The internet is abuzz about Madeline Stuart, who goes by the nickname Maddy, an 18-year-old aspiring model with Down Syndrome. Her Facebook page showcases her pictures and states her mission: "Modelling will help change societies view of people with Down Syndrome, exposure will help to create acceptance in life. (sic)"
Maddy is defying the stereotypes. She proudly proclaims who she is and does not listen to what other people might say. While some people might pity her “handicap,” Maddy chooses to do what she desires. Some people look at her and all they see is someone with Down Syndrome. But Maddy knows that there is much more to life.
Many children with Down Syndrome do not get the chance at life that Maddy has. While recent studies disagree regarding the exact abortion rate for babies with a positive diagnosis for Down Syndrome, their findings do show a high abortion rate after prenatal diagnosis. One study compiled twenty-four studies and found that the abortion rate after prenatal diagnosis for Down Syndrome ranged from 50% to 85%, with a weighted average of 75%. Another study found that abortion reduced the Down Syndrome population by 30%. Between these studies, we can see that the abortion rate is higher among Down Syndrome pregnancies than for other pregnancies, 219 abortions per 1,000 live births according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011.
There are a variety of possible reasons for why abortion would be chosen for a disabled child. Perhaps it is because prospective parents believe that the additional suffering that results from the disability will make their child’s life harder and providing good care will be challenging. A similar option is the belief that the potential for achievement could be limited in disabled children.
People who advocate for the first reason claim that abortion of a disabled child is an act of mercy to save them from a life of suffering. But in claiming this, they ignore the good lives that people with Down Syndrome do have. They forget there is enormous variety in life; not every life will be the same. While living with Down Syndrome is accompanied by serious challenges other people do not have to deal with, this does not prevent these children from having wonderful lives.
The second reason assumes that the value of a life is based on a limited view of “success.” When it seems that a disability limits a person’s potential for success, they then see that life as worth less. The world often defines success as a list of accomplishments, such as graduating high school or college, having a good job, or winning a prize. Because people with Down Syndrome often have lives different from “normal,” they do not meet the standard of “success” that people expect. This leads others to think they cannot accomplish anything of significance, reducing the value of their life. But the narrow view of success ignores the significance of small actions. Many family and friends of people with Down Syndrome note the unconditional love that they give, blessing the lives of the people around them. These small accomplishments are markers of a successful life, in the fullest sense. But even beyond this, Maddy has shown that even though a disability may make a goal harder to accomplish, it can still be done.
The issue with these reasons for abortion is the question of where value derives. Value does not derive from a certain quality of life or set of accomplishments. Maddy’s enthusiasm shows that she does have a high quality of life that she enjoys, and her determination has led her to reach goals many would think impossible. The assumptions that Down Syndrome makes life sufferable and purposeless are incorrect. Her life has purpose and value, but from where does it come?
Purpose and value comes from being a human made in the image of God. If value were derived from the nature of your life, whether the characteristics you were born with or what you were able to do with your life, many of us would have lives of fluctuating value. Is the life of someone who is ill worth less than someone who is currently not ill? Are the lives of people on vacation less valuable than the lives of people at work, because they are in a state of not "producing" anything?
We cannot foresee the challenges or the successes of life. But from the moment of conception there is an eternal value that is placed on the human soul that never changes. This value derives from being a child of God, made in His image.
I find Maddy’s story to be an example of abundant life that is waiting for unborn children. To those who say that a child will not be able to enjoy life due to disability or genetic disorder, Maddy disagrees. When people claim that disability prevents a person from doing something important with their life, Maddy has decided that she can do something with her life and has worked hard and succeeded at reaching her goals. Her determination is a reminder that life is full of value.
Regardless of what assumptions people make about Down Syndrome and other disabilities, God has blessed each life with value that cannot be shaken or removed.