As a fellow parent of a disabled adult child, I deeply empathize with Roberto Rivera’s anguished frustration over the lack of services for the “aged-out.” Our son is 26 and on the autism spectrum. Aging out of school brought on a regression and worsening of symptoms, some of which prevented him from going to an outside program — and then the pandemic shut everything down anyway.
The unrelenting anxiety about his present and his future often overwhelm me. My husband and I won’t be able to care for him forever. I do understand Rivera’s anguish and frustration.
However, I think his indictment of the pro-life movement in The Pro-Life Movement Goes Cheap is too broad and inaccurate.
To start with the obvious: no advocacy movement can be expected to fight against every injustice. We don’t damn the no-smoking movement for not taking on opioids with the same energy.
A decade after Roe, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin introduced the “seamless garment,” linking the abortion issue to others, like war, capital punishment, and aid to the poor. Conservative critics said this would give Catholic liberals an excuse to ignore the plight of the vulnerable unborn and dilute the movement by making it too broad.
I’ve met the kind of smug anti-abortionist who rejects calls for solidarity on other life issues, but I’ve met more persons in the pro-life movement whose became advocates because they had a personal experience with loss or disability.
Rivera seems to be saying the reverse: It’s too narrow. The “mainstream American pro-life movement” has succeeded in “making the phrases ‘pro-life’ and ‘anti-abortion’ virtually synonymous.” That makes a culture of life “cheap,” and justifies ignoring the special care society ought to give to the intellectually and developmentally disabled. I’d guess he is talking about pro-lifers who aligned themselves with the Trump Administration — “mainstream” recently in politics, but not by any means representing all pro-lifers.
Many of us who’ve been involved in the pro-life movement for a long time reject the identification of the movement with any political cause. Pro-lifers hold a diversity of political views while still seeing the defense of life as the primary concern.
The anti-abortion movement, jump-started in response to the shocking Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, doesn’t deny the reality of all the other human needs. It focuses on abortion because, as Helen Alvare said recently, it’s the “intentional destruction of a life at a defenseless moment” and deserves to be “reacted to with special horror.”
Which brings me to my second point: The pro-life movement is huge, and diverse — as it should be. Sure, I’ve met the kind of smug anti-abortion advocate who focuses only on that issue and rejects calls for solidarity on other life issues, but I’ve met more persons in the pro-life movement who became advocates because they had a personal experience with loss or disability.
Rivera writes that: “After more than four decades of attempted moral suasion, American attitudes toward the legality of abortion are almost exactly the same as they were in 1976.” That may be true, because, now, as then, most Americans are uncomfortable with most abortions — our laws do not reflect their views, which is the least of what pro-life organizations are trying to change.
And most Americans are woefully ignorant, still, about the abortion license unleashed by Roe and Doe. People have a way of denying reality: While they may support Roe, they think it limits abortion to early stages and are first appalled and then somehow put it out of their minds that a child at nine months in utero can be legally dismembered. Polling questions about abortion and legality are a flimsy way to judge a movement that has grown exponentially, in legislation on the local and federal levels, in education, in ministries to mothers and their children, and in countless numbers of lives saved.
Rivera claims that “Any resemblance between the ends of Catholic social teaching and the priorities of the existing pro-life movement is imaginary.” An unfair, blanket dismissal.
I’d point as just one example to the always growing pregnancy care movement, profiled in this excellent report from the Charlotte Lozier Institute: pregnancy centers across the country provide many social services: not just medical care, support, and housing for pregnant women, but material goods, family counseling, parenting classes, outreach to trafficking victims and those with addictions — they help individuals and families access government programs while filling in the gaps with funds raised by the private sector.
But here we get to the crux of Rivera’s complaint. There is no visible, organized pro-life movement to aid the disabled and their families. I get it. I wish there were. But he accuses with a broad and puzzling brush. He faults the pro-life movement for advocating for Down Syndrome babies to be born, but not doing anything to support families after birth.
Rivera points to pro-choice states having better programs for the disabled. We live in one, and are grateful for its services, especially respite care. But being in an overwhelmingly pro-choice state is also frightening.
Yet the pro-life movement first raised awareness of the injustice of the prenatal killing of Down syndrome children, so that secular organizations, like this one from the UK — not anti-abortion in general — have taken up the cause. Scratch the surface of many advocacy and support groups for the disabled, and you will find they were initiated by individuals who are also pro-life. Like this one, which I learned about at a March for Life conference, which actually connects physicians to families who have Down Syndrome children, so they can better aid new parents.
Rivera writes: “the decision to choose life after a positive trisomy 21 test is heroic.” No, it isn’t. Choosing not to kill your child is not heroic. Life in the womb is not ours to take. Isn’t that the basic premise on which we agree?
Yes, raising a disabled child in this culture does often require heroism. So does parenting a perfectly healthy baby who ends up becoming a drug addict or a criminal, or falls ill with cancer. These things can strain our human endurance to its very limits, and some people break.
Finally, Rivera points to pro-choice states having better programs for the disabled. We live in one, and are grateful for its services, especially respite care. Indeed, it initially shocked our conservative souls that we needed to not only access government programs and funds but sue for them, just to get our son the minimum of what he needs.
But being in an overwhelmingly pro-choice state is also frightening. For all the press about Governor Andrew Cuomo and his policies causing the tragic deaths in nursing homes, little is reported about the same disastrous policies ordered for homes for the Intellectually and physically disabled. Thousands of them, and many of their caretakers, died as well. Was this solely due to the state’s wrong-headed health directives — or was it also Cuomo’s attitude, fed by the abortion culture, that the disabled have a lesser quality of life and are thus worth risking to keep the healthy safe?
Creating programs for the over-21 disabled population is indeed an urgent and growing need. Very often these families have members barely holding on, burned out by the demands of caretaking and anxiety. Roberto Rivera offers a plea and an invitation: We need more programs, official and voluntary, that aid the disabled and their families in their daily lives, and the pro-life movement ought to be a place for such initiatives to grow.
Maria McFadden Maffucci is editor in chief of the Human Life Review.
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