Ethics Article of the Week: George Will On His Son’s Birthday

Happy birthday, Jon.

Conservative columnist George Will has only occasionally mentioned his Down Syndrome-inflicted son Jon in his columns, but when he has, it has provided an extra dimension to Jon’s father, who usually comes across in print and on TV as cynical, dour, and archly intellectual. Today is Jon’s birthday, so Will devotes the full column to him, his challenges, and, when all is said and done, ethics.

It’s a beautifully written piece, as Will’s columns often are, and a tender one. More importantly, however, it is an essay that should provoke thought, beginning with the fact that the only reason Will wrote this column is that he and his wife chose, 40 years ago, to do what 90% of all parents informed that their gestating child has Down Syndrome refuse to do: allow the child to be born.

The column is here

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Graphics: Richmond Times-Dispatch

15 thoughts on “Ethics Article of the Week: George Will On His Son’s Birthday

  1. Isn’t it great for George Will, where he sits in his ivory tower, to villify the folks who made the difficult choice of ending their Down Syndrome pregnancy? GEORGE WILL HAS THE MONEY AND INFLUENCE TO GET WHATEVER THAT CHILD NEEDS. 90% choose abortions? 99% of us don’t have the money we would need in a lifetime to give such a child the things that George can and continues to give his fortunate child. Happy for George? Yes. Giving him the time of day for a rant about those unfortunate parents who made the difficult choice to abort? No. 24 years ago, I faced the possibility of such a child, given my “advanced age” of 35. I chose not to test, because I figured it wouldn’t matter because I wouldn’t have an abortion anyway. Lucky for me, my child was fine. Many are not so lucky. If my baby hadn’t been ok, he probably wouldn’t have survived to 40 years like Jon and I would be in abject poverty. But I guess I would have the comfort of knowing I had George Will’s futile support.

    • Isn’t it great for George Will, where he sits in his ivory tower, to villify the folks who made the difficult choice of ending their Down Syndrome pregnancy?

      Where in the column did he vilify those who chose to have an abortion?

      If my baby hadn’t been ok, he probably wouldn’t have survived to 40 years like Jon and I would be in abject poverty.

      How so?

      I chose not to test, because I figured it wouldn’t matter because I wouldn’t have an abortion anyway.

      Hopefully, someday in the future, genetic engineering and cloning will be developed to such an extent that this test could lead to actual treatment.

    • I didn’t see any condemnation, just the statement of the fact. Nor is there anything rant-like about the article. It suggests that his son, mentally challenged or not, had the right to live and has made the most of it. I know parents who made the same choice who had nothing like Will’s resources, and it was unbelievably hard, and a great sacrifice. I don’t quite see how that translates into it being a poor choice to allow the child to live. Will simply points out that Jon is a human being and his life has value. What is the matter with that?

      • Sorry. You are absolutely right that it wasn’t a rant. But it would have been a less objectionable (IMNSHO) mention if he had also acknowledged how hard it is for those who are not so well situated to raise a child with similar challenges.

        Jack, you know my stance on the issue of abortion. It was reasonable for him to mention abortion in this context. But how differently I would have responded had he written something like how grateful he was that he — unlike many — had the resources to help his child, how much empathy he has — as a father — for those in similar circumstances who do not have those resources, how heartbreaking it must be for them to know that they can’t give their DS child all of the medical and social advantages that he has been able to give to his fortunate child.

        And by the way, I never said anything about it ever being a “poor choice” to allow a child to live.

        Will’s essay is a beautiful love letter to and about his child. I just can’t help thinking about all of the other DS children out there, born and aborted, and the parents who did their best to make the best decisions they could, given their circumstances.

        It’s the carelessness, thoughtlessness, obliviousness of the piece that made me angry.

        • But how differently I would have responded had he written something like how grateful he was that he — unlike many — had the resources to help his child, how much empathy he has — as a father — for those in similar circumstances who do not have those resources, how heartbreaking it must be for them to know that they can’t give their DS child all of the medical and social advantages that he has been able to give to his fortunate child.

          Perhaps you can quantify these sacrifices these parents make. Certainly adults with DS are able to feed and clothe themselves (assuming they are not afflicted with physical disabilities and they have access to food or clothes, of course). What sacrifices would parents make that would not be made by parents raising a child with the physical and mental capabilities of Stephen Hawking?

          • People with Down Syndrome can have the entire range of cognitive disability. Many adults with DS certainly cannot feed and clothe themselves, are unemployable and unable to live alone. There are also many congential physical disabilities associated with DS. In addition, the stereotype of the sweet, good-natured Down Syndrom child is a myth. They can be violent and oppositional. None of these are reasons to abort, but does give pause when their life span has increased and there is a good possibility they will outlive you.

        • I don’t see why DS is being treated differently that any number of other problems. A blind child? A deaf child? A child with learning disabilities? My problem with your argument is that it easily can be read to support the argument that only rich people can responsibly have kids, or that raising kids with problems isn’t still hard and full of sacrifice no matter how rich someone is. Who knows what sacrifices Will mad for his son? I’m guessing they were considerable.

          Kids cause problems and sacrifice. For the most part, the ones that are “allowed” to live are awfully glad they had the chance, whether for 20 or 60.

          • I don’t know if you were addressing my comment, but one of the reasons is that blindness and/or deafness cannot be detected by amniocentesis. I don’ know the figures for spina bifida or other detectable disabilities, but I would guess that the abortion rate is about the same as DS. It comes down to a real ignorance of the potential of the child, and, like you said, an unwillingness to sacrifice on the part of the parent. Of course, there are also the extenuating circumstances that Patrice brought up, which I think are legitimate.

          • This discussion should not end up in the dustbin of the universal healthcare debate, but…

            Most blind or deaf or learning disabled children don’t require hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses just to save their lives, often several times over a lifetime.

            I don’t know what resources George Will had 40 years ago. I don’t know what medical crises Jon might have endured over the last 40 years. The fact that he has lived this long and has what seems to be a good life is wonderful, and probably a testament to the love that George poured into that relationship. Not knowing those things, though, doesn’t keep me from having the empathy to appreciate and imagine the depth and breadth of that relationship and the possibilities that no doubt could have derailed Jon’s — and George’s — life.

            The essay was about a child with Down Syndrome. It could have been about a child who survived to the age of 40 with Cystic Fibrosis, or Muscular Dystrophy, or Neuroblastoma. It’s not about the specific life-threatening disease. It’s about people either lacking insurance or under-insured, people without financial resources to save their children. Or people going into life-crushing debt from medical procedures they can’t ever hope to pay off. Or people having so few options that their children don’t get the life-saving procedures. But I guess that’s just a case of decreasing “the surplus population.”

            Compassion. I just don’t see it in these essays and discussions and legislations and budgets.

            • Or people having so few options that their children don’t get the life-saving procedures. But I guess that’s just a case of decreasing “the surplus population.”

              People in medieval Europe or Japan did not have access to those procedures either. They are a luxury.

              The essay was about a child with Down Syndrome. It could have been about a child who survived to the age of 40 with Cystic Fibrosis, or Muscular Dystrophy, or Neuroblastoma.

              Of course, in medieval Europe, someone with Down’s syndrome could do farm work on a manor (and many likely did), while those with other conditions did not even survive to adulthood.

    • There are over a trillion cells in the human body (I have seen estimates between 10 trillion and 50 trillion for an adult (see http://ask.yahoo.com/20020625.html), so I assume that a baby would have over 1 trillion cells). Each of these cells has an extra chromosome. It would take a long time to remove all of these extra chromosomes.

  2. Thanks for this post because I probably would have missed Will’s wonderful column otherwise. I read it and smiled, thinking how sometimes life’s curses can become life’s blessings if we allow it. Overwhelmed at the time of my last pregnancy, an abortion seemed to be an answer – would I have had one if they had been available? I don’t know; I guess I was pro-choice in those pre-ultrasound days but not now. I never regretted actually having and raising my children, even though I had to deal with medical issues with all of them then and am still affected by their health problems now. The death of that child, on the threshold of adulthood after a life that was a source of great joy, was particularly painful and I cherish what time I did have.

    So, while I can understand why someone would consider or think about terminating a pregnancy which may seem like an overwhelming burden at the time, the introduction of ultrasounds have been both a blessing and a curse. Reading the comments after the column, I am also reminded of the difference in the perception of life pre-abortion and now. I find myself agitated by some of them, one gentleman’s in particular, because I know how people used to take care of their own and the strides we have made in providing respite for parents of special-needs children. I am reminded of what Lamb’s Farm has done for Down’s and special needs young adults or what Sister Rosemary Martin has accomplished with her Miseracordia, the facility where David Axelrod’s daughter resides. And there are others. The public schools in and around Chicago provide multiple services now that were not available before.

    Americans as a whole of late seem to be unable to deal gracefully with adversity of any kind and seem to have an unreal expectation of what life and society owe them. I salute George Will, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum and their families.

  3. I have a couple friends who have children like Mr Will’s son. Neither are wealthy but they have found a way to take care of their son’s needs , whether they be medical or what ever, just like any other family does for their children whther they have down or not. Parents cant forsee what costs they are going to have down the line with any child so why should one with down be seen as being more expensive to raise then one without?

    One of my coworkers son was seriously injured in a car accident three years ago at 18 and will need medical attention and therapy for the rest of his life. No one could have seen that coming before he was born but its still there. Does anyone really think that if they had known this they would not have had him ? I dont think so.

    • One of my coworkers son was seriously injured in a car accident three years ago at 18 and will need medical attention and therapy for the rest of his life.

      Given his age, who can tell what medical procedures will be available later in life?

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