My son has Down syndrome. I won’t be silenced on abortion

The procedure targets people with the disability, because it is easily diagnosed. Ireland must resist becoming so cruel, says Michael O’Dowd.

When my son, Conor, was born with Down syndrome, 23 years ago, his paediatrician told me that the limitations to what he could achieve would be those placed on him by society.

As a family, we have had many battles over the years. We have been supported by enlightened educators and medics, and frustrated by closed minds and low expectation.

How disappointing it is, now that Conor has expressed himself in a highly-viewed video for retention of the Eighth Amendment, that he has to face criticism from organisations supposedly there to support him.

The question was asked, in an opinion piece in this newspaper, as to why Down syndrome has become the focus of arguments about retaining the Eighth Amendment.

The suggestion was made by Pat Clarke, president of the European Down Syndrome Association, that it was, in part, because of patronising stereotypes. The accusation is that we are engaging in an emotive and overly simplistic argument.

The answer, I am afraid, is much more chilling. It is because abortion targets people with a disability, and in particular people who have Down syndrome.

This is because of the ease of categorising the condition at an early stage of pregnancy. Screening can identify at nine weeks the chromosomal anomaly that is Down syndrome. Medical advice is that mothers should wait for a further two weeks for a definitive diagnosis.

However, the evidence from across Europe, Britain, and the USA is that they don’t wait. Increasingly, terminations of unborn babies with Down syndrome are taking place after the initial, nine-week test.

    (1)

    The Government’s proposals for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks will facilitate this practice.

    Let us look at some facts. People with disabilities, and their families, may take different views on the abortion

    debate, but it is hard to escape the cold, stark reality that abortion is devastating their communities.

    The statistics are bleak and depressing. In Britain, 90% of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted before birth. This is an increase in the rates of two decades ago. Iceland’s rate of abortion for babies diagnosed with Down syndrome is close to 100%, while Denmark is now aborting 98% of such babies.

    Paradoxically, this is at a time when, with early intervention and inclusion in schools and other social settings, people with Down syndrome have made significant gains, and are more independent as adults.

    (2)

    The European Down Syndrome Association must be aware of these figures across Europe. In fact, their silence, in the face of the figures, is disappointing.

    The Citizens’ Assembly was told by a senior expert in foetal maternal medicine that advances in screening and the availability of induced abortion had reduced the numbers of babies born with Down syndrome in the last four years. The prediction is that in 10 years some countries will have no Down syndrome births. Science, the assembly was told, had got way ahead of the ethical discussion.

    (3)

    It is difficult not to be alarmed by this assessment, as we debate whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment and legalise abortion. As a society, we have not reflected on the implications. Those proposing the measure have done everything possible to close down such a discussion.

    Parents like me have an absolute right to include our children, and our families, in this debate, since they are central to the discussion. We refuse to hide them away. We want to remind the Irish that people with disabilities have a right to life and that we will not go back to the time when people with disabilities were put out of sight and ignored. We would not have felt obliged to speak out, were it not for the relentless campaign from some quarters telling us to stay silent.

    Throughout this campaign, it has felt that our existence is inconvenient for some supporters of the abortion referendum and that they would rather we went away and were quiet.

    The Government’s proposals to have unrestricted abortion in the first 12 weeks present a real danger to the Down syndrome community. It is incredible, and deeply upsetting, that the organisations set up to represent our views are not only refusing to address this, but actively colluding with a government that is promoting this liberal policy.

    Thankfully, parents are not taking this lying down and our voices will continue to express real concern about the direction of our country.

Michael O’Dowd is chairman of Renua, chairman of Disability Voices for Life, and a member of Down Syndrome Ireland.

Reference:(1) The influence of noninvasive prenatal testing on gestational age at time of abortion for aneuploidy.Lassey SC, Reiff ES, Dobson L, Bromley B, Wilkins-Haug L, Bartz D, Little SE.Prenat Diagn. 2017 Jul;37(7):635-639.(2) 90% of babies with DS aborted in Britain - National Down Syndrome Cytogenic Register (NDSCR) for England and Wales, Annual Report 2013.Danish figures: Danish Cytogenetic Central Register 2010-2016 - http://www.auh.dk/

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