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Dowling on Handicaps and Quality of Life

September 01, 1996

Re Katherine Dowling's "What Constitutes a Quality Life?" Commentary, Aug. 28:

As the sister of an adult Down syndrome person who, until a few months ago, lived with my family (recently, my mother alone), I have to say that the golden image of family helping to make this person's " 'less than perfect' life a thing of happiness" is hardly realistic.

When Down syndrome people reach their 20s, they often develop severe emotional problems that combine in volatile ways with their mental limitations. Not only was my sister increasingly miserable living with my mother (exhibiting violent and even dangerous behavior), my mother was miserable dealing with my sister's problems. Out of love for my sister and mother, and shared pain for my sister in her unhappiness, I am thrilled that they now live apart.

This is not to say that all Down syndrome fetuses should be aborted. But it is dangerous and highly unrealistic to paint a glamorous or romantic picture of what families can do.


Los Angeles

* If, as Dowling states, most partial-birth abortions are done for problems that are either surgically correctable or would result in some degree of neurologic or mental impairment, but would not harm the mother, or were done for reasons such as depression, chicken pox, diabetes or vomiting, I think we have a profound ethical question, and partial-birth abortions need to be critically examined.

On the other hand, many of Dowling's assumptions could use some critical examination also.

She cites the case of the young adult who has the capacity of a 4-year-old. She describes his joy when his mother is with him, but does not mention his terror or fear when his mother is gone. She comments on how only his mother can understand his speech. She concludes his life is apparently happy, and that his parents are heroic, courageous and happy too.

She makes similar points for those families raising Down syndrome children. And to an extent she is right. People often can accept with dignity and courage whatever difficulty life has dealt. She makes no mention of the wrenching pain such parents feel, and seldom feel safe enough to give voice to, since the official dogma is that such burdens are a blessing and build character. Even make you happy.

Some people do find happiness in having a perpetual child in the house, never growing up year after year, only growing older. Other people do not. Shouldn't a person have a choice over whether she or he wants to undertake that kind of challenge? Should a person complete a damaged pregnancy, and then give the handicapped, deformed, or sometimes almost inhuman result up for adoption? Who would adopt a deformed infant, a challenged child? Some fortunately do. Most do not. Should the state warehouse the child?

Dowling makes it all too simple.



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