Franks’s personal experience has affected his view of abortion, though he is reluctant to speak about it. He was born with congenital defects, including a cleft palate. “I think what happens then is you become more grateful for life, or at least you’re able to see it, the reality of it,” he says of his childhood, before quickly adding, “I don’t want this to be the focus.”
When he finally agrees to tell the story, he tells it from his father’s perspective. “He said that when his child was born,” Franks recounts, “that the child’s skull didn’t fuse together properly and that the flesh was open, but the real problem was that the roof of the mouth was missing, completely gone. And the doctor said, ‘Well, this child can’t be breast-fed or bottle-fed. The best thing to do is to do away with him in a merciful manner.’”
But Franks’s father insisted the family would find a way, telling the doctor, “‘No, we will take him home and do the best we can. We’ll make a machine to feed him if we have to.’ Well, he was sort of a handy guy and he said that the machine turned out to be a pill cup and an eyedropper.” Franks’s parents pulled it off: Franks “got enough milk to begin to thrive,” although he suffered from “some coughing and choking.” Eventually, Franks was sent to a children’s hospital, where he endured a series of operations over several years.
“My smile will always be broken,” he says — and the corners of his mouth, like the outer corners of his eyes, are tugged downward — “but I’ll always be grateful for the chance to get to do what I get to do.” Reflecting, he adds, “I hope I would be pro-life apart from that.”
But there is no doubt that the abortion debate hits close to home for Franks. “The top two reasons for using partial-birth abortion on a child because of a health anomaly were because of Down syndrome and cleft,” he says. “And I had a brother who had Down syndrome.” Studies suggest that as many as 90 percent of children diagnosed with Down syndrome prior to birth are aborted.
“He was 44 when he passed away,” Franks says of his brother, Bruce, who was a few years older than he. “He lived a long time, longer than they thought he would, because he had muscular dystrophy as well. He lived a very meaningful life.” The two would talk about important questions — even theological ones — and Franks is “still astonished at the insight into them that he had.” Franks reflects on other experiences he’s had with kids who had Down syndrome. Among the hundreds of one- and two-year-olds he and his wife taught at Sunday school, three had Down syndrome: “When another little baby would get hurt somehow — maybe something rolled over his foot — they would run over where the baby was crying and help him cry.”
He continues: “They put their arm around him, and cry with him. They were just so moved by the crying of another child. They were especially empathetic. I think probably when the counsels of eternity are silent, we’ll probably conclude that it was the rest of us who were a little slow, because they have tremendous hearts.”
Decades ago, Franks was involved in the founding of a crisis-pregnancy center, which is still in operation, in Tempe, Ariz. “Sometimes the mothers feel like they have no choice,” he says. “Nobody is standing with them. They feel ostracized and alone. And they don’t have, sometimes, the financial means.”
“I think it is incumbent upon a compassionate society,” Franks says, “to be there for those mothers and tell them, ‘Listen, we are here for you. You’re not alone.’” He remains involved with the center.