On this National Disabilities Day, I’m struck by a great paradox. Today, in the United States and in many countries around the world, people with both physical and intellectual disabilities have more opportunities than ever before. Mass institutionalization of people with disabilities is a thing of the past. Workplaces have anti-discrimination policies that protect people with disabilities from unfair treatment. Sports for people with disabilities have become a worldwide norm. Universities are developing programs for people with intellectual disabilities. The “r-word” is largely recognized as derogatory and dehumanizing. And yet, while our society has come so far in its treatment of people with disabilities who are born, we have utterly failed to protect these people’s most basic right—the right to life.
A few weeks ago, an article titled, “The Last Children of Down Syndrome” appeared in The Atlantic. The article stated that because 95 percent of women in Denmark who receive a pre-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to abort, only 18 babies with Down syndrome were born in Denmark last year. The article noted that in the United States, 67 percent of children pre-natally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. In 2018, a press release from the government of Iceland noted that because of pre-natal screening, only 2-3 babies with Down syndrome are born in Iceland each year. While our society has recognized that people with disabilities who are already born have countless gifts to offer—we’ve missed the most basic point. People, regardless of what they can or cannot do, deserve to live.
My older sister, Marita, has multiple physical and intellectual disabilities. While she does not have Down syndrome, she has a genetic disorder very similar to it. Her life, though certainly not an easy one, is filled with joy. She has had more surgeries than I can count. Tying her shoes and cutting her food are mountains she climbs daily. Getting out a thought sometimes takes her several minutes. Marita struggles to do the things most people take for granted with one major exception. Marita does not struggle to love. No, loving is something Marita does better than anyone I know. If you walk into the room with a smile on your face, you are immediately her friend. About five minutes after meeting you, she’s likely to give you a hug and tell you she loves you. If you wrong her, it’s forgotten the moment you apologize. If you do something to make her feel special—she’ll remember it for life.
Marita loves so well and so easily not in spite of the disabilities that have made her life so challenging but because of them. To love, we have to be vulnerable. For most of us, that requires breaking down walls and building trust. It’s a process that takes time and effort and can easily be destroyed. For Marita, being vulnerable is just part of being Marita, and consequently, loving is just part of being Marita.
That is what Denmark is missing, that is what Iceland is missing, and that is what the United States will be missing if we do not recognize that people with disabilities have dignity and worth beginning in the womb. By their very being, these people teach us how to love, and that’s something this world could certainly use more of. On this National Disabilities Day, let’s pray for a greater understanding of the gift people with disabilities are to our world. Let’s pray for a greater appreciation of those who teach us to love.
Mary Szoch is the Director of the Center for Human Dignity at Family Research Council.