A few weeks ago, my editor, Paul Tuns, told me about an article he read in Chatelaine magazine. A woman named Chloe Ashton recounted her experiences after learning her second child – this one unplanned – would have Down syndrome. Having refused genetic screening while pregnant with her then four-year-old daughter, Ashton was convinced at first that she wouldn’t have “done anything about” a problem with either pregancy. She was more confident this time around, in part because of a committed partner who shared her excitement at welcoming the new addition. At 18 weeks, Ashton worried about her unusual weight gain. A midwife suggested that it might be excess amniotic fluid. Tests later revealed possible markers for Down syndrome. The couple opted to undergo amniocentesis and genetic counseling. Once the results came in, they had a week to decide how the pregnancy would end.
Everyone Ashton came into contact with – friends, family and others – advised having an abortion. Her sister said, “I’ve lived with a disability for most of my life, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Please think hard about what you’re doing to this child.” At this point, the whole story hasn’t even been told, and some aspects already fill me with a quiet outrage.
First, when making a weighty decision like that, a week seems barely long enough to begin processing one’s feelings, let alone come to a conclusion. Second, I understand the reactions the couple received. The medical profession must be nonjudgmental and objective. Doctors couldn’t, for example, hide the difficulties by emphasizing the cheerful personality often associated with Down syndrome. Instead, Ashton’s genetic counsellors highlighted the risk of early dementia that comes with the condition. I appreciate the honesty, but is that all they see when looking at these individuals?
As a person with a disability, I can tell you that my life is not a breeze. I, too, wouldn’t wish a disability on anyone. Even so, it is abhorrent that many people are led to believe that ending lives, instead of eliminating problems and coping with challenges as best we can, is a legitimate solution. I know a few people who have Down syndrome. They face many challenges I never will, yet they are well-supported and much loved. Was nobody able to do anything besides paint a picture of doom and gloom for Chloe Ashton?
By the time the week was up, the test had come back positive. Ashton and her partner had decided to “terminate.” One problem remained – what to tell their daughter? The little girl was already in love with her brother and named him Tommy. Ashton told Tommy’s sister that he was sick. I wonder if she will ever discover the truth. Will she feel angry or betrayed when she does? How will it affect her relationships to people with disabilities in the future?
An Earth Hour was held days before the surgery. Ashton used the occasion to say goodbye to her still-energetic little boy, whose humanity she seemed to see during the tests, and whom she loved. Earth-saving initiatives have their place, and the timing was coincidental. However, this seemed at first like another subtle tie-in to the idea that we must save our planet by getting rid of the imperfect.
Ashton says that she was ill-prepared for the aftermath of her decision. Her relationship crumbled six months after the abortion, and she felt “phantom kicks” for a long time. She attributes both of these to “hormonal confusion” from the pregnancy’s abrupt end. Co-workers were told Ashton had “lost” her child. Only a few know the real story. Ashton says she’s sharing her experience, three years later, to help others “weigh their options” with genetic testing. Earth Hour has become a memorial to help Ashton’s daughter remember her sibling. Their mother is simply left with questions. When will the surviving child know the truth? Would she make the same choice if she were pregnant today? Was it the right choice? Can she ever forgive herself?
I understand why Ashton made the decision she did. It would be an unnerving situation for any parent, rushed to make a decision and facing a lack of support. However, I cannot condone it. Getting rid of a person’s suffering – or that of loved ones – by killing the sufferer is misguided mercy and a form of eugenics. Our society has already seen what happens when we travel that road. If that attitude is perpetuated, it could mean trouble for all of us.
Taylor Hyatt is an Interim summer student.