By Patricia E. Bauer
Just when you think you’ve heard it all, people come up with some new ones. Questions, that is — about Sarah Palin’s baby son, Trig Paxson Van Palin, who has Down syndrome (at left with sister Piper at the Republican National Convention). Here are answers to some common questions.
1) Down syndrome — that’s really bad, right? Doesn’t that mean he’s sickly and won’t live very long?
First of all, let’s think about this baby as just that — a baby. People with Down syndrome vary widely, and each has a unique personality, temperament, and combination of strengths and challenges. We haven’t been told anything about Trig’s health status yet, except that he has Down syndrome.
In general, people with Down syndrome have some degree of mild to moderate intellectual disability and have a higher risk for a variety of health problems, particularly heart trouble. At the same time their life expectancies have increased dramatically, from an average of about 9 years in the 1920s, to something reaching into the 60s today. (See my post here on Bert Holbrook Jr. of Waseca County, Minnesota, who just celebrated his 80th birthday.)
As recently as the 1960s, people didn’t know that people with Down syndrome were capable of learning, and sent them to institutions where they were most often neglected or abused. Most of the very negative images about them, and the worst health outcomes, date from that time.
With the improvements in education and health care of the last few decades, it’s not unreasonable to expect that children with Down syndrome born today can enjoy full, rich lives, form satisfying relationships, and gain skills that will allow them to work and make positive contributions to their families and communities.
2) If Palin opposes abortion rights, as she says, why did she have an amnio? Wasn’t that a waste of money?
Many women who oppose abortion nonetheless have prenatal testing so they can get information that may be useful in planning for their baby’s delivery and care. Gov. Palin has said she was glad to receive Trig’s diagnosis before he was born so she could learn about Down syndrome and come to terms with her son’s disability before she met him.
3) Ninety percent of American women who get a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome get an abortion. Doesn’t that prove people with Down syndrome have terrible lives?
Actually, no. People with Down syndrome are valued, valuable and contributing members of happy families. Their families report deep attachment to their children, and are saddened by those abortion statistics. Family members attribute the numbers to widespread public ignorance about people with Down syndrome; doctors who lack current information and aren’t well-trained to deliver prenatal diagnoses; lingering fears and stigma left over from the days when these people were institutionalized under horrible conditions; and unrealistic desires for the “perfect child.” See also this post.