Two recent news stories provide a context for considering some of the psychological consequences of abortion in the difficult circumstance when a child in utero is diagnosed with a developmental disability.
In one story, a Roman Catholic priest in Virginia became aware of a couple who was considering aborting their child, suspected of having Down's Syndrome, if they could not find an adoptive home immediately because they were approaching their state's abortion prohibition deadline of 24 weeks after conception. The priest posted the adoption request on social media and his church was overwhelmed with hundreds of offers to adopt by families from states across the country and from countries around the world.
In another story, the sad and startling statistic is proffered that as many as 90% of children diagnosed with suspected Down's Syndrome are aborted, in what is termed the silent holocaust of persons with disabilities. Much has been written over the past several years regarding adverse prenatal diagnoses and how some in the medical community appear to be encouraging abortion, even if indirectly, subtly, or unintentionally. This perspective is usually based on one of two arguments: that raising a child with this condition is an undesirable hardship on the parents, or that it is an unfair burden to the person to be born. For the purposes of this article we will focus on the former; specifically, whether this child's presence has a positive impact on the parents, siblings, and family, or whether raising this child is bound to be a burden which increases the stress on the family as a whole that lessens quality of life and increases risk of stress-related problems.
The hundreds of families that rushed to adopt the baby at risk of being aborted presumably fall into the first camp. For these parents, some of whom already have the experience of raising a child with Down's Syndrome and understand firsthand the challenges to be faced, the idea that the child would be such an unmanageable burden that his or her life should be ended, is simply unfathomable. While not without the typical challenges of raising a child, and then some (e.g., risk for certain medical conditions, cognitive delays) these parents report knowing the joy that these children bring to those whose lives they touch.
It is also important to note that the generous and selfless act of lovingly accepting these children into their families has positive psychological impacts on the parents, as they experience the benefit of giving of self, in addition to the unconditional love they receive from their child. Although these parents may be too humble to state so themselves, the sacrifices they make for their children are at times heroic; furthermore, we know from psychology that this type of selfless giving supports a mentally-healthier and more fulfilling life.
On the other side of the debate, for the nine out of ten parents who decide to end the life of their child before birth, there are also consequences, though not necessarily those that are anticipated or discussed openly. Those encouraging this option often express sentiments of compassion and concern for the mental health and welfare of the parents, as well as the "quality of life" of the child. The research states otherwise: A New Zealand researcher who identifies himself as "pro-choice," an atheist and a rationalist, has published a study linking abortion with an increased risk for mental health problems. More recently, a review article documented that women who had undergone an abortion experienced an 81% increased risk of mental health problems.
In addition to these statistical results which undoubtedly reflect some of the biochemical consequences of post-abortion adjustment, one must also consider that the decision to avoid bringing the child into the world reflects some measure of self-consideration or self-concern. A theologically-trained Christian blogger more bluntly questions the assertion that the child's life and happiness are at all part of the equation, surmising that selfishness is the real culprit. The idea that these persons are better off never being born belies the evidence. Those that are born do not regret their lives. They and their parents are offended by the idea that some want to abort and deny life to babies who have the same genetic condition, thus foisting their own values of what life is worth living upon others.
What is certain, is that the discussion will continue. With new technologies allowing for less expensive and earlier diagnosis, more and more parents will be compelled to consider learning about their baby's potential for having Down's Syndrome or other developmental disabilities earlier in pregnancies. In addition, the first steps on interventions that could actually correct the genetic abnormality are being explored. While there is a great deal of debate about if and how prenatal testing should be utilized, the psychological evidence is becoming increasingly clear: the mental health of the parents of these children is best served when they welcome the child into the family, and the provide nurturing and loving care.
Necessary support for parents and the family is readily available to assist with any challenges which arise, and, as the 900+ families who responded to the Virginia Priest's request already know, giving life, gives in return, and gives in abundance.