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Fetal testing, eugenics and L'Arche

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists announced Jan. 2 that all pregnant women should be offered testing for certain genetic and fetal abnormalities--a statement that reminded me of a memorable Commonweal piece about "grassroots eugenics" back in 2004 (you must be registered to read).

ACOG's recent statement said that fetal "screening" is now less invasive and makes procedures less risky for fetuses. ACOG urges doctors to make tests available to any woman who asks for them.

While ACOG does not use the word "abortion" or even mention pregnancy termination in its statement, abortion always lurks around the edges of such issues. And, as the Commonweal article pointed out a couple of years ago, most couples seem to use fetal tests to determine whether they want to "keep" a baby that will turn out to have a disability.

There is a flip side to this coin, of course. Fetal testing COULD give couples time to accept and prepare for a special needs child. It could plug them into support groups and agencies that would help them understand what caring for a disabled child will involve. It would give them lead time to discuss the situation with family and friends who are likely to help them care for the child. When I had amniocentesis 12 years ago, the facilitator at the testing clinic DID suggest all these things.

One of the couples in our group asked, "So, do most people decide to keep their babies?"

"No, most terminate," the facilitator told us.

It's easy to cluck smugly at our sinful culture that extols physical perfection and trivializes human life, true as that might be, and to talk about sin. But to what extent do our churches at the local level put their money where their mouths are? When abortion is decried from the pulpit, is there an offer to help couples with disabled children woven into that homily? Not in my experience.

But if God wants these people to be born, there is clearly something we are to learn from them. Allowing them to be born is only the first step. Learning from them is the next.

So here's my plug for L'Arche, a group that upholds the dignity and value of mentally and physically disabled people. If there isn't a group in your state, you can learn a lot about how to support families caring for a disabled loved one. They are people worth knowing.



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Thanks Jean for this post. You know the old line about 11 AM Sunday being the most segregated hour of the week in the US? In too many congregations persons with cognitive/developmental disabilities--especially of the more demonstrative varieties--and their families are made to feel unwelcome. In New Jersey where I live there are strong efforts being made by interfaith coalitions to change that. Thanks too for earlier post on 'Groundhog Day:' in my sole foray into teaching the first-year theology course I assigned the film and students responded most warmly. You have good eye and big heart.

When I was more involved in the social justice ministry at my church, I had contributing responsibility to allocate weekly tithes to various organizations, and for Respect Life week, there was always a bit of a discussion about the kinds of groups that represented "life" values best -- we usually allocated some of the tithe to an adoption services program, and one year, I suggested that we might want to donate to a group that worked closely with those with Down's Syndrome or other disabilities, and that went over with a great big thud. I mean, the priest didn't even acknowledge the thought. I am convinced that the fear of children with Down's Syndrome is not simply a quest for perfect children -- it is the isolation and outright ostracism that results for families who don't have "normal" children. Not supporting these programs is just one facet of the problem, but a telling one.

The backstory to this post is that I have met a LOT of Catholics who make an effort to support the people with mental or physical disabilities, so they're getting that attitude somewhere, but maybe not through official channels.The woman who ran my son's day care through a Catholic Church used to have a girl with Down's Syndrome as a special assistant. The kids loved her.At the time, I felt that the day care was doing her a nice favor, but given the fact that my son has a very open attitude toward "different' people has made me see that she did us a favor, too!

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