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Critiques of UNC prof’s views on Down syndrome

February 29th, 2008

Down syndrome weddingUNC Prof. Albert Harris recently told his biology class that older women should terminate pregnancies if Down syndrome is diagnosed.

Two op-eds from the Charlotte [North Carolina] News & Observer:

Out of touch on Down syndrome

Ellen Russell, who recently celebrated her 29-year-old daughter Emily’s marriage (photo at left), questions Prof. Harris’ assertion that a child with Down syndrome had “ruined” the lives of a family of his acquaintance. She says such a statement misses the lesson of the last thirty-plus years of advocacy by families of people with intellectual disabilities.

Perhaps that family could never access what it needed in the educational, social, day-care, employment or medical systems. Perhaps it didn’t have the encouragement of family, neighbors and friends. It is impossible for me to accept that it was the child who ruined their lives. I can give a hundred personal examples of families whose lives have flourished and benefited from the experience of having a child with Down syndrome.

Those of us who work in this field are painfully aware of a time when people with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities were warehoused in horrible places, relegated to existences of neglect and squalor. The decades of reform that followed this national shame led to an emphasis on higher developmental and social expectations. Lo and behold, given humane treatment, respect for individual preferences, and the belief that everyone can succeed, people excelled and took their places in the community.

Experiences, options, participation, inclusion with nondisabled peers and, yes, common sense have opened doors to real lives for people with disabilities. Today families seek and demand educational, recreational, vocational, residential options in the community for their family members with Down syndrome. They do so because real life makes a difference.

… all our children have experiences and influences, good and bad that shape their lives and affect their families. In the end, we all want our children to be happy, successful, kind, respected, loving and loved human beings. None of those things requires a particular number of chromosomes.

Choosing to value life in all forms

Rick Martinez compares the lesson of Down syndrome with his perceptions about the life of Pope John Paul, whose years living with Parkinson’s disease were widely documented in the media.

John Paul’s death taught me that a suffering and physically imperfect life is no less worthy, a lesson I suspect Harris inherently knows.

For despite his opinion that abortion is the “moral” solution for expectant parents of a child with Down syndrome, Harris said that if faced with the same decision, he would spurn his own advice and choose life.

I can’t think of a more moral or humane choice.

Earlier posts start here:  Dad responds to UNC prof’s remark about Down syndrome

One Response to “Critiques of UNC prof’s views on Down syndrome”

  1. Nancy Iannone Says:

    This editorial was perfect. Having received a prenatal diagnosis, I know how difficult it can be to hear comments such as those by this teacher. If “the point” was discussion, the necessary lesson should have been clear: OBs, keep your opinions to yourself. Parents deserve NON-DIRECTIVE discussion when receiving a pre-natal diagnosis.

    I told all health care providers I would not terminate regardless of the results. I never expected the four termination offers I received from health care providers, or the unsolicited comments by people around me. Such things cut very deeply when you are upset about a diagnosis and trying to get your bearings. Expecting a child who has been targeted for termination brings on additional issues these doctors can not even begin to understand — a heightened sense of self-consciousness being one of them.

    I consider myself fortunate that once this hurdle of diagnosis was passed, my doctors were warm and supportive. They protected my unborn child and fostered an atmosphere of joy for her birth. I am truly thankful. In fact, my OB’s teenaged son was present as an observer at my daughter’s birth, and the next year at his pre-med ethics class, he had a very strong voice in a debate based on our experience. He also brought along the book Gifts: Mothers Reflect on How Children with Down Syndrome Enrich Their Lives because we are on page 130. I am sure his participation fostered much more constructive dialogue than the moral mandate lectured by this teacher.

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