On November 8, 2020, Chris Nikic became the first man with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman Triathlon. An Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run — a full marathon. It’s an endurance test that less than 0.003 percent of able-bodied Americans can complete.
When asked why Chris became interested in the triathlon, his parents responded, “Ever since Chris was born, the doctors have told us that he’d never walk, that he’d never make friends, that he’d be confined to bed all day, and that his life would be miserable. Chris showed them that those were lies.”
Grace Mehan is a young woman with Down syndrome who lives in Glendale, Missouri. For years, she commuted by bus to community college, her volunteer activities, and two jobs using the same bus stop in Glendale.
Every holiday, she and her father would dress up in costumes and decorate the bus stop, waving at passers-by. They dressed up like turkeys on Thanksgiving, as Santa Claus and an elf on Christmas, and even like trees on Arbor Day. Everyone who drove past the bus stop would honk and wave on those special days.
Eventually, the City of Glendale named the bus stop after her: Grace’s Glendale Bus Stop. I’ve been fortunate to spend time with Grace and witness firsthand her warm personality and contagious laugh.
Those with Down syndrome bring unique joy, beauty, and diversity to our society. Chris Nikic and Grace Mehan are only two of many examples. Yet those with Down syndrome are one generation from complete elimination.
For decades during the twentieth century, people with Down syndrome faced appalling discrimination from the medical community. They were institutionalized, neglected, abused, and even experimented upon. Doctors routinely denied simple, life-saving treatments to children with Down syndrome. In 1982, during the notorious Baby Doe case in Indiana, the physician described children with Down syndrome as “mere blobs” who did not deserve to live.
This discrimination was lethal. The average life expectancy of a person with Down syndrome in 1960 was ten years. Now it’s over 60 years. That difference didn’t result from advances in medical technology, but vast improvements in the way we treat born persons with Down syndrome – with common decency and as complete humans. It was parents and disability advocates, not the medical community, who exposed the horrors faced by those with Down syndrome and changed society’s view of them.
Despite these advances, the Down syndrome community today faces an existential threat even greater than the medicalized discrimination of the twentieth century. Due to advances in prenatal screening technology, persons with Down syndrome are targeted for abortion at extreme rates before they are born.
In the United States, somewhere between 67 and 91 percent of all infants with Down syndrome are eliminated by abortion. In many western nations, the abortion rate is even higher — approaching 100 percent in Iceland, and over 90 percent in several European nations.
Empirical research demonstrates that the genetic counseling received by parents who learn that they are expecting a child with Down syndrome is heavily biased in favor of abortion. Several literature reviews reflect an overwhelmingly negative message to such parents at their moment of greatest vulnerability, creating enormous pressure to choose to abort their Down syndrome child.
This “counseling,” presented with the veneer of medical authority, contributes greatly to the genocidal epidemic of Down syndrome abortions. As one study commented, “When it comes to testing for Down syndrome, the impact of genetic testing and counseling is clear: abortions.”
I am the parent of a severely disabled child, and I know first-hand the pain, the heartache, and the challenges of raising a child with special needs. My son Stephen was born with a rare genetic disease called Tuberous Sclerosis, causing tumors on his major organs. As a result, he is also on the autism spectrum, is non-verbal, and suffers from seizures.
Despite the struggles he’s faced, Stephen always has a positive, energetic attitude and brings immense joy to those around him. Coming home to see Stephen waiting for me on the porch with a big smile on his face never fails to brighten my day. Looking back on my life with my son, I wouldn’t change one single thing.
The same is true of parents and siblings of children with Down syndrome. While many in the medical community present expectant parents with a deeply negative picture of life with a Down syndrome child, empirical evidence demonstrates the exact opposite.
Multiple surveys of parents and siblings of Down Syndrome children show an overwhelmingly positive view of their lives and the lives of their Down syndrome child, brother, or sister at rates approaching 99 percent. One parent in a recent study provided the following typical description of the experience of parenting a child with Down syndrome: “It is the most beautiful experience of my life. I have no regret and would not change anything if it was possible.”
When an entire group of people is targeted for elimination solely because of an immutable characteristic, such as race or disability, that is considered genocide. People with Down syndrome are facing genocide through abortion and biased genetic counseling. That genocide must stop. Our society is great enough to welcome all persons, regardless of disability.
If people with Down syndrome are eliminated, the loss to society would be incalculable. Their contribution to society is unique and irreplaceable. Glendale without Grace Mehan would be a less vibrant community. The Ironman Triathlon without Chris Nikic would be less inspiring. Their diversity strengthens us, their courage emboldens us, and their beauty inspires us to be better ourselves.
As Chris Nikic neared collapse during the marathon leg of his Ironman Triathlon, his father asked him, “Are you going to let your pain win, or let your dreams win?” He responded, “My dreams are going to win.” He completed the triathlon with 11 minutes to spare.
Doctors had told his parents he would never walk and his life would be miserable. Now he tells Runner’s World, “My dream is to buy my own house, buy my own car, and get a smoking hot blonde wife from Minnesota.” Chris’s parents defied the bias against persons with Down Syndrome to raise a champion.