Each year, Gerber, the baby food manufacturer, holds a “cute baby” photo contest, the winner of which receives a $50,000 cash prize and may appear as a “spokesbaby” to advertise the company’s products. Media coverage of the contest is usually limited to sweet human-interest pieces. Not this year. The contest made huge news when Lucas Warren, a child with Down syndrome, was named the Gerber Baby of 2018.
Notably, the news about Lucas was received with virtually unanimous praise. With a few exceptions—such as the Special Olympics and Tim Tebow’s “Night to Shine” prom dance celebrating people with developmental disabilities—positive depictions of people with Down are all too rare. Those with Down syndrome are more often the victims of what can fairly be described as a “cleansing”—a concerted international effort to see them wiped off the face of the earth through eugenic abortion.
If that seems harsh, consider these facts. Iceland brags—yes, that is the proper verb—that no babies with Down are born there because of prenatal testing and subsequent termination. Denmark has been accused of establishing a zero Down syndrome birthrate as a national public policy goal, though this is denied by its government; but what can’t be denied is that only four such babies were born there in 2016. Here in the United States, about 90 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down are aborted. Parents of these unborn babies have reported that genetic counselors often push the abortion option. The problem was so pronounced that back in 2008, politically opposed senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Sam Brownback (R-KS, now the State Department’s ambassador for religious freedom) joined together to push a law through Congress requiring neutrality in genetic counseling.
The idea that abortion is the best option for Down babies is furthered by media depictions that focus on the difficulties of parenting special-needs children. For example, in 2008, Newsweek warned about “an epidemic of special-needs kids,” focusing wholly on the negative aspects of rearing them:
For most parents, it’s the day-to-day stuff that consumes them: the hours of therapy, the doctor visits, the financial pressures, and the grinding anxiety that comes with it all. It is a rough, often isolating road. And one that promises to become even more challenging as our society enters a new, more complicated era of caregiving. That era is coming in part because many of the medical and social advances that have improved the lives of special-needs individuals have also increased the burden of caring for them. For instance, people with Down syndrome were once lucky to survive to age 30; today, the average lifespan is 55.
They live longer? Gee, what a shame!
Abortion advocacy isn’t the end of it. Some of the world’s most prominent bioethicists have published books and articles pushing the moral propriety of killing Down babies after birth. Princeton’s Peter Singer, who holds one of the world’s most prestigious chairs in bioethics, infamously wrote in his book Rethinking Life and Death:
To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. . . . [W]e may not want a child to start on life’s uncertain voyage if the prospects are clouded. When this can be known at a very early stage of the voyage we may be able to make a fresh start. . . . Instead of going forward and putting all our efforts into making the best of the situation, we can still say no, and start again from the beginning.
In other words, kill the baby.
In a similar vein, a notorious article published in the Oxford University–based Journal of Medical Ethics argued with specific reference to babies with Down—who, the authors admit, are often happy—that
to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.
If such an argument were made about race, it would rightly be branded bigotry.
Lucas’s Gerber Baby victory opens the door for a more balanced and positive story to be presented. Vogue published a sweet commentary by the mother of a Down baby:
There is a stereotype that people with Down Syndrome are always happy, and it’s one that, for me, is hard to dispute. In fact, people always ask me if I only take pictures of her when she’s smiling, but the truth is, no, she’s actually just always smiling. My dad, whose brother had Down Syndrome, believes that once there is more research done around the disorder, scientists will find that it negates whatever gene causes judgment. There is no science behind it, but, anecdotally, it’s absolutely true: Tenley loves everyone.
That is a message many don’t want to hear—or, perhaps, even allow to be communicated. France recently prohibited the airing of a pro-life television commercial that presented positive depictions of being the parent of a child with Down syndrome. From the Wall Street Journal story:
France’s High Audiovisual Council removed the commercial from air earlier this year, and in November the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, upheld the ban, since the clip could “disturb the conscience” of French women who had aborted DS fetuses.
What’s worse: hurt feelings or more aborted babies? We now know what the French government believes.
Perhaps the worst example of anti–Down syndrome cruelty came out of the Netherlands recently, in a video in which a financial expert coldly tells a young man with the condition that “Downers” cost society 48,000 Euros per year—“ten times” more than “normal persons.” People with Down syndrome may be developmentally disabled, but they are not stupid. Surely the ubiquitous message that they are not fully welcomed and embraced by the rest of society is not lost on them.
Underscoring that point: Frank Stephens, a man with Down, when testifying recently before a congressional committee in support of increased research funding, felt the need to justify his own existence. “Whatever you learn today, please remember this: I am a man with Down syndrome and my life is worth living,” Stephens said, emphasizing the last three words. At the end of his presentation, he lamented: “Is there really no place for us in the world?”
Shame on us. We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters with Down syndrome. Perhaps the 2018 Gerber Baby will help us step off our current course and embrace these gentle people with the same unconditional love they offer us.