By Jacinta Hamilton
On March 21, we observed World Down Syndrome Day — a celebration of the countless individuals who bless our world with this condition. However, the fight to recognize the value of their lives continues. In our country, approximately 74% of expectant parents choose to abort their unborn child with Down syndrome. Other countries experience even higher rates of abortion, including Ireland and Iceland.
This brutal landscape belies the beautiful experiences of families who choose to give life to babies with Down syndrome. The reality is Trisomy 21 (another term for Down syndrome) is not a death sentence; it’s a blessing. I believe we are at a moment of grace in this country where we can bring deeper and more profound attention to human life with special needs. Ultimately, I think the personal stories and the faces attached to the diagnosis will change hearts.
Fourteen years ago, upon learning that my little brother was born with Down syndrome and would do some things more slowly than his siblings, my 8-year-old self spontaneously responded with, “It’s not a race!” Words cannot express the blessing that Gabriel is to his parents, six siblings and his many other family members and friends.
This young man has an overwhelmingly powerful influence on those who know and love him. He makes life fuller and richer in every way! Gabriel is the most loving and self-giving person I know and I believe he has his finger on the pulse of what life is truly about. There is not a thing about him I would change. The fullness of Gabriel’s life is not measured by his external abilities, but rather his eternal value as a child of God.
Just before we entered the hospital room, my dad told my siblings and me that there was something extra special about our new brother, Gabriel. In my dad’s words, we had a beautiful and healthy baby brother who was truly a blessing to our family. Dad told us that Gabriel had what is called Down syndrome. He said that Gabriel was perfect and needed lots of our love. He also said that it might take Gabriel longer to learn how to do certain things. Dad said it was not really a big deal because we were all going to help Gabriel.
I distinctly recall telling Dad in a matter-of-fact way: “Well, it’s not a race, Dad!” Where that came from, I cannot tell you. It has become my mantra. Life, learning, and achievement are not diminished by a “disability.” Without being able to express it at the time, I somehow knew that Gabriel’s Down syndrome was a small part of him; it was not his identity.
“I just felt blessed,” was my mom’s response to what she felt when she learned of Gabriel’s diagnosis at birth. This was a grace. I do not mean to indicate that other responses are not genuine or appropriate. However, my mom’s response shows that a special needs diagnosis does not need to be a moment of grief but rather a celebration of life.
My own experiences tell me that yes, a child with special needs will affect your family life, but in the best possible way! Even though Gabriel may not conform to the ideals of society, he clearly teaches me that life, learning and achievement are not a race. It is a lesson that permeates all aspects of my life.
Persons with special needs have been targeted as not worthy of life for far too long. Our Creator endowed us to reverence all human life. Seeing all life through a lens that celebrates the dignity, self-worth, intrinsic value and the immortal soul of each person will enable us to defend strongly all human life from conception until natural death.
We cannot compromise the right to life. We must exercise our free will in defense of the most vulnerable. I echo the words of St. John Paul II, who said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought” (Apostolic Journey to the United States, 1995). My hope is that Gabriel’s story will inspire others to see the infinite value of individuals with special needs in their own lives.
(Jacinta Hamilton is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in elementary education and a parishioner at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City.)