Ann Turner Cook recently celebrated her 91st birthday. You may not recognize her name, but you surely know her face. She is the iconic baby sketched in charcoal who has graced Gerber baby-food jars since 1928.
Gerber recently initiated an annual photo contest to name a national “Spokesbaby of the year.” This year more than 140,000 pictures were submitted, and on February 7 Gerber announced the winner, Lucas Warren.
Son of Courtney and Jason Warren of Dalton, Georgia, Lucas has an infectious smile and an endearing personality. The photo that made him famous caught him in mid-giggle sitting in an overstuffed chair with white pants and aqua shirt, bare feet, and black polka-dot bowtie to complete the ensemble.
The name “Lucas” means “light.” He is certainly that. Courtney said, “We hope this opportunity sheds light on the special needs community and educates people that with acceptance and support, individuals with special needs have the potential to change the world — just like our Lucas!”
His Genes Make Lucas Special
Part of what makes Lucas so adorable is genetic. Of course, that’s true of every photogenic person. He can’t take credit for his facial features or physique. Nor can he be blamed. These things are just as much a part of who he is as his sex, eye color, and inborn talents.
In every nation, people have always shared Lucas’ endearing characteristics. They have also shared a number of physical and mental challenges. In 1866, John Langdon Down described this grouping of characteristics, which came to be called “Down Syndrome.” Later, in 1959, it was discovered that most (not all) of the people who share these characteristics have an extra copy of the 21st chromosome pair.
In 2006 the United Nations declared March 21 World Down Syndrome Day. The date was chosen because, when written 3-21, it connotes three chromosomes at the 21st position.
Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon said, “On this day, let us reaffirm that persons with Down syndrome are entitled to the full and effective enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. Let us each do our part to enable children and persons with Down syndrome to participate fully in the development and life of their societies on an equal basis with others. Let us build an inclusive society for all.”
As we mark World Down Syndrome Day, let’s start by noting that it is a chromosomal reality, not a disease. Every person is born with a specific genetic makeup. It is unalterably a part of who you are. This specific makeup is duplicated in every single one of your 100 trillion cells. You cannot change your genes any more than you can change your past.
This condition is not a virus like the flu, nor an infection like pneumonia, still less a cancer. It is much more like blue eyes and blonde hair. But even this isn’t quite it. Blue eyes and blonde hair are hereditary. Down syndrome is not. It is not a family trait that is inherited or passed on to the next generation. It is simply a genetic trait that appears in some people.
Ending Down Syndrome Means Killing People
That’s why Iceland’s attempts to wipe out Down syndrome through abortion are pure evil. You cannot wipe it out like a disease, with drugs and inoculation. Even genocide and sterilization cannot wipe it out. You can only wipe out individual people who have it, with no hope of preventing it in the next generation.
Killing those with Down syndrome serves no rational purpose. It is a policy born of ignorance and fear. Worse, what it communicates to those so affected is simply unimaginable.
More than 250,000 people with Downs live in America, and 6 million worldwide. These people Ruth Marcus, of the Washington Post, recently insulted by arguing that impaired intellectual capacity, limited life choices, and compromised health are valid reasons to have eliminated them.
Of course, she wasn’t thinking about them. She was only defending abortion on demand, for any reason, without any restraints. But that’s just the point: she wasn’t thinking about people with Down syndrome, only the supposed inconveniences to those around them.
Pro-abortion rhetoric must deny the humanity of anybody in the womb. This Marcus obligingly does by using terms like “fetus” and “pregnancy” to speak of them. But intellectual capacity, limitations, and compromised health are realities that cross the line between born and unborn. When traits shared equally by born and unborn are invoked as a reason for elimination, those same traits become reason for stigmatizing and devaluing those who are born with them.
Dehumanizing the Unborn Dehumanizes the Born
Marcus (unwittingly?) demonstrates this with her rhetoric. In her column “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Downs,” she writes, “Many people with Down syndrome live happy and fulfilled lives.” This is the only place in two articles on the subject where she refers to those born with Down syndrome as either “people,” “persons,” or “human beings,” and even this is qualified with the ominous word, “many.”
Anyone with Down syndrome who reads these words cannot fail to get the message. Imagine if she had said this about one of your genetic traits like skin color, sex, or race. If you don’t want to stigmatize people based on genetic traits, don’t use those traits as reason to eliminate the unborn.
To treat people with Down syndrome as though they had a disease is both unjust and ignorant. But neither should we treat people with Down syndrome as though their genes don’t matter. What cannot be changed should not be punished, but neither should it be ignored.
Basic human rights require that we treat all people with equal human dignity while respecting the realities of their bodies. This is true whether we are considering the XY chromosomes in the 23rd position that make people male or female, or a triplicate chromosome in the 13th, 18th, or 21st place. Each is unalterably part of their humanity and should be treated as such.
Should We Kill Those with Cancer Genes, Too?
The fact that people with trisomy 21 often experience significant challenges to their health is no different than the fact that people with cancer in their genes will also experience significant challenges to their health. But trisomy 21 became singled out from every other genetic challenge around 1970 when tests became available to screen for it prior to birth. Although such tests can produce as many as 25 false positives for every true instance of Down syndrome, nearly nine in ten children are aborted after a positive test.
If prenatal tests should be developed that can detect cancer-causing genes, will those people also be eliminated in similar numbers? For that matter, how long before we come to the point of eliminating people on the basis of a prenatal diagnosis that they will, one day, die?
Trisomy 21 happens when either the mother’s egg (88 percent) or the father’s sperm (8 percent), contains a duplicated chromosome at the 21st place. When the child is conceived, and this DNA strand combines with the other, instead of the usual 23 sets of pairs, the set at place 21 is a triad.
Triplicate chromosomes (trisomies) can occur at any of the 23 places on the DNA strand. However, we rarely see people other than trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) and trisomy 23 (intersex). People with trisomy at other places on the DNA chain usually do not survive to birth.
The Choice Has Been Made For Us
Some believe that genetics is simply a matter of dumb luck. If so, choice only enters when we either accept or eliminate its products. But for those who believe in a God who creates all things, genetics is already a choice, made by one higher than ourselves.
God himself has chosen to allow people with trisomy 21 and 23 to live past birth and grace us with their presence. They are a specific gift of God and not a “problem” to be fixed. A society that keeps this view in mind will never make people with Down syndrome feel unwanted or undervalued. It will be “an inclusive society for all,” as Ban Ki-moon urged us to build. Still more, it will be a society of people who love and are loved.
Those who know people with trisomy 21 have experienced God’s gift directly. There are few people on earth today who are so filled with joy and bring so much joy to those around them. I have never known a parent of someone with Down syndrome who would trade this joy for a more “healthy” child. Nor are there any people with Down syndrome who do not consider their lives happy and fulfilled.
On this World Down Syndrome Day, seek out such people and experience their joy for yourself.