty years. When I was in medical school, such children were placed in institutions at birth. As late as 1982, doctors persuaded parents not to repair an espophageal blockage on a child with Down’s syndrome, resulting in the child dying a terrible death. The doctor involved dismissed criticism, emphasizing that the child would essentially never be able to talk, walk, or care for himself (none of which is true).

Medical textbooks in the 1950’s said these children rarely lived beyond 12 years, probably because they were prone to certain infectious diseases. However, with the availability of antibiotics, these children usually live into their fifties.

Medially, things have changed.

Usually these children are well cared for at home, and then attend special education classes in local schools. The “average” IQ is low normal to mildly retarded, and some can attend normal schools.

Other medical advances include the ability to treat the children with heart problems or with intestinal blockages.

These children often are “hypotonic”, that is they are floppy, and less strong in moving. But this is now treated with physical therapy. The large tongue in many of these children makes feeding slow, drooling more common, and difficulty in speech. So the children and parents are taught to communicate with simple sign language, and in severe cases, surgery to decrease the size of the tongue can be done. In Europe, some parents actually do plastic surgery on the face so that the children are better accepted into society; in the US, however, such surgery is rare.

The children are prone to other medical problems as they grow. About ten percent are prone to instability of the neck; some have hyperactivity or other behavioral problems, but most are friendly and outgoing and have good “people skills”.

People with Down’s syndrome have some immune problems, so infectious disease (especially ear infections) are common. They have a higher rate of some forms of Leukemia. And the children must be monitored for thyroid problems.

As we see more and more people with Down’s syndrome age, it has been discovered that they develop typical Alzheimer’s disease in their 40’s or 50’s.

However, with modern antibiotics, the quality of life for people with Down’s syndrome is good. Usually they can hold simple jobs, and can live with minimal supervision.

The discussion at the end of the Scotsman (newspaper) report on the story is telling: Some call these children names and complain that parents are selfish to make society pay the bills for such people.

But the best explanation of why all life is valuable is expressed by Pearl Buck, American writer, Nobel Prize winner and humanitarian:

The idea that the disabled have much to offer others is undoubtedly true and often movingly expressed.

Pearl Buck, who had a mentally impaired daughter, wrote that “without her I would not have had the means of learning how to accept the inevitable sorrow, and how to make that acceptance useful to others. . . . A retarded child, a handicapped person, brings its own gift to life, even to the life of normal human beings. That gift is comprehended in the lessons of patience, understanding, and mercy, lessons which we all need to receive and to practice with one another.”


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes medical essays at HeyDocXangaBlog

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