Apparently smiling babies who have Down syndrome make some women feel uncomfortable. God forbid that we cause offence. Recently the French State Council ruled that expressions of happy children with Down syndrome were "inappropriate" because they were "likely to disturb the conscience of women" who had aborted children just like them. So as not to cause offence, the award-winning video, "Dear Future Mom", has been banned from airing on French television.
The prejudice is appalling, but not new. The Nazis killed children like this. The United States sterilised them. To Australia's shame, we hid them away in institutions until the 1970s. And today, over 94% of Australian babies diagnosed as having Down syndrome are aborted.
In a society that proclaims a respect for diversity, the dwindling number of people with Down syndrome fight to be valued, as future generations of people just like them are examined by ultrasound and subsequently aborted. Their sensitivity in regards to thecollective effect of reproductive choices of women and their partners on the number of babies being born with Down syndrome is understandable.
These babies are wanted until the diagnosis.
Diagnostic tests, screening and scans have become commonplace among all pregnant women, including the ultrasound – that amazing photo of a baby in formation that women and their partners look forward to enthusiastically.
In 1958 scientists discovered that Down syndrome was caused by extra chromosome 21. Science is now able to diagnose, pre-birth, if a baby has a chromosomal anomaly. Screening for Down syndrome has become normalised and it is unusual for a pregnant woman to choose not to have the scan. Women are having children later which increases the potential for a baby with Down syndrome. Pregnant women aged 25 have a 1 in 1383 chance of a child with Down syndrome, while at 40 the chance is one in 84.
Down syndrome is a uniquely human genetic condition. Support groups such as the Down Syndrome Association of Queensland insist their members are not Down syndrome people, and certainly not sufferers or victims. Rather they are people with Down syndrome. People who experience the full range of human emotions - happiness, sadness, excitement, rejection, fear and love. The group's motto reads "Living inclusive, fulfillingand productive lives".
For obvious reasons, they oppose the specific testing for Down syndrome. If there was an equivalent test for learning disabilities, or screening for autism, would we be comfortable offering it routinely?How far are we prepared to go for a 'perfect' child? Is this a form of eugenics? What are we trying to get rid of, and what is a 'perfect' child after all?
There is pressure placed on pregnant women to have the test. Pressure continues then to make a decision about the results of the test. Some parents who choose to continue their pregnancy despite the test indicating a high probability of Down syndrome, speak of the lack of support they experience, and of the many times that termination is repeatedly offered throughout the pregnancy, despite their decision to have their baby. This situation was clearly articulated recently in the 19th November episode of ABC's Lateline. A family featured on the program spoke of the pressured they felt to terminate following a diagnosis of Down syndrome.
The awful fact is that the overwhelming majority of women carrying a child with Down syndrome do terminate. The woman then has to live with the decision. Any reminder of what they have lost through abortion pricks their conscience and hurts. That is whyFrance decided to ban smiling children with Down syndrome on their TV screens.
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