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Perfection is in the Eye of the Beholder

Bradley Mattes   |   October 01, 2008

The selection of Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s vice presidential running mate thrust this relatively obscure Alaska governor into the worldwide spotlight. Within days, she was the topic of conversation in nearly every American home, business or other gathering place. Her persona and instant celebrity status was even familiar within non-political circles. It seemed everyone had an opinion about her.

The fact that she had recently given birth to her fifth child, Trig, immediately generated awareness and public discussion on the topic of Down syndrome. According to the National Association of Genetic Counselors, it is the most common chromosomal problem in live born babies. Some of the public discourse has been positive, while also exposing an ugly, pro-eugenics attitude on the part of others.

Last December, Governor Palin’s doctor informed her that the unborn child she carried four months into pregnancy, had Down syndrome. She admitted the news was “very, very challenging” to process, and that one of her first reactions was a feeling of sadness. When she told her husband, Todd, his response was reassuring. “We shouldn’t be asking, ‘Why us?’ We should be saying, ‘Well, why not us?'” At no time was there a doubt between them that they would continue the pregnancy.

Millions of Americans have been enthralled with Sarah Palin in part because of her unfailing dedication to life and her obvious willingness to walk the political talk. In addition to the adulation Trig’s birth has brought Sarah Palin, it has generated a sharp contrast – negative reactions that range from disappointment to ridicule and outright distain.

Nicholas Provenzo, a writer for the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism, expressed opinions that are particularly disturbing. “I am troubled by the implications of Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s decision to knowingly give birth to a child disabled with Down syndrome” (emphasis added). His less-than-veiled inference was that anyone in their right mind wouldn’t give birth to a defective child on purpose. He added, “Given that Palin’s decision is being celebrated in some quarters, it is crucial to reaffirm the morality of aborting a fetus diagnosed with Down syndrome.”

Mr. Provenzo is clearly a candidate for sensitivity and diversity training when it comes to accepting disabled children. His prediction for Trig’s future: a “little more than a lifetime of endless burden.” Not only is Mr. Provenzo’s opinion considered bigoted, it is profoundly ignorant. There are countless parents who would gladly show him the multitude of blessings a child with Down syndrome brings into a family.

One might effectively argue that these are only the ramblings of a political hack. However, this ugly opinion has metastasized into the medical and media communities. André Lalonde, executive vice-president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, worries that Governor Palin’s choice to give her baby life “will have an implication for abortion. Above all else, women must be free to choose,” and he fears her life-affirming decision “could have detrimental effects on women and their families.” It’s hard to comprehend how a cherished and loved family member could negatively affect another family, without applying patently false generalizations.

The Los Angeles Times responded by running a story titled “Canadian doctor warns Sarah Palin’s decision to have Down baby could reduce abortions.” The clear message was, “Horror of horrors, there could be more of their kind!” The Times later pulled the article from their website and apologized for “mischaracterizing” Dr. Lalonde’s remarks, saying in reality he was only concerned that women would feel pressured into giving birth under such circumstances. However, Dr. Lalonde’s own words, as quoted in the LA Times, expressed a concern that Palin’s example “may prompt other women to make the same decision against abortion because of that genetic abnormality. And thereby reduce the number of abortions.” Most of their clear-minded readers fully understood the intended message.

These opinions should not be dismissed as radical media ranting. There is ample evidence an “eliminate the defective” viewpoint is prevalent in our society. The New York Times last year reported that 90% of women who discover they’re expecting a child with Down syndrome will opt for abortion. However, Darrin P. Dixon, JD, in his analysis of the research, says this statistic is suspect because it was based on only one study and not different geographic regions where averages vary widely. Still, the most commonly accepted figure is over 80% – an appalling statistic.

Americans with disabilities, who are already born, enjoy a supportive and nurturing environment. At the same time, we are witnessing a wholesale discrimination against those with disabilities who still reside in the womb. This latest national discussion about Trig Palin may help rectify these conflicting trends.

As for the Palin family, they are secure in their decision to welcome Trig into their family. Three days after giving birth, Governor Palin returned to work in her Anchorage office with Trig in tow. Perhaps it can be summed up in the words of Sarah Palin to local television 7 News, that when she looks into Trig’s face, “I see perfection.”

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