Society doesn’t do enough to show women carrying a baby with Down’s that the life inside them is precious, intelligent and capable of so much
A painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York called The Adoration of the Christ Child. Created in the 16th century by a Flemish artist, what stands out in this sublime presentation of the Nativity is the detail of the characters standing around the crib. Two of them, an angel and a shepherd, appear to have Down’s Syndrome.
This suggests that the condition has been around for a very long time, and it helps illuminate the early modern approach to disability. Religious art normally conformed to classical standards of beauty. By implication, the artist regarded people with Down’s as angelic. As, indeed, they are.
Unfortunately, society goes through peaks and troughs of sympathy towards the disabled – and we risk entering a darker age. The National Screening Committee has approved a simple blood test for Down’s Syndrome that in many ways is wonderful news. It should reduce the need for invasive testing procedures, which trigger around 350 cases of miscarriage every year.
Myth #1: Down’s Syndrome is an embarrassing disease. It’s not. It’s due to an extra chromosome being present in a baby’s cells – it’s not “inherited”, it’s not “caught” like a cold and it’s not due to “mistakes” made by the parent. There is nothing shameful about it and people don’t suffer from it. They live with it.
Myth #2: Down’s Syndrome kids die young. They used to, and it’s quite true that they can be susceptible to problems such as heart defects or deafness. But huge advances in care mean that most now live into their sixties, and lead very active lives.
Myth #3: Down’s Syndrome kids remain kids forever. They don’t. They grow into adults like you and me, with all the same emotions, worries and joys. The important thing to remember is that every case is unique and each individual capable of a different level of personal development. Some choose to date and marry. Some keep down jobs. Fans of the US show American Horror Story will know that they can be TV stars, too. Actress Jamie Brewer has not only impressed critics in the series but has walked the red carpet at New York Fashion Week.
Society, alas, promotes a different ethic. We seem increasingly obsessed with making life as perfect as possible – as if we could control its beginning, middle and end. Advances in genetics hold out the possibility of creating designer babies with no birth defects at all. Euthanasia gives the option of finishing things early when existence gets too much to bear. And implicit in all of this is the view that life isn’t truly valuable unless it is healthy, pain free and contributing to Gross National Product. The sick and the old are a burden. The most helpful thing they could do is go away.
Excuse the cliché, but it’s hard not to see of all this happening and think of the 1930s – when the Western world became hooked on the idea that it could create a cleaner, happier population with the application of medical cruelty. This was barbarism disguised as reason.
The true moral test of a society is not how pretty, sober or well organised it is – but how it treats its most vulnerable, even its most difficult, citizens. And the true sign of grace in a man is his ability to look at something that is supposedly ugly, or just different from himself, and see beauty. Just as one Flemish artist managed to do, 500 years ago.
What is Down’s syndrome?
- Down’s syndrome is a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21 in the body’s cells. In the majority of cases, it is not an inherited condition.
- Experts do not know what causes Down’s syndrome. It occurs in all races, social classes and all countries around the world.
- Around one in every 1,000 babies born in the UK will have Down’s syndrome.
- There are more than 40,000 people in the UK with the condition.
- Although the chance of having a baby with Down’s syndrome is higher for older mothers, more babies with Down’s Syndrome are born to younger mothers.
- Today, the average life expectancy for a person with Down’s syndrome is between 50 and 60, with a small number of people living into their 70s and beyond.