Many parents are forced to suffer through negative diagnosis experiences after learning one of their children has Down syndrome. For moms who receive a prenatal diagnosis, it’s even worse, as they often are pressured into abortion. It can be hard to say the right thing in the moment, but one mother has a question for her doctor: why?
In an essay for “The Mighty,” A.D. Smith shared her diagnosis story, and the question she wants her doctor to answer. Like other parents before her, Smith said her doctor shared the news in a cruel and callous fashion.
“When my husband and I met with our high risk specialist, he came in with a spiral notebook, never even introducing himself, immediately sat down, said ‘the results show 99% that it has Down syndrome’ and started writing out in Roman numerals all of the things he predicted would be wrong with our baby,” she wrote. “He used medical terminology that sounded beyond frightening to already emotional parents, such as tricuspid valve regurgitation, then looked up from the spiral notebook and said, ‘If you want, we can do an amniocentesis to confirm what we already know. Some parents want to do that before they terminate.'”
Smith informed her doctor that they would not have an abortion, but afterwards, remained haunted by the way he had treated them. Ultimately, there was one question she said she wished she had asked: why does Down syndrome immediately make him think of abortion?
What in particular makes their lives less valuable? I understand that a person with DS is more likely to have some additional health problems (which by the way, you were wrong on every single one of your Roman numerals), and may require some therapies in order to accomplish certain tasks. However, if the reason doctors advocate for termination of pregnancies with Down syndrome is because of known health issues associated with it, why would you stop at DS?
If a pregnant couple came in and both individual’s family history had addiction and mental illness, would you immediately recommend they terminate their pregnancy simply because their baby has a higher likelihood of also experiencing these conditions and may be in rehabilitation centers or mental health hospitals as they get older?
If a pregnant couple came in who were both overweight and had family histories of obesity, would you recommend they terminate their pregnancy simply because their child has a higher likelihood of also being overweight and therefore could have additional health problems such as heart disease? I would hope not for either case!
If there were prenatal testing for type 1 diabetes, would doctors encourage those parents to terminate as well so they wouldn’t have the hassle of dealing with insulin, a pump, and worrying about their diet all the time? I would hope not.
So why would you immediately recommend termination simply because there is a higher likelihood that our babies with Down syndrome may have some health problems? Why wouldn’t you just let us know there is a higher chance of that happening?
Like many, Smith appreciated the inherent pro-life nature of prenatal testing. It should be used so doctors and parents can properly prepare, diagnose potential health issues early, and make plans for any extraordinary health care needed. Children with cystic fibrosis often need bowel surgery immediately after birth, while prenatal surgery on babies with spina bifida vastly improves the child’s chances of walking. Yet too often, this pro-life tool of prenatal testing is hijacked and turned into a method of weeding out those some people see as “unfit.”
Smith’s story is not an anomaly in how the doctor dehumanized her son. Other parents also recounted how their doctors called their baby “it,” or said they would be better off dead than living with Down syndrome. Ultimately, only 11% of women report having had a positive diagnosis experience, while a survey found 13% of doctors were willing to admit that they had pressured parents into abortion by emphasizing the negative aspects of Down syndrome.
Everyone, no matter how severe the disability or defect, has a right to life. Advocating for the death of a preborn child with Down syndrome stems from ableism and prejudice, even as people with Down syndrome are living longer, healthier lives than ever before.
Doctors — the people who hold lives in their hands — should be held to a higher standard. When lives are at risk, there’s no room for bias to enter the equation.
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