Fox sportscaster Colin Cowherd has a saying: “Never go cheap on transportation, toilet paper or quarterbacks.” I would add another item to his list: Building a culture of life. Yet, “going cheap” is exactly what the mainstream American pro-life movement has done.
Its strategy consists of changing minds and laws. The movement depends upon moral suasion and gaining enough political power to enact laws that prohibit or at least reduce the number of abortions. The strategy succeeded — in making the phrases “pro-life” and “anti-abortion” virtually synonymous. This made a “culture of life” not only easier to describe, it also made it cheaper.
And who loses? The intellectually and developmentally disabled, who ought to have society’s special care.
This helps avoid awkward questions about how much creating a culture of life might actually cost and who might be called upon to bear that cost. The answers are “more than most Americans, especially pro-lifers, are willing to spend” and “all of us who are able to pay.”
In his recent primer on Catholic social teaching, The Church’s Best Kept Secret, Mark Shea writes that “the dignity of the Human Person” is the telos of a culture of life. That “is about the right to abundant life: the right to reach the full potential of who and what God created each person to be and do.”
There’s scant evidence that mainstream pro-life movement’s strategy of changing minds and laws has worked. After more than four decades of attempted moral suasion, American attitudes towards the legality of abortion are almost exactly the same as they were in 1976.
A culture of life worthy of the name “is about the right to live, not merely the right to be born,” he writes. Honoring human dignity includes “not merely the right to the bare basics of human existence, but to sufficient food, shelter, health care, work, relations with other human beings, common respect, and love so that we meet our potential to the fullest.”
After more than four decades of attempted moral suasion, American attitudes towards the legality of abortion are almost exactly the same as they were in 1976.
The legislative strategy hasn’t fared any better. While abortion rates have dropped to pre-Roe levels, the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute found “no clear evidence” linking the decline in abortion rates to “Targeted Regulation on Abortion Providers” (TRAP) laws. The pro-life Personhood Alliance looked at the same data and concluded that these laws had “no significant bearing” on abortion rates.
Any resemblance between the ends of Catholic social teaching and the priorities of the existing pro-life movement is imaginary. Nowhere is this disjunction clearer than in the pro-life movement’s regard — or lack thereof — of the intellectually and developmentally disabled.
People with Down syndrome are the targets of an extermination campaign in much of the West. Doctors “strongly suggest” prenatal testing for trisomy 21 for women 35 and older. When the tests come back positive, the result is an abortion between 70 and 97 percent of the time, depending on the country. (A recent study ominously suggests that we may be getting closer to adding autistic people to the “critically endangered” list.)
The “on the cheap” response to this atrocity is suasion via the sharing of memes — heart-warming stories and viral videos — and expressing horror over the statistics. When that inevitably fails, “pro-life” panjandrums call for unenforceable laws prohibiting abortion on account of trisomy 21. What’s not part of the response is providing people the kind of material and economic support needed to exercise heroic virtue and choose life.
Learning that your child has Down syndrome or another developmental disability such as autism changes your life. After the shock, you feel fear, despair, and anxiety over what the future holds, and these feelings never go away. This is why the decision to choose life after a positive trisomy 21 test is heroic.
All of this is before you learn through experience that the support your child and you need is in short supply, when it’s on offer at all. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is supposed to ensure children with intellectual and developmental disabilities a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE).
The availability and quality of that education varies wildly from state to state and school district to school district, depending on the level of funding. The parents of special needs children have to become strong advocates and even sometimes litigants to make sure their kids are receiving even a modest level of services, and there is no provision for supporting parents and caregivers themselves.
Finally, it all goes away when your kid turns 21 or in special ed parlance, “ages out.” When my son “aged out,” they held a “graduation” and more than half of his classmates went from “graduation” to their parents’ couches where most remain to this day.
If this status quo is consistent with “honoring human dignity” then the phrase has no meaning. Yet I have never heard a pro-life “leader” speak about the subject, never mind describe it as a pro-life issue.
The families of the “aged-out” are left with several choices. The fortunate few reside in states, like California, New York, and Massachusetts, where services and support don’t disappear at age 21. (The irony that the most supportive states tend to be the least “pro-life” as the movement defines the term should not be lost on anyone. But it is.)
Those who are able move to states with better services do so. Still others split up the family long enough to establish residency and leave their disabled progeny in the care of these state’s taxpayers before returning to their more libertarian paradises. Most can’t do either.
If this status quo is consistent with “honoring human dignity” then the phrase has no meaning. Yet, I have never heard a pro-life “leader” speak about the subject, never mind describe it as a pro-life issue.
Shea writes that the “Church’s teaching concerning the Dignity of the Human Person is maximalist, not minimalist. It seeks always to go big, not to skimp.” If that’s true, and he makes a compelling case that it is, then there’s very little about the pro-life movement that is worthy of the label “Catholic.”
Instead, it brings to mind what Jesus said about the Scribes and Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens . . . and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” Why? Sixty years ago, St. John XXIII published an encyclical “on the exigencies of man’s daily life . . . his livelihood and education, and his general, temporal welfare and prosperity,” called Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). In response, William F. Buckley and National Review replied, “Mater si, magistra, no.”
By the 1980s, the pro-life movement had become a wholly owned subsidiary of a conservative movement whose Randian-libertarian worldview regards Catholic social teaching as “socialism” with incense and holy water. That has left it with little to say worth hearing to parents contemplating a decision that will shape the rest of their lives. Instead of supporting policies that make it a bit easier to exercise heroic virtue, they settle for talk.
Talk that, in this case, is even cheaper than the toilet paper Cowherd warns us against buying.
Maria Maffucci, the editor of the Human Life Review, responded to this article in The Pro-Life Movement Does Not Go Cheap.
Roberto Rivera has written for First Things, Touchstone, and Sojourners. He worked with the late Charles Colson as a principal writer for two decades. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his son, David. His last article was The Unkept Promise Leads to Death.
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