Bunny Blackburn’s voice grew tender as she talked about the birth of her son in Nashville, Tenn. Michael arrived with an incomplete esophagus and a stomach attached to his lungs and trachea, complications of an extra 21st chromosome. “I just prayed that God would take away the Down syndrome,” said Blackburn, whose baby boy had his first open chest surgery two days after birth. “He had over 30 surgeries his first year of life.”
When prenatal screening reveals an unborn child destined to be like Michael, the majority of American mothers choose abortion, studies have shown. In contrast, 99 percent of Down syndrome parents report loving their children, and 99 percent of all people with Down syndrome say they’re happy with their lives, according to Mark Bradford. Bradford, president of the Down syndrome advocacy group Lejeune Foundation USA, explored that sad contrast in a June paper for the Charlotte Lozier Foundation, the research arm of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. Bradford argued that better informing pregnant women of what to expect from a prenatal diagnosis is the way “to create a future where true acceptance and inclusion can be realized for all those conceived with Down syndrome, not just the current minority who are allowed to live.”
Fear of the unknown inspired Blackburn’s prayer on the day Michael was born, but providence pushed back. “God spoke to me and just said, ‘If you will accept this, what I’m giving you, you will be blessed beyond belief,’” she said. Her son spent the next 10 years on a feeding tube. At 13 years old, he suffers from arthritis. Still, she has no regrets, and she questions mothers who choose abortion in the face of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. “What about if their 3-year-old has a traumatic brain injury, or their 16-year-old is paralyzed, or their husband has a stroke. What are you going to do then?”
The life expectancy of people living with Down syndrome rose from 12 years in 1929 to above 60 in 2014. Medical researchers are experimenting with drugs that might improve learning, boost memory, and slow the onset of dementia, Bradford wrote. Those strides forward will mean nothing as long as frightened mothers and resolute physicians continue to settle on abortion. Bradford cited a 2013 poll showing one in four patients who received a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis said their doctor was insistent on terminating the pregnancy.
Blackburn gushed about her boy’s gifts. “He never forgets anybody’s name, ever, ever,” she said. He flirts with cute girls and takes his mother on dates to J. Alexander’s, a fancy Nashville restaurant. A skilled drummer, Michael likes the rhythm of R&B and rap music. His difficulty with the word “explicit” makes for humorous conversations about what he can listen to or watch. “Dad, it’s Beyonce. Come on!” he’ll say. “It’s not plixit.”
Bradford said peer support and positive information for mothers reduces the incidence of abortion. Blackburn is a fitting example. Friends ask her to counsel mothers pregnant with Down syndrome children, and doctors at Vanderbilt Hospital have requested her presence when diagnosed babies were born.
Blackburn said mothers need to trust God and remember a prenatal screening can’t match God’s foreknowledge: “The God of creation, are we really supposed to believe he messed up when he made Michael?”