Do People With Down Syndrome Have A Right To Exist?

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We were born the same year, our mothers old friends. Jenny and I were first friends. They didn’t call them “playdates” back then, but the two of us hung out a lot as tykes — had tea parties and made typical pre-school messes while our moms sipped coffee and later scolded us for mushing Playdough into the carpet. I only learned that Jenny had been diagnosed with Down syndrome, which of course I didn’t understand, when I heard we wouldn’t attend the same school.

My neighborhood park had a wading pool. Larry was as much a fixture there as the water itself. Red hair, freckles, probably 40 years old, with Down syndrome, Larry never went in the pool, but he was a celebrity among the kids and parents, always wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts. He didn’t seem to need a cane, but he always had one and inevitably flipped it, hook side down, and belted out Elvis songs into its rubber foot. Looking back, a day splashing around in 16 inches of water was only a good day if Larry was there. 

Larry and Jenny were “joy” personified. And their uniqueness, magnetic somehow, drew others to them and multiplied that joy.   

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that we are “… tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” 

Massachusetts physicians eliminate approximately half of all Down syndrome people, by abortion, upon a prenatal diagnosis. Why do we allow this elimination of joy from a world that so desperately needs it? More critically, why do we discriminate against these individuals? 

Selective elimination of these men and women has severely frayed our “garment of destiny.” And it has affected each of us.

In the last 50 years, our society has made undeniable progress in the inclusion of and fair treatment toward individuals who have a range of physical and mental challenges. Consider various legal requirements put into place:  Early childhood intervention to address developmental delays; physical accessibility standards in our buildings; workplace accommodations; web design protocol for the visually or hearing impaired (Exhibit A on that: an accessibility page on the State House web site).

Did legislation behind each of these advances require sacrifices of time and money? Yes. Have they been worth it? Of course. And we are a better people, a more just society, because of them. As Dr. King also wrote, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

Massachusetts law currently permits outright prejudice, in the form of eugenic abortion, against people with Down Syndrome. Without question, it is a law that degrades human personality. And therefore it is unjust. That is why Massachusetts Citizens for Life drafted and filed H. 2409, An Act related to unborn victims of Down syndrome. If passed, this legislation would prevent a physician from performing an abortion, if he or she knows that the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome.

A 2016 Planned Parenthood fact sheet supports my assertion of injustice. On page 15, in reference to “flaws” of the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger, you’ll read that, “she also extended some opinions that clearly expressed ableism and exclusion … The history of ableism in America is an issue we must all address — including at Planned Parenthood. It is important that we understand our collective history and the legacy it leaves on those still impacted by an unjust system. We also believe that the way to move forward is to acknowledge Sanger’s wrongdoings … and continue to address ableism … outside or inside our organization.”

On Monday, June 7, the Joint Committee on Public Health held a hearing on H.2409. In my testimony, I asked our legislators to consider a hypothetical “nay” vote on this bill. The result of such opposition:  A faulty step onto a slippery slope toward widespread, culturally-acceptable, subjective discrimination against, well, everything. Just imagine, I asked, what further discrimination we might soon allow, when advances in genetic testing reveal the likelihood of brown eyes, nearsightedness, curly hair, or homosexuality?

I had the opportunity to revisit Boston’s Holocaust Memorial a few weeks ago. An inscription asks visitors to “recognize the danger and evil that are possible whenever one group persecutes another” and to “know that wherever prejudice, discrimination, and victimization are tolerated, evil like the Holocaust can happen again.”

On behalf of Jenny, Larry, others with Down syndrome, and their families, I urge you to call or email members of the Joint Committee on Public Health and ask them to support H.2409 in order to protect people, in this case those yet to be born, who have Down syndrome. For committee members to do otherwise is to support continued discrimination.


Myrna Maloney Flynn is a communications practitioner with leadership experience in marketing, broadcasting, nonprofit development, and education. She serves as Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at Montrose School in Medfield, Massachusetts. She is also the President of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.  This article is based in part on the text of her testimony on Monday, June 7, 2021 before the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health.


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