There are many strategies employed by people who stand for life. Strategies that are designed to change hearts, minds and opinions. One of these is to highlight extraordinary lives of people with conditions that, if diagnosed before birth, would put them at high risk to be aborted. A recent example is a video Ashton Kutcher posted on Facebook. Whether or not this was Ashton’s intent, pro-life advocates were quick to embrace the video and use it as a case for pro-life. The video is Frank Stephens’ – a man with Down syndrome testifying before Congress in 2017. Frank tells of his life’s accomplishments before the Congress: Frank has participated in the Special Olympics, is an accomplished actor and a pro-life advocate. As Frank said before congress “I have a great life.” And he does even by “typical people” standards. Ashton Kutcher aptly put the following headline when he posted Frank’s video, “Everyone’s life is valuable.” I so appreciate people who try to change hearts and minds by using examples of extraordinary people. However, if our only argument for life is Frank Stephens and other exceptional overachievers, something is missing.
Does pro-life mean all life?
I believe I understand the value of life. I have three sons, two daughters, a step son and a daughter in law. I can happily tell you about each and every one of them. I could proudly list what they are contributing to society and each of their accomplishments. If I did, this blog would be page after page about the character, accomplishments, value and worth of this group. Academic and athletic achievement, burgeoning teaching careers, modeling jobs, business acumen, future entrepreneurship, faith and faithful service in the local church, degrees, trophies, abilities, you get the idea. If you want that, private message me and I’d be happy to oblige. I love and cherish each one of these young men and women. But for now let me tell you about my youngest, Hershel.
Hershel was diagnosed with Down syndrome during my wife’s first trimester of pregnancy. Down syndrome made Hershel a high risk for many other health issues. We saw medical specialist after medical specialist and at each stop we were asked, “have you decided how you are going to manage this pregnancy?” It didn’t take my wife and me long to figure out that this was a clever way of asking, “would you like to terminate this life?” At one appointment, right on cue the Doctor asked us, “have you decided how you are going to manage this pregnancy?” And my wife (having had enough with the question) answered sternly, “if by that you mean are we going to have an abortion the answer is no.” The Doctor responded, “we just want you to know that you have options.” Now, we don’t place full blame on the Doctors. As a matter of fact since every one of them worded that sentence identically, we determined that this has likely been battled out in court by pro-life and pro-abortion forces with the outcome being the question must be asked about people like Hershel, but the word “abortion” may not be used. Nevertheless our medical community made it very clear that Hershel’s life can be terminated if we just say the word. I don’t remember that point being made for any of my other children.
Hershel is now five years old and it doesn’t appear that an acting career is on his horizon. I doubt (though haven’t let go of the dream) that Special Olympics will be on his calendar, at least not as a participant. I used to think that he might hold down an honest job as a bagger at the grocery store, a floor sweeper at a beauty salon or even the gold standard for special needs employees…. a postal carrier! But Hershel doesn’t yet talk, walk, crawl or hold his head up for very long. Complications with Hershel’s lungs and heart (common with Down syndrome) caused him to need surgery. Hershel has had so many surgeries now that I have lost count. Post op didn’t go so well with one and Hershel was left with “brain injury” giving him many more “special needs.” Therefore Hershel is not a straight A student. No dean’s list as of yet. No multiple year varsity letters or Academic All American honors. We don’t really talk about Hershel’s future business endeavors. Hershel is probably not going to be a special needs teacher, (although he will likely be attending the classes), and he doesn’t have any trophies – only beads from successful procedures at the Children’s Hospital. No – Hershel is not valuable because of what he gives us from an achievement standpoint. If that is how we value life then Hershel does not stack up.
A Life Worth Living
Let me tell you a little more about Hershel. Hershel is very happy! When put to bed, we often hear Hershel laughing himself to sleep. Hershel is a people person, he simply loves attention! If you talk to Hershel you can count on a big smile. He has a very unique laugh, kind of like the cartoon character Muttley the dog (apologies for the obscure reference). Often-times Hershel’s older siblings will pick him up and do squats because this makes him bellow out that unique laugh. These squat sessions make for good social media videos. Hershel loves his life. He knows and recognizes his parent’s voices (he doesn’t see all that well), he loves playing with his siblings and his grammy’s doting attention. He likes walks around the block in his stroller, taking a bath, having his head rubbed and laying on the paper that lines the examining table at the Doctor’s office (don’t ask me why). Don’t get me wrong, there are struggles – Hershel startles easily, probably a result of brain injury, he doesn’t use his left hand much (again… brain injury), and when he is frightened or upset he requires comforting by someone he knows. I will admit that Hershel is extra work for his parents. Getting in and out of vehicles is not easy, bathing him is no picnic, doctor’s appointments are many and his mother and I live with periotic lower back pain due to lifting a 40+ pound 5 year old. Yes, Hershel’s life is good and sometimes difficult. He brings us much joy, stress and effort (like all children).
What is God saying?
Hershel, in his own way is a teacher. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that God uses Hershel to teach. One of Hershel’s nurses told me that “when I am sad, Hershel always cheers me up…. he is so appreciative of the smallest things I do for him.” Hershel came home with a piece of paper from school that he (with much assistance from his teachers) created. This project was a piece of paper which told two things about the student. On Hershel’s paper it said “what I like to do: LAUGH” and “one thing I’m good at: MAKING PEOPLE SMILE.” His mother and I agreed that they nailed it for Hershel! One thing Hershel has taught my wife and me… again, I’ll rephrase, one thing God has shown us through Hershel is how He (God) loves us. I’m not talking about the kind of love that is an affectionate feeling for someone because of what they do for us. Hershel doesn’t offer much that makes us happy about our circumstances. No sitting in the stands and proudly announcing “he learned that from me” after a three point shot hits nothing but net. No tears of pride and happiness as he crosses the stage to receive his bachelor’s degree diploma. No work ethic or business sense that makes us joke with pride that “he is our retirement plan.” But Hershel has shown how God loves us. Despite our flaws, despite our inadequacies, despite our shortcomings and flaws, God loves us and wants what is best for us. He desires that we know Him as Father – and God struck me with this because that is precisely how I look at Hershel.
Every Life is Worth Living
Hershel is not an example of a Down syndrome MMA fighter, power lifter, actor or lobbyist. Nevertheless, Hershel’s life is a blessing. Hershel’s life is worth living. And I know there are other precious children worse off than Hershel. Do they not also have the right to experience life? Should they not experience getting held, touched and receiving love? Sure there are extraordinary cases of special needs children who grow up to overachieve and do incredible things, God bless them every one! But that is not what gives them a “right to life.” If our only case for life is that even children in the womb known to have defects might, just might grow up to do extraordinary things…. that is lacking if it is by itself. All life is a precious gift from above. Judging it by abilities, appearance or any other physical attribute is not of God, for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7b) In conclusion, whether or not he intended to post a “pro-life video.” I fully endorse Ashton Kutcher when he says, “Everyone’s Life is Valuable.”