Friday, September 12, 2008

A Little Truth

Star Trig

How baby Palin will change the discussion about children with Down syndrome.

By Barbara Curtis, September 8, 2008

Last week when Sarah Palin took the stage at the Republican National Convention she brought along a little extra someone whose very existence – suddenly center stage – would ignite a long overdue national discussion of what it means to welcome a child with Down syndrome.

The conversation actually began in the 1950s when a few brave mothers and fathers looked their doctors in the eye and said they wanted to take their babies home – extra chromosome and all – ignoring the standard advice: "Your baby is a Mongoloid. We know a place we can send him. We recommend you go back and try again."

Parents of today's children with Down syndrome owe a debt of gratitude to those pioneers who just said no to warehousing "defective" babies; who let go of their grief for the child they had expected and learned to appreciate the unexpected love and joy of the child they had.

It was a quiet revolution which taught us that love indeed was the answer. We learned that when they are raised at home in a loving family, children with Down syndrome were capable of far more than we'd ever dreamed. And while there is a wide range of ability – isn't there in the general population as well? – with proper support many individuals with Down syndrome could learn to read, hold jobs, live semi-independently, even, in some cases, marry.

The American public school system helped in this process, prodded by parents and advocates who insisted that every child deserved an education. And while it may have started with trailers behind the school, today our kids – instead of being segregated and stigmatized – are part of classrooms across the country.

The full inclusion of these children has been beneficial for more than just the kids with special needs. The generation that's grown up rubbing elbows with kids like Trig Palin has learned to value qualities beyond intelligence and appearance. Four years ago, the students at our local high school voted a classmate with Down syndrome homecoming queen – an event that has been occuring with surprising frequency throughout the country.

In many ways it's truly a wonderful world Trig is on his way to encountering. A world full of family, friends, and professionals who understand his needs and are eager to help him reach his potential.

But even as the quality of life has dramatically improved for individuals with Down syndrome, 90 percent of those diagnosed prenatally are aborted before they are ever given a chance to change hearts or make their mark on society.

Those of us with children with Down syndrome – no matter where we stand politically – have been torn by these conflicting messages from our culture: Yes, your child is worth our society's investment in resources and time but if it's not too late, Maybe you should just get rid of him and try again.

Trig's mother didn't do that, didn't avail herself of the quiet, convenient solution to her "problem." Sarah Palin is part of the one in ten mothers who chose to continue her pregnancy after hearing the diagnoses. And in doing so she's opened herself and her family to an adventure in learning that those who've never experienced could not possibly understand.

Because of Palin's choice, Trig is privileged to live to experience the blessings of being a baby, a child, and eventually a man with Down syndrome in a world that is becoming increasingly more open, more accepting of those with special needs.

But because his mom is also now a candidate for Vice President, he is also entering the national stage. Indeed, he already has on the platform in St. Paul, when his mother turned him out to introduce us to a face that's – well, just a little different.

The Palin family has shown through their example that having a baby with Down syndrome is not a tragedy. During her mom's acceptance speech, when Piper Palin licked her hand to lovingly smooth her brother's hair and as Baby Trig was passed from one set of arms to another – including Cindy McCain's – we saw a picture of the exquisite tenderness a child with Down syndrome brings out in those around him.

That face, with the characteristic sweetly almond-shaped eyes, is opening an unexpected new phase in the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate.

Trig makes it personal.

Some people, though, may never see it that way. For instance, Dr. Andre Lalonde, executive vice president of a Canadian OB/GYN group, frets that Palin's example will lead to declining abortion rates.

How do we rebut such a preposterous premise? How do we turn people from the eugenics of Down syndrome abortion to a welcoming, trusting faith in the inherent value of life?

It won't be easy. But the task of changing hearts and minds has already begun. It started when Governor Palin – a woman in leadership – gave birth to a son with Down syndrome, took her place on the national stage, and made Trig Palin's visage the Face Seen Round the World.

Barbara Curtis, a former abortion rights advocate, is now mother of 12, including four sons with Down syndrome (3 adopted) as well as a prolific writer (9 books and 900 articles to date). She blogs at

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Related: Join the group, Special Needs Moms for McCain/Palin

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