Disability dilemmas – what should the Catholic Church/pro-life movement ‘do’?

Abortion of unborn children diagnosed with abnormalities is back on the agenda with the publication of the abortion statistics for 2012, which showed a sharp rise in the number of children aborted due to disabilities, up 17% on 2011 figures. As I explain in this week’s Universe, this demonstrates a gulf between the national attitudes on display during the Paralympics and those on an individual basis. We are all delighted to cheer on our athletes in the spirit of patriotism, but fewer of us are prepared to actually get our hands dirty when it comes to the more difficult task of caring for a disabled child. A parliamentary commission has pointed out that the way the abortion laws are being applied amounts to little more than eugenics, and is ‘unfit for a civilised society’. If the rules surrounding abortion for babies diagnosed with disabilities are to be reformed or tightened up, the Catholic Church and pro-life movement can expect scrutiny in terms of what they actually do to help the disabled in society.

One of the regular tropes trotted out by pro-choicers is that Catholics only really care about the unborn baby; once the baby is born or saved from abortion we then wash our hands and absolve ourselves of all responsibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the case of the Good Counsel Network for example, they offer support for as long the mother requires it. Over the past few weeks, a few Catholics have been agitating on social media that the Catholic Church and/or pro-life organisations should do more for the disabled, such as paying for respite care for the mothers or carers of disabled children and adults, if they are going to campaign for an end to abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality.

This concept needs a little unpacking before uncritical acceptance.

In the case of the Catholic Church, it does do an awful lot for disabled children and adults, but on a local level according to the Catholic tenet of subsidiarity. Whether one is referring to either the Catholic Church or the pro-life movement, we should steer away from the socialist notion that everything should be centrally controlled, whether that be by the state, the ‘Church’ or a pro-life organisation. The Catholic Church has several voluntary societies such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, to name just one, which does exactly the work of supporting and providing practical help to the vulnerable in society, such as struggling families, the elderly and disabled of all ages. Catholic parishes have rostas for visiting the sick and pull together in an informal way to help those in their community who are vulnerable or in need of support in times of crisis. I can give numerous examples of acts of generosity and I don’t mean in purely financial terms, actually far more difficult is to give of one’s time and yet I’ve seen members of a parish help a struggling mother with ad hoc free childcare or picking up children from school, cooking meals for an elderly infirm neighbour, volunteering to look after a disabled child for a few hours on a regular basis or help out an elderly couple where one has Altzheimers and so on. The fact that this is not centrally organised or formally recognised, does not mean that it doesn’t happen. Of course there does need to be some formal organisation, but usually it’s done at a local level.

Outside of parish level, Catholic schools, both in the independent and state sector strongly encourage their pupils to participate in voluntary work and there are schemes which see pupils run and participate in activities such as Riding for the Disabled, Swimming and sports clubs, residential weeks for disabled and underprivileged children, in order to foster mutually enriching relationships and a sense of responsibility and community. Catholic Children’s societies do much work in terms of providing respite care and helping families as well as advocating for the rights of the disabled in society. Individual dioceses have pastoral teams exactly for this purpose, including helping people to receive the most out of the sacraments and general specialised support groups.

So it’s rather unfair to claim that the Catholic Church doesn’t actually do anything for those with disabilities, anyone who has ever been on any sort of organised diocesan pilgrimage to a place such as Lourdes, will see exactly the sort of attitude that the Catholic Church adopts towards the disabled, the Catholic Church not simply consisting of ‘The Vatican’ but the members of all the faithful around the globe. Incidentally it’s inside a Catholic church that one is most likely to frequently encounter a large gathering of those with various physical or learning disabilities. Here’s the little boy who took his First Holy Communion with my daughter.

The HCPT Lourdes Pilgrimage

As a rule I’m generally reluctant to validate by engaging with the notion that the Catholic Church doesn’t care about the disabled once they are born, because this accusation is usually thrown about by those who have little knowledge or experience of what does go on and even if they did, would still find something to criticise. It is the kind of thinking that dictates that the Church should spend all its time engaged in voluntary and practical work (for certain approved politically correct causes) mopping up social problems such as poverty but should have absolutely no voice in terms of formulating the policies whose side-effects they are expected to resolve.

In any event should the Church pay for respite care for disabled children and adults, outside of what it does already, if it is serious about ending abortion on the grounds of disability?

The first question we have to ask is whether or not the Church or any pro-life organisation would actually have sufficient funds to provide for this? I suspect the answer would be no. The annual income of all the UK major pro-life organisations combined would not begin to cover respite care for every single disabled child or adult. We also know that contrary to Dawkins’ assertions that the Church is not actually awash with cash and does not have that much liquidity, especially at parish level. But perhaps both pro-life organisations and churches ought to campaign for more donations on this basis?

Perhaps, but the fundamental question here, is whether or not the Church or pro-life organisations ought to be doing this work for the government? It’s true that in medieval times the Church was fundamental in terms of setting up schools, hospitals, communities to care for the sick, the needy, the poor and so on, but this was in the days before taxes. We live in an entirely different, allegedly more civilised society under which we are obliged to give a significant proportion of our income to the government to order our society and therefore surely it is entirely encumbant upon the government to make such provision for respite care and look after the most vulnerable unless it wants to lift all taxation.

Would it really help if various Catholic institutions were to replicate what happens already? Besides which levels of respite care and assistance are entirely dependent on the nature of the disability which is why best practice enables families to be given a certain budget and determine their care plan themselves according to their own specific circumstances and needs.

Would the promise of paid respite care actually tempt women into keeping their unborn babies? Most women who decide to abort a baby with a foetal abnormality do not so lightly or because their baby is less than perfect, but out of fear. What the recent parliamentary commission on abortions on the grounds of disability heard, was countless tales of how women felt that medical professionals bounced them into a decision; that they really felt that they had little other choice, and no other options were put to them. So part of the solution has to be a more empathetic and open to real choice medical profession, especially in the areas of foetal medicine and gynaecology. When diagnosing foetal abnormalities, the baby is measured against a standard of perfection, when in reality none of us are physically perfect. We often hear terrible cases of young men and women dropping down dead because of an undiagnosed heart defect that they have had since birth. Tragic whilst those cases are (and more preventative measures should be taken), the parents of those individuals never lament the birth of their child or wish they had never been born, instead they celebrate lifetimes of joy and achievement. Would they have taken a different decision had they been informed that their baby could drop down dead at any minute during the 20 week scan?

The problem with many of these diagnoses is that they are invariably worst case scenarios, when the reality is that no-one really knows with much certainty until the baby is born. Many readers will be able to give anecdotes of diagnoses of severe physical abnormality and dire prognoses only to go on to deliver a perfectly healthy baby. Only yesterday I heard yet another such tale myself. Here’s a little girl who was diagnosed with a condition incompatible with life . Even when the diagnoses are correct, they only tell a one-sided story that involves only heartbreak and suffering with never any mention of love, joy, fulfilment, laughter or contentment. This is behind the screening for Downs Syndrome – the condition is deemed to be so unutterably dreadful and makes life so miserable and difficult, that parents need to be give the choice to abort. The pro-choicers have gone beserk over the case of Father Vander Woude, who was inundated with responses to an appeal for prospective adoptive parents of an unborn baby with Downs Syndrome, claiming that abortion is the better or only option for those babies with Down Syndrome. A sentiment which Francis Philips, whose daughter has Downs, would vociferously refute.

In many many cases, it’s not necessarily money, but fear, especially of the unknown. Perhaps if there is something the church or pro-life organisations could do is organise support groups for those diagnosed with these conditions (some already exist) or help in assisting local groups for mothers and fathers of babies and young toddlers with various conditions. Parents faced with this situation are currently forced to rely for remote internet help and support, as due to abortion, babies diagnosed with difficulties are few and far between.

Even if organisations were able to offer a limitless supply of cash for respite, it would still make no difference to some mothers. The barrier is not purely financial, it’s about having the confidence in one’s ability to parent a child with disabilities, especially if you already have children. Parenting a child is hard and time consuming as well as immeasurably rewarding, it requires graft and self-sacrifice. Unfortunately words and concepts such as those tend to be alien and almost taboo in today’s society, self sacrifice, duty and responsibility have a negative rather than heroic and aspirational quality. Which is one of the reasons why mothers abort healthy children too. They fear they don’t have the capacity or ability to mother and the ideal of self-sacrifice is seen as the enemy of the dominant narrative or zeitgeist of self autonomy. It might be judgemental but sadly true in some cases. Some women neither believe in, nor want to be self-sacrificial, a child should fulfil them and on their terms, not understanding the fulfilment that can be found in sacrifice. Some women simply don’t want the work, effort or responsibility that comes with having a child, no matter what any pro-life organisation does, they cannot and should not seek to entirely remove the responsibility from the woman’s shoulders, but rather help her to bear it.

Which feeds into the final point about handing out cash willy-nilly to mothers or provision of free childcare or respite care to pregnant women. Help that is offered should never ever be in the form of a bribe, but instead to help a woman overcome the barriers to saving her child’s life. These barriers will differ from person to person, money is not always the overriding issue. A Catholic solution is holistic, it’s joined up, it’s helping the mother to reach her potential as a mother, rather than treating the child as a barrier to personal fulfilment or individual success. Part of this should involve a spiritual element. By saying to a woman, ‘okay we’ll pay for all your respite care and/or all your childcare’ it treats the child as an object or problem. No single mothers of young children (or indeed any mothers of young children) should be forced, coerced or encouraged to work. Children should not be placed full-time in nurseries, which often lead to poorer outcomes for children, if they are to flourish.

Throwing money at people to put their children in childcare or to provide respite care, buys into the narrative that children, whether able-bodied or not, are a burden to be overcome. Encouraging women of young children to go out to work consolidates the feminist Marxist agenda that is profoundly anti-women and seeks to force women and mothers in the workplace against their wishes and is an attack on the family. (Studies show that an overwhelming majority of mothers wish to stay at home with their children). Pro-life is about so much more than cash or consolidating a culture of dependency or entitlement. No amount of cash will mitigate the personal responsibility or additional work involved in child-raising unless one pays for a full time carer, 24/7.

A blanket offer of respite care consolidates the idea that disabled children are just so unbearably difficult and demanding that parents will need to be able to escape at every possible opportunity. Propagating this physically unattainable ideal also implicitly validates abortion of disabled children, stating that because insufficient respite care is available, the decision to abort is justifiable because the woman has no other option. The decision may be understandable, but never morally valid, no matter how hard that may be for many to read. We also need to be extremely careful not to feed the abortionist’s mantra that pro-life is about quality of life as opposed to sanctity, whilst at the same time assisting parents and children to maximise the former.

The Catholic Church or pro-life organisations should not let the government off the hook in terms of its responsibilities to the disabled. We should not seek to replicate existing provision but to complement. If there are gaps in provision we should look to identify and see what we can do to rectify and be inspired by the documents of the Second Vatican Council which implored the laity to take on more responsibility in terms of lay apostolates of this nature. I mentioned the Good Counsel Network earlier, they are an excellent example of this, in that having identified a need, they have set up a wholly Catholic apostolate. Surely this is what we are called to do as Catholics, to tailor a solution that is holistic, not simply financial or practical but one that addresses spiritual needs and has a strongly Catholic flavour. Otherwise we become little more than social workers.

Ultimately we shouldn’t sit in our armchairs, with a ‘somebody should do something’ attitude, pontificating what the Catholic Church or pro-life organisations should do, but actually be pro-active in setting up whichever initiatives we feel are necessary.

Much is done already by many in terms of caring for the vulnerable in society, no doubt more can be done. But the first job has to be doing whatever we can, which includes political action and highlighting the unjust and appalling attitudes towards those with disabilities simply because they are in utero. There’s no point campaigning for better respite care, better facilities, fairer legislation or railing against unfair benefit cuts for the disabled, if we turn a blind eye to the despicable prejudice that seeks to deny people the opportunity to life, the most basic human right of all.

God willing, abortion on the basis of disability may soon be a thing of the past. When all are accorded the equal right to life, it will then be the opportune moment to review what can be done better in terms of supporting those with disabilities, which will naturally include relationships with other agencies and charities. If we allow everyone to be born, the government will be forced to up its game and provision. But at the rate we are going we will soon have a raft of legislative measures, buildings with wheelchair ramps and so forth and yet no-one to use them.

2 thoughts on “Disability dilemmas – what should the Catholic Church/pro-life movement ‘do’?

  1. My catholic parish family have always welcomed my children(who have different learning disabilities) within the parish family ,altar serving, FHC, Confirmation, embracing them & taking them to their hearts within the parish /church setting BUT in over 27 years only a handful of people (clergy included) in my parish family have ever reached out to us with any practical/emotional or spiritual help , called at our home , ever asked us ‘how is it for you ‘, are you spiritually supported ? ….behind the closed doors of our home we have had physical challenges from a son taller than us , dealing with epilepsy, night fits , faecal smearing on walls & body , the worry of education ,of what are the options as they approach adulthood , despair when a new child is born & we were once again faced with bringing up another child with special needs …. the list is endless .
    I don’t want the Catholic Church to pay for my respite but I do want a church that reaches out truly to offer support to the whole family , yes be inclusive in all areas of Church life but remember that when we’ve all gone home , behind our front doors parents of children with special needs are dealing with all manner of things & sometimes what we need is someone to reach out to us , ask us how is it for us , to offer a hug ,a baked cake , knock on the door & say ‘hi’

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