George Will has written a rather moving piece about the life of his son John, born with Down Syndrome, who turns 40 this week. John is a baseball fan who attends every Nationals home game, and a clubhouse regular befriended by many players, announcers, and the like. He has traveled the world and lives in comfort. As his father says, something would have been lost to the world had his fetus been aborted.
When I was young I was terrified by the prospect of a child with Down Syndrome, until I actually got to know a Down Syndrome child. She was the sister of one of my graduate school housemates, the ninth (and youngest) child of one of those Catholic families that kept having kids until one with Down came along. She was slow, and I gather she sometimes had bad temper tantrums. But she was slow in a normal sort of way, not a severely retarded way, and while I was with her she seemed like a normal, joyful kid. I lost my fear of Down Syndrome at that point, and I would never have aborted a Down Syndrome fetus.
I still think, though, that George Will paints an absurdly rosy picture of life with Down. He is rich beyond reason, and that has purchased for his child a life of comfort and stimulation. Most Down syndrome kids don't get to pal around with baseball players. Most parents can't afford season tickets, and those who could afford it don't have the time to take their son.
Down Syndrome also leads to a wide variety of outcomes. Intensive early care can help many Down Syndrome kids lead fairly normal lives, but not all of them. Some end up severely retarded and unable to care for themselves no matter what we do.
Those early interventions are also huge burdens on the parents. The decision to keep a Down Syndrome child is life-changing; it makes you into a full-time parent of a disabled child.
There is also the question of cost. People with Down Syndrome are a burden on our society. Very few will ever work enough as adults to pay off the very high cost of raising them, even setting aside the huge unpaid effort put in by their parents. (Especially their mothers, many of whom quit their jobs to devote more time to their kids.) Their health care is very expensive, and the longer they live, the more true this is. We spend, as a society, billions and billions taking care of disabled people who would not have lived long in most past societies.
Personally, I think this is a good thing, and it is one reason I support high taxes. George Will hates government and wants to cut taxes. Where does he think the money will come from to raise the Down Syndrome children of poor families?
We can afford to raise disabled children, but how much of it do we want to do? One reason John Will has had a pretty good life is that he is the only Down Syndrome person in his milieu, so he gets attention from all those baseball people. If there were a hundred Down Syndrome people around the clubhouse, would the players like that? The chance of having a Down Syndrome child goes up with age, and as we have children older and older, the number of Down Syndrome fetuses is skyrocketing. If they were all born, as George Will wants, they would not have the kind of life that John Will has had, and they would impose enormous costs of our society.
I think it's great that George Will kept his Down Syndrome son. I would have done the same. But neither of us has the right to make that decision for anyone else.