You may know that our son Owain has Down Syndrome. His presence in our lives has been entirely a blessing, and it’s made us sensitive to and progressively aware of issues related to Down Syndrome. We’re new on our journey with Owain, but feel strongly both the stretching of our hearts and the need to speak clearly about the incredible value of his life. Recent discussions about abortion, the killing of children after birth discussed in the BMJ last month, and the statistic that more than 90% of Down Syndrome babies are aborted are radically alarming, and as a result we’ve become more vocal about our pro-life stance especially in situations like Owain’s. The following post is taken from a Facebook conversation about the appropriateness of the picture below in the context of those who’ve faced and made the difficult and painful decision to terminate a pregnancy of a disabled child.
I saw this picture shared on a friend’s Facebook page recently, and in the midst of a conversation about the appropriateness of the picture, I commented on it there. I’m a father with a son who has Down Syndrome, and I’m also a pastor with firm convictions about separation of church and state.
Let me say first about the legality of abortion that the rights of an fetal child are never really taken into full account unless the parents own that responsibility themselves. And they do own that responsibility. Whether they come to terms with that responsibility in the course of their hard decisions, or later on in life afterwards, they will own that decision. Whatever the state does, ultimately, it’s a mom and dad who’ve been entrusted with that child, and no moral or right choice really comes under duress. Only they, really, can protect that child’s rights, even if the state did have the kinds of structures that they should which actually reflected equal protection and rights under law. Laws against abortion are totally about that question – the protection of individual freedoms – in this case, of course, the child’s.
Let’s avoid the politics here, though, and so I hope you’ll bear with me here ultimately in terms of the question of sensitivity to people who’ve ended their pregnancies.
I’ll start by saying that I think the harder things in life are unavoidable realities: having a child with a special need, certainly handling the tension of what to do if it’s discovered during pregnancy, but maybe more the question of dealing with the decades of guilt and remorse and self-doubt and grief that can come after having terminated a pregnancy. All these difficulties are part of the real world in which we all live. I’m not sure the role of the church is to help someone find a reality where they don’t have to face this stuff. Having that child will be hard. I think aborting that child will be a lot harder down the road.
It’s not as though there were some sanctuary of ambivalence that could free someone from facing the decision in question for what it is, nor the consequences for what they are. I do believe in the church as a place, a sanctuary, of safety and grace and gentleness and kindness and healing and forgiveness. But not of simple ambivalence where murder is understated and the destruction of a child is shrugged off as the sad consequence of a difficult time.
It’s in the hard thing – whether having the child, or struggling with our own grief over the depravity of our sin – that we’re driven to cry out for God.
That’s been the gift of Owain to us. The miracle of a child who’s very nature cries out for more of us, who cries out for us to let go of our motives and prejudices and even the designs of our parental dreams, so that we’re taught to love and receive the child that is. Not even taught, God help me, Owain’s presence makes that love erupt from us not because we’re good parents, but because in the gift of Owain we’re driven to the feet of Christ for his love and help. It’s in the hard things that we cry out God and find him. It’s in the scuttling of my dreams and designs that I’m finding some of God’s. No one should be spared this kind of gift if it’s offered – the most wonderful gift, so quickly refused because of our cultural bull of success and independence and personal freedom from any kind of hardship.
The appropriate grief and regret and remorse that follow the murder of a child like Owain is like a second chance at the same gift.
I don’t think we need to whack people with guilt – I expect they’re already doing that to themselves. And the church is the place for hope for them. But that hope is not necessarily, “oh there, there, we know that was so difficult; but don’t worry, that decision was ok.” Maybe in some circumstances, sure. But the real hope we offer is about those times when we know for certain that we’ve blown it; that we’re frigged, and that we’ve frigged someone else. It’s for those times when we know it not because some mean legalist beat us with his Bible, but because we know deep in our core that what we’ve done is dissonant with God. What we’ve done is clear evidence that our selfishness, perhaps, or at least our deliberate refusal to receive the gift of the hardship and suffering of caring for that child, drove us to murder. It’s in that confession, in that painful truth where our brokenness is revealed – maybe not to anyone else – but to ourselves. And in the face of that revelation, we may find God’s grace for us has meaning as we’re left with no hope but to cry out to him for our very souls. From that brokenness, if they can experience it for what it is, they might cry out to God in grief for their sin and be healed. That’s what our brokenness does for us.
No church that intentionally spares us the fact of our brokenness, or which mitigates its severity, is doing anything ultimately worthwhile for others at all. That would be almost worse than a church that could point out every sin in the book and say nothing about the grace of God that can restore and forgive us! It’s certainly not better.
Think of it this way. If I post the picture above, and someone who was or is faced with the terrible decision of ending their pregnancy reacts with pain and sensitivity – then that is saying something. It’s saying they are not at peace with that decision. It’s saying they’re still wounded and in pain. They are not ok as they are. And so they will own that decision inside like a tumour or outside like a scar. It’s the truth about what they’ve done, and so frighteningly hints at who they fear they might actually be. Now we can have a world where we all go around trying not to touch the sore spots – but isn’t our role also about seeing people healed as they’re reconciled to God? There is no healing for us outside of the grace and forgiveness of Jesus meeting the truth of who we are and what we we’ve done. I’m not really in the business of going around hitting people to see who’s sore or to prove that they’re bad (or that I’m better, God help us) – that’s devilish in its design. But I’m not sure avoiding the matter altogether is any better for them. It might actually be worse. God’s been consistently kind to me as he comments on who I actually am. But at the same time he has indeed been speaking, as painful and shameful as that can be. With grace and love, isn’t that what he’s asked us to do?