A court of appeal in France recently published its verdict on a case where a doctor had not recognized that a child in its mother’s womb was handicapped. He did not perform an abortion, nor did he advise the parents to have the child aborted. The child was born handicapped and the parents sued the doctor for damages. The high court agreed with the parents.

Clearly, these judges were convinced that the parents’ view was reasonable: Why should a handicapped child be born, if one can prevent this? This appears to be a perfectly reasonable argument to many people today, even to high court judges in a civilized country like France, and it seems that we are obliged to ask: Are we crazy if we disagree? Are the organizations of handicapped persons who protested against this high court verdict simply out of tune with the march of progress? Or is it possible that it is these organizations who are the spokesmen of the human point of view, while the high court judges represent a profoundly inhuman point of view?

Let me mention yet another example. Prenatal diagnosis can identify with a great measure of precision the presence of Down syndrome in an unborn child. We all know how the police use computers in their hunt for criminals. What is beginning here in our own society is the use of computers in the prenatal hunt for the handicapped, and the consequence is that it will be considered antisocial, irresponsible--and hence an offense against reason--to bring a handicapped child into the world. This inevitably prompts the question: Is it not more reasonable, more humane, more natural, indeed more merciful to spare a handicapped unborn child all the difficulties it will face in the course of its life? Such feelings are enormously widespread today, and parents who find themselves in this situation often face terrible conflicts of conscience.

Gradually a social climate is emerging in which the parents of a handicapped child risk being regarded as antisocial. The use of words like "merciful," which veil the realities involved, the emotional confusion, and the determined effort to paint dreadful deeds in the best possible light—all these factors induce a great lack of clarity. This is why it is so necessary and urgent to look very soberly at these realities and to call things by their proper names. We must not use counterfeit language!

Nothing gives more help than faith in our search for rational clarity and sobriety. Faith does not make us unreasonable; one who follows Christ and lives in the light shed by faith gains a clear-sightedness even in the simplest matters of everyday life and will not succumb to the lies which attempt to trick him (nor to the lies he might be tempted to tell himself). He will see through all these falsehoods and recognize reality in its true colors. This, however, requires us to lead a life based on faith, so that we can free ourselves by means of such a life from self-deception, from the passions that blind us, and from the lies that make us take false paths.

We have seen the dangerous conclusions that can be drawn from prenatal diagnosis. Let me briefly put forward four simple arguments against such positions:

1. It is possible for prenatal diagnosis to be mistaken. A few days ago, I met a mother whose doctor had told her that her unborn child had Down syndrome. Nevertheless, she gave birth to the child—who was perfectly healthy. Doctors can get their diagnosis wrong!

2. Although a handicapped child is doubtless a heavy burden on a family, the child can also be a great blessing. The sixth and last child of friends of mine has Down syndrome, and the whole family agrees that this child brings sunshine into their lives. Recently, I met a family who discovered the path of faith thanks to their handicapped child, because this child called into question the materialism and the obsession with success which had previously dominated their lives. Through this handicapped child, God led the family to faith.

3. We may legitimately ask: What kind of mercy is involved when a handicapped child is killed?

4. What entitles us to declare a priori what will make this child happy or unhappy? What entitles us as doctors or parents to decide whether the child should be spared the "misery" of a handicapped life? Jean Vinier, the founder of the L’Arche movement and one of the great witnesses to the Gospel in our days, discovered many decades ago how rich a life shared with handicapped persons can be and how much we can receive from them.

No doubt it remains true that a handicapped child is a burden; but does a "burden" justify killing? The primary question here is not: “Will we be able to cope?” That is an understandable question, and it is perfectly acceptable, humanly speaking, when parents are faced with this new situation. But what is involved is not that kind of question, but a concrete action: May we accept the killing of this child (who is perhaps handicapped)? Such an action is intrinsically wrong.

Let me clear up any potential misunderstanding by saying at this point: If an abortion is carried out, God’s mercy will never exclude anyone who recognizes that he or she has incurred guilt. God’s mercy never comes to an end, even if we make terrible mistakes. But God’s mercy does not spare us from the recognition that it was a mistake—a sin.
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