Life matters: Persons with disabilities
By the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities
October is Respect Life Month. This column is the first in a series by the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities observing Respect Life Month.
2011 Respect Life poster
It says a lot about a society when a group of obstetricians and geneticists needs to be told by an 11-year-old girl that her life is worth living. According to The New York Times, “Sarah” told a roomful of medical specialists that she “likes to read. … Math used to be hard, but it is getting easier. She plays clarinet in her school band. She is a junior Girl Scout and an aunt, and she likes to organize, so her room is very clean. Last year she won three medals in the Special Olympics.
“‘I am so lucky I get to do so many things,’ Sarah said. ‘I just want you to know, even though I have Down syndrome, it is O.K.’”
Why would such a gathering be necessary? Because many of these specialists—like so many others in our society—have begun to think of babies as material goods, as products adults create to enhance their lives. And if the “product” is flawed and beyond the power of medicine to correct, we simply send it back.
Tragically, the attitude of such experts carries enormous weight when couples are confronted with a diagnosis of disability in their unborn child. In an attempt to offer couples full disclosure of potential health and learning challenges, many specialists present a gloomy picture of the child’s prospects. And many urge parents to consider abortion, contributing to the shameful fact that about 90 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.
But the threat to the lives of people with disabilities does not end at birth. Parents of special needs children, and adults with disabilities who are able to seek their own medical care, often have to fight for medical treatment that routinely would be given to someone with no overt disability. It’s as if those with disabilities bear the burden of proving to medical personnel that they are better off alive than dead!
And of course, millions of Americans who have enjoyed excellent health and fitness throughout most of their lives may discover firsthand in their later years the pervasive bias against providing treatment to those with diminished mental and physical abilities. Further, when dementia robs an individual of the ability for “meaningful” communication, many people today misguidedly consider that individual to be expendable. This must change.
In his encyclical letter “The Gospel of Life,” Blessed John Paul II identified “the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man.” In fact, he wrote, “When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life.” How often Blessed John Paul II reminded us that “every human person—no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society—is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God.”
Paradoxically, in some respects our society has made considerable progress in recognizing, accepting, and promoting the equality of persons with disabilities. Likewise, medical science has found cures for, or at least ways to alleviate, some handicaps, so persons with disabilities can live out their lives as fully as possible while making extraordinary contributions to society.
But there are many worrisome trends today that reflect a fear and an inability to embrace persons with disabilities as brothers and sisters. We are becoming more utilitarian, less compassionate, and less generous in making the sacrifices needed to treat all persons with dignity and respect. Often those with disabilities, the very ill, and the elderly are spoken about as burdens, and their care is evaluated by a crude cost/benefit analysis that ignores their equal and inherent dignity.
Not every person with a disability can make a concretely measurable contribution to society. Many will simply require our care and service. But in meeting this need, we discover a great truth: Persons with disabilities challenge us to be more fully human and compassionate, to recognize the presence of God in each human being. This requires us to sacrifice, to “stretch our hearts,” as Pope Benedict XVI has said. This requires us to gradually become more like Christ, which is after all the goal of every Christian life.
In short, as persons with disabilities share their gifts and needs, they bring out the best in our mutual humanity. They challenge us to live the Gospel precepts of charity in the real world, to sacrifice some of our comfort for others, to take the time to enable them to be full members of society. They need to feel our solidarity with them, and to know their true dignity and worth as fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. Our own future with Christ depends on it.
Entire 2011 Column Series
Oct. 5: “Life matters: Persons with disabilities”
Oct. 12: "The elderly are a blessing, not a burden"