Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia believes that the Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in the U.S., undermined reverence for the lives of the mentally and physically disabled as well as the lives of unborn children.
“We need to understand that if some lives are regarded as unworthy, respect for all life is at risk,” the archbishop said.
In his Jan. 19 column for the Catholic Standard and Times, the archbishop commented on local media coverage of Amelia Rivera, a young girl with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome who was denied a kidney transplant. Her parents said that she was denied the transplant because of her diminished mental ability and shortened lifespan.
While Archbishop Chaput cautioned readers not to rush to judgment about the medical personnel involved because of the media coverage, he praised Amelia’s parents for loving their daughter and knowing “the beauty and dignity of her life despite her disability.”
He lamented a “growing” habit of treating genetically disabled children as “somehow less worthy of life.” This practice is advanced by prenatal testing, which can detect many pregnancies with a risk of genetic problems.
“The tests often aren’t conclusive. But they’re pretty good. And the results of those tests are brutally practical,” he said, noting that more than 80 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.
“They’re killed because of a flaw in one of their chromosomes – a flaw that’s neither fatal nor contagious, but merely undesirable.”
Archbishop Chaput criticized doctors who encourage these abortions and steer women towards deciding to abort.
“I’m not suggesting that doctors should hold back vital knowledge from parents. Nor should they paint an implausibly upbeat picture of life with a child who has a disability,” he said.
Rather, doctors should refer women to parents of children with special needs, special education teachers and therapists, and pediatricians who have treated children with disabilities.
They often have “a hugely life-affirming perspective” and can bear witness that every child with special needs has “a value that matters eternally.”
The archbishop praised parents who care for these children with “real love” that “forces its way through fear and suffering to a decision, finally, to surround the child with their heart and trust in the goodness of God.”
“The real choice in accepting or rejecting a child with special needs is never between some imaginary perfection or imperfection. ... No child is perfect,” he said. The choice to accept or reject a child with special needs is in fact one “between love and unlove; between courage and cowardice; between trust and fear.”
“That’s the choice we face when it happens in our personal experience. And that’s the choice we face as a society in deciding which human lives we will treat as valuable, and which we will not.”