September 24, 2008
It was the annual “Summerfest” in a community about 60 miles west of Chicago. We were expecting rides and cotton candy, but were greeted instead by tractors and a pork chop dinner. The crowd was populated by just plain folks—old and young, enjoying the easy camaraderie of small town life. One family stood out. It was a mom and dad with a boy about eight I’ll call “Johnny.”
We had come to see a Chicago band, awkwardly positioned on a flatbed truck, who didn’t disappoint. They delivered great Chicago-style blues and rock, but as great as they were, they were promptly upstaged by Johnny. As the band started, he bolted to the grassy area before the stage and began to dance deliciously. He didn’t just have one “move,” he had lots of them with finger strategically pointed, and attitude enough for the whole band. As the singer jumped off the stage, Johnny would follow, imitating him playing harmonica and clutching his cordless mic as he serenaded a select few. When he finished a set and took a bow, Johnny took his too … deeply, like a shadow on the lawn. The crowd roared and I was especially delighted when he came to serenade me with his imaginary microphone. I wanted to grab and hug him, but he would have none of it.
I looked down the row to see his parents standing silently, not with wild cheering but with wonder, amazement and … pride. You see, Johnny has Down syndrome. It was a moment parents of special needs kids seldom get to enjoy.
It struck me in that moment that nearly 90 percent of babies born with Down syndrome are now aborted. Most Johnnys never get the chance to delight a crowd or bring deep, abiding joy to their parents—because they never get a chance to live.
It was a Down syndrome baby that nurse Jill Stanek cradled until death at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, denied of food or medical treatment. Another imperfect baby, unwanted by its parents, starved out of existence.
When legislation to prevent such callousness and neglect sprang to life as a result of Stanek’s story, Barack Obama spoke out against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. He argued that it was unfair to the mothers to let these babies live—that it would turn back abortion rights (as though infanticide and abortion were in the same legal ballpark). He voted against the legislation and tried to persuade others in the Illinois legislature to follow his lead. On the issue of abortion, he later publicly declared that he wouldn’t want his daughters “punished with a baby,” should they find themselves pregnant and unmarried. With that perspective Obama would surely find a Down syndrome baby beyond punishment.
It’s not the only time in human history when something like this has happened.
In attempt to breed the Aryan race, the Nazis began a systematic extermination of “useless eaters.” Videos were produced to illustrate the horrors of the disabled and thousands were led to their death with the approval of the German citizenry. One notable exception was Dietrich Bohhoeffer, a pastor later hanged to death with a piano wire for opposing the Nazis. In the face of the Aryan tide he penned these words: “Not only do the weak need the strong, but the strong need the weak.”
One has only to be the parent of a child like Johnny to grasp the truth of Bonhoeffer’s words. The Johnnys of the world teach us to endure with perseverance, build character and allow for a love that wells up from a place too deep for words to describe.
Sarah Palin gets it. That’s why she and husband Todd chose not to abort baby Trig in spite of his alleged imperfections. To some, he is a “useless eater.” He will never win the snow machine race his father is famous for or be mayor or governor of anything, but Sarah and Todd know the value of his life in ways that can never be explained to a man like Barack Obama. A baby like Trig is a precious life. And the baby carried by his sister is not punishment.
In his book, “The Power of the Powerless,” Christopher De Vinck tells the story of his severely disabled brother, Oliver. As Christopher grew older and began dating, he brought his girlfriend to the family farmhouse and eventually asked if she would like to meet Oliver. Since Oliver lived on the top floor and had to be fed and diapered by family members, the first girl said a polite “no.” The next girl, however, said, “Yes!”…climbed the stairs, crawled up on the bed with Oliver and proceeded to patiently spoon feed him.
“Which girl would you have married?” asked De Vinck. The power of the powerless; the ability of the helpless or infirm to reveal not their infirmity, but the character of those around them.
We have two candidates, one for president and the other for vice president, with very different views on the value of life. What does their attitude toward the Johnnys of this world—or the tiny lives who have come inconveniently—tell us about them? And by the way, which girl would you have chosen?