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The 1960s' Down syndrome problem — and ours

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Arguable - with Jeff Jacoby
Monday, June 4, 2018
 

The 1960s' Down syndrome problem — and ours

Arthur Miller’s moral authority takes a beating in “Fall,” a new play now having its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston.

Miller, the renowned American playwright who wrote “Death of A Salesman,” “The Crucible,” and “All My Sons,” was a caustic observer of moral shortcomings and fathers’ failures, and of the shame that results from ethical compromise. “My way of writing plays,” he told interviewers, “involves the birds coming home to roost.”

The story told in “Fall,” which was written by former New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub, is the story of Miller’s own moral shortcomings and failure as a father. It’s based on the true but not-widely-known fact that Miller had a son, Daniel, who was born with Down syndrome in 1966. Daniel was placed in an institution for disabled infants, against the wishes of his mother — Miller’s third wife, photojournalist Inge Morath — but in keeping with advice commonly given to the parents of Down syndrome children in the 1960s.
For the rest of his life, Miller barely acknowledged the existence of his Down syndrome son, the youngest of his four children. He refused to visit Daniel, rejected Morath’s periodic pleas to bring him home, never spoke of him in public, and omitted him entirely from his 1987 autobiography, Timebends . Among Miller’s friends, the few who knew about Daniel generally steered clear of the subject. Only at the very end of his life, just weeks before his death in 2005, did Miller take a step to do right by Daniel: He revised his will to provide that his fourth child would inherit a one-fourth share of his estate.

What makes Miller’s unconscionable disregard for his son a fruitful subject for a drama is that for years the Pulitzer Prize-winner and celebrity-social activist was hailed as one of America’s great moral truth-tellers. When he died, The New York Times praised him for having “grappled with the weightiest matters of social conscience” and for his “fierce belief in man’s responsibility to his fellow man.”

But if Miller — who famously defied the House Un-American Activities Committee, who vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, who defended the rights of dissident writers behind the Iron Curtain — was such a champion of morality and justice, how could he have abandoned his own son with such indecent callousness?

“Fall” paints a damning portrait of Miller as a coward and an egotist, ever ready to preen for his admirers and the press, but quick to recoil from the prospect of being seen with a defective child — a “mongoloid,” as Miller referred to him. Weinraub pulls few punches. To an extent, the play is based on real reporting — a 2007 exposé in Vanity Fair by Suzanna Andrews that first documented the existence of Miller’s abandoned son, plus, as the Huntington notes in an online essay, Weinraub’s own interviews with “social workers, caretakers, and acquaintances who could shed new light on the complicated story.” But it deploys plenty of dramatic license as well, casting Miller as a selfish hypocrite who claimed to be enlightened but — at least in this case — was anything but.

“Fall” makes clear that attitudes toward Down syndrome have changed over the past half century. The audience is told that doctors no longer recommend that babies diagnosed with the condition be institutionalized, and that children born with Down syndrome (like Daniel Miller himself) routinely go on to live happy and fulfilling lives. In the “Fall” playbill, theater-goers can read an essay — “Down Syndrome, Then and Now ” — by the Huntington’s dramaturg, Charles Haugland. The picture he outlines is of a world vastly more tolerant and welcoming than the one into which Daniel Miller was born:
 
Today, the emphasis in research has shifted towards giving individuals with Down syndrome dignity and self determination in medical decisions. . . .The cultural and medical landscape that a child with Down syndrome is born into today would be unrecognizable to people living in the 1960s. Children and adults with Down syndrome appear in advertisements and television programs; they write books and appear publicly as advocates for their community.
 

That’s true. But it is far — far — from the whole truth.

Neither Weinraub’s play nor the Huntington’s dramaturg so much as hint at the much larger, much darker reality of Down syndrome today. Namely, that the vast majority of babies with the disorder don’t grow up amid love and dignity, because they are never born in the first place: They are deliberately killed in the womb.
 
Lucas Warren of Dalton, Ga., a 1-year-old with Down syndrome, was named the 2018 Gerber baby. He captivated the judges with his "winning smile and joyful expression."


If it was appalling for Arthur Miller to airbrush his son Daniel out of his life in the 1960s, what is the word to describe the overwhelming majority of parents in the United States and Europe in the 2010s who respond to a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis by destroying their unborn baby outright via abortion?

In a new essay for Slate, Ruth Graham wrestled with the conflict between women’s legal right to choose an abortion and the monstrousness of killing unborn babies solely because they have an extra chromosome. Here’s an excerpt:

 
In many parts of Europe, including the United Kingdom, the termination rate after a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis is now more than 90%. In Iceland, where testing is widespread, “we have basically eradicated, almost, Down syndrome from our society,” one geneticist told CBS last year . In Denmark, where all pregnant women have been offered screening scans since 2004, the disorder is heading for “extinction.” In Ireland, one of the few Western European countries where it is still commonplace to encounter people with disabilities like Down syndrome, citizens voted overwhelmingly on Friday to reverse the country’s strict constitutional restrictions on abortion. Down syndrome had become a contentious element in the public debate. A billboard from the “Save the 8th” campaign, which favored maintaining restrictions, featured a boy with Down syndrome and the tagline, “Abortion discriminates.” One mother of a 10-year-old with Down syndrome told a reporter that she worries her son’s community is “being wiped off the face of the Earth with abortion.” The stakes of this debate are clear: It’s a conversation not just about prenatal testing but about personhood, about whether Down syndrome should be considered a condition or a disease.

In the United States, screening is not as widespread, but about three-quarters of women who do receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome terminate the pregnancy, according to a survey of recent studies published in 2012. Though not widely discussed in public, the default assumption in certain milieus is that aborting after a Down syndrome diagnosis is now the natural and obvious thing to do.

 

Reread that last line: The default assumption . . . is that aborting after a Down syndrome diagnosis is now the natural and obvious thing to do. The Huntington and its playwright are silent about this cultural embrace of prenatal extermination for people with Down syndrome. But they invite us to sit in judgment on Arthur Miller for turning his back on his son.

Aborting an unborn baby because it has been diagnosed with Down syndrome is an act of selfishness and depravity. It is the destruction of an innocent human life by parents who want a baby — but only if that baby is perfect. Worldwide, millions of unborn girls are aborted each year by parents determined to have a son. There is no moral difference between aborting an otherwise healthy baby because of her sex and aborting an otherwise healthy baby because she has Down syndrome.

Here and there, glimmers of light are beginning to pierce the darkenss. The 2018 Gerber Baby is Lucas Warren, a 1-year-old from Dalton, Ga., who was born with Down syndrome and whose “winning smile and joyful expression won our hearts,” in the words of Gerber CEO Bill Partyka. No surprise there: Winning smiles are practically the signature of Down syndrome.

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston reported in 2011 that “the experience of Down syndrome is a positive one for most parents, siblings, and people with Down syndrome.” In three linked national surveys, the research team found that 79% of parents of a child with Down syndrome reported that their outlook on life was enhanced because of their child, while 94% of brothers and sisters of someone with Down syndrome expressed pride in their sibling. As for the Down syndrome resondents themselves, an astonishing 99% said they were happy with their lives, 97% liked who they are, and 96% liked how they look. Only 4% expressed sadness about their life.

And yet the “default assumption” is that killing these cheerful, heartwarming, sunny people before they can be born is the “natural and obvious thing to do.” Whatever else may be said about Arthur Miller, he didn’t snuff out his child’s life. Luckily for that child, he was born in the benighted 1960s, not in our supposedly enlightened and tolerant age, when boys like Daniel Miller are routinely denied the right to life.


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