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A Special Education of Our Own

Contending for the lives of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities

Everywhere we turn, it seems the sanctity of life is under constant assault. While society continues to turn this way and that, its consistent trajectory is undeniably toward the autonomy and supremacy of the individual—the all-important self. But not every individual is granted the same dignity.

As the pro-choice narrative has continued its cultural advance, the argument for aborting preborn babies has devolved into what has become the supposed absolute right of an individual to choose the fate of another life based on something as fickle as that person’s preference. The prizing of one individual’s choice has resulted in the lawful termination of scores and scores of little boys and girls. 

Policies targeted toward those with disabilities

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conversation developing around the dignity and viability of people with Down syndrome, particularly babies in the womb. In the past several years, for example, a regulation was passed in the state of New York that required insurance plans to cover abortions, stating that health plans cannot “limit or exclude coverage for abortions that are [deemed] medically necessary” (emphasis added), an umbrella term that includes a lengthy list of disabilities.1https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/20/20-1501/180185/20210526121754439_20-1501acTheChurchOfJesusChristOfLatter-DaySaints.pdf 

In the U.K., language is written into the country’s Abortion Act that permits abortion when “there is substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped” (emphasis added).2https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/explainer-abortion-act-in-the-u-k-challenged-but-upheld-by-the-high-court/ In each of these examples, the language being used, ambiguous as it may seem, gives lawful allowance for taking the lives of preborn boys and girls with Down syndrome.

A special education

For years now, as an educator who teaches special education within the public school system, I (Juliana) have had the privilege of seeing firsthand what many proponents of these heart-wrenching abortion policies fail to see: the very real contributions that children with Down syndrome make to society. Too often, our advocacy for people with disabilities, while well-intended, stops short of recognizing that these individuals are not only worthy of life, but are an integral part of a healthy, functioning society. 

During my time as cheer sponsor of an inclusion cheer squad, for example, wherein female students with various disabilities were invited to join the varsity cheerleading squad, I watched as these students contributed to the culture and morale of the team. And I witnessed them carry out the role of a cheerleader with skill and competence. At an even greater magnitude, the same proved to be true in my experience as co-head of the delegation for our local Special Olympics chapter and our district’s Special Olympics club. These are people who have much to give and teach us.

I am the one who has learned the most as I’ve taught and led students and student-athletes with Down syndrome over the years. Often, it was them leading me, showing me what it means to love, work hard, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and always do it with joy. You might say I received a special education from them.

A Christian response

The inherent value and dignity of people with Down syndrome is not dependent on their contribution to society, of course, but on the fact that they bear the image of God as fully and irrevocably as every other person. And in the face of broadening abortion policies, Christians are to set ourselves apart as those who welcome babies and individuals with Down syndrome because they are created by God in his image.

But that’s not where our responsibilities end. Because people with Down Syndrome—babies and adults alike—are made in the imago Dei, they can and should be welcomed into the task of the cultural mandate, helping to bring about the sort of relational and societal flourishing reminiscent of the garden in Eden (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). They are just as equipped for this work as anyone.

This means that the people of God should lead the way in opposing abortion measures targeting babies with disabilities, care for these babies and their mothers, lead the charge in advocating for their integration into their communities, and show the watching world what a healthy, functioning society looks like by recognizing their abilities and giving them opportunities to contribute to its flourishing.

People of life

It is no overstatement to say that our secular society is on a campaign to stamp out individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities. Disguised as an act of compassion toward the preborn baby and his or her mother, the right to choose has become an exercise in extinguishing these young, unique lives and depriving mothers of their children. And it is a choice often applauded by society at large. 

But Christians, informed by the Word of God and empowered by the Spirit of God, are called to an altogether different mission—one of true compassion, where the dignity of people with disabilities is acknowledged and where their lives are contended for from womb to tomb, in the courts and the delivery rooms and the classrooms across this country. 

People with Down syndrome, born or preborn, should not be seen as candidates for termination because of an extra chromosome. Instead, they should be seen as persons, made by God, loved by God, bearing his image, and fully capable of carrying out the cultural mandate right alongside the rest of us. And certainly, as we work shoulder to shoulder as co-laborers in the call of God, we will learn a few things from them. By God’s grace, we’ll be the ones who are recipients of a special education of our own.

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children.

Juliana Wootten is a special education teacher in the Dallas/Fort-Worth area.