Human Exceptionalism

I Miss Our Missing Down Syndrome Friends

When I was young, people with Down syndrome were common and visible members of the community. I remember in particular one Down friend I made while working my way through college selling televisions at JC Penney. Her mother would take her to the mall every couple of weeks, she’d see me, her face would light up with a huge smile, and she’d come running over for a big hug. She brought joy wherever she went.

We rarely encounter people with Down any more. Not because science found an ethical way to prevent or cure the condition, but because ninety percent of our brothers and sisters with Down are killed in the womb. Ditto fetuses that test positive for dwarfism.

Worse, parents who give birth to Down babies may face anger or castigation by their loved ones or community. Indeed, one of the reasons for the seething hatred of Sarah Palin, I think, was her family’s decision to welcome Trig into life. The Palins are pro-life and walked the walk, and for some reason, despite the paeans to “choice,” that blistered some like acid.

We call ourselves enlightened, but the search and destroy mission against fetuses with genetic anomalies is anything but.

Perhaps we could learn something from our ancestors of the “Dark Ages.” The 1500 year old grave of a child with Down has been found, and from all indications was a fully accepted part of the community. From the Abstract:

The pathological skull of a 5–7 year old child from Saint-Jean-des-Vignes (Saône-et-Loire, north-eastern France) dated to the 5–6th century AD is described. Morphological and radiographic features, metrical data and Computed Tomography (CT) scans are used to study the osteological abnormalities in comparison with normal skulls of individuals of similar age and geographic origin. The combination of features is consistent with the diagnosis of Down syndrome…

Cases of Down syndrome in past populations are rare, frequently poorly described or discovered out of context. This case represents the earliest and youngest example of the condition in the archaeological record. The context and funerary treatment of this child suggests that he/she was not stigmatized by other members of the community, who afforded a normal mode of burial.

I’m glad for the child. I just wish we could welcome our brothers and sisters with Down as fully in our own time. Not only are we depriving them of life–with mothers often pressured to abort by societal prejudice–but ourselves of their joyous presence.

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