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More people should choose to have children with Down syndrome

A bioethics professor whose son has trisomy 21 is alarmed at the number who choose abortion.

My son Aaron, aged nine, has Down syndrome. If you look at photos of our family, his disability might not be readily apparent. He wears glasses, and he likes to pull his baseball cap down low over his forehead, which makes the characteristic almond shape of his eyes difficult to see. At first glance, Aaron might look like any other nine-year-old – and that seems fitting because much of his life revolves around the activities of a typical boy his age: sports, playing with pets, going to school, watching cartoons.

As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, I was alarmed when I first heard about the high rates of abortion of foetuses prenatally diagnosed with the condition in the United States. These ratesrange from 67 per cent to 90 per cent and above. But after a bit of reflection, this reaction of alarm might not make a lot of sense. Though my wife and I chose to bring Aaron into our family after his prenatal diagnosis, some might think that the opposite choice made by others would not affect Aaron or our family. Why should someone like me care about whether others choose to abort a foetus with Down syndrome? Isn’t it just a personal decision?

I haven’t been able to shake my sense of alarm, but now I understand it better. My worry about the choices of other prospective parents is a protective impulse. What are the motivations behind the choice to abort, I wonder. There is reason to believe that these choices are often influenced by bias against people with Down syndrome. And if people are biased against those with Down syndrome, then such attitudes directly threaten the wellbeing of my son.

Why believe that bias is a motivating factor? For one thing, other possible explanations don’t add up. For instance, having Down syndrome doesn’t negatively affect one’s sense of wellbeing, a position supported by research. Moreover, I think that most people know about this relationship between Down syndrome and wellbeing. After all, the happy child with Down syndrome is a common cultural stereotype. So people likely do not choose abortion over concerns about the quality of life of such children.

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