It is 500 years since a certain renegade Augustinian nailed a piece of paper to the door of a German cathedral and has been credited by history ever since as beginning what is called “The Reformation” as a result. But I wonder do many today stop to think to pray for those who died because of his actions? Would any, for example, take it upon themselves to offer a Mass for the soul of one of the victims of this time whose name is known to us – Anne Boleyn, for example? I have a very particular reason for asking that last question, as will become clear below.
There’s this chap I know with Down Syndrome. Let’s call him Dave. I’ve known Dave for over thirty years now, since he was a small chap. That means I’ve watched him go from reading comics like the Dandy to Enid Blyton books to paperback novels. He doesn’t read very high brow stuff, but then, who does? That’s why guys like Dan Brown live in a mansion and “serious” writers who win literary awards generally do not.
Dave went to his local school like everyone else around him and did his Leaving Certificate. He didn’t get a brilliant result, but he did as well as or better than some of the “ordinary” lads in his year. Now almost forty, he has a part-time job and lives independently in sheltered housing. He has a bus pass and loves to use it. He has no bother at all getting around the small city where he lives on public transport. He finds it great for popping into the city centre to meet up with his elderly Mum and Dad for a coffee and a chat. And, of course, getting to Mass.
Dave continues to read voraciously. His particular love is History. And his favourite period is the Tudors. He feels very sorry about what happened to Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, and the mother of Elizabeth I. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t give Henry what he wanted, a son. And being awkwardly in the way of his taking a wife who might give him one in her place, her life was forfeit to the convenience of one more powerful than she.
This didn’t sit well with Dave. There was nothing, of course, that he could do to right the wrong she suffered. But that didn’t mean as far as he was concerned that there was nothing he could do. So he went and had Mass offered for the soul of Anne Boleyn.
It takes a special kind of person to do something like that. And by “special” I don’t mean in the way it is now generally used as another word for folk with disabilities. I mean it in the sense of finding him to be an extraordinary chap, someone with a deep Christian faith and a profound sense of compassion for his fellow human beings.
So he’s a really lovely guy, but a kind of person who is dying out – literally. On a recent trip to England I realised that while I saw quite a number of people with Down Syndrome who were around his age or older, I saw very few younger ones. Perhaps only one or two over the course of a week. I found that sad but not surprising. The UK, after all, manages to make sure that over ninety percent of people like Dave don’t make it out of the womb alive.
It must be a strange time to be a person with Down Syndrome. On the one hand they, like all disabled people, have never had it so good when it comes to their rights being vindicated. Employers can’t discriminate against them when it comes to hiring and must do their best to provide them with a work environment suitable to their needs. We even have the Special Olympics, giving them, and others with disabilities, a place to show the world that being less able in no way makes you less of a human being.
But on the other hand it must be quite a haunting time for them. Because they know that even as they are given every chance in life, others like them will not even be given a chance to live. Eliminating the disabled before they are born has become quite the done thing – particularly those with Dave’s disability. I have already mentioned their fate in the UK. They fare better in France: only seventy-seven percent will never make it out of the womb. But their chances are far worse in Denmark. That nation boasts a ninety-nine percent “success” rate of eradicating those diagnosed with the condition. And Iceland claims to have eliminated them altogether. Not a single child diagnosed with Down Syndrome was allowed to be born there last year.
Even more disturbingly, the normal rules about term limits don’t apply when it comes to those like Dave in most countries. In the UK, for example, a child with his condition can suffer an abortion right up to the moment before birth. Think about that. It is legal to stick a needle into the heart of a child who would have been born perfectly healthy, albeit with Down Syndrome, and inject him with a lethal dose of poison. Were his mother to have gone into labour on the way to the clinic it would have been a crime to harm so much as a hair on his head. But if her child is still in her womb when she reaches her destination, then her child can have his life taken with impunity.
Those who want to see fewer people like Dave in the world think themselves compassionate. Because what better way of reducing suffering could there possibly be than making sure that the person you worry would suffer than ensuring they never see the light of day? But they are wrong – about themselves and about Dave. I think we need a lot less of their fatal compassion and more people like Dave in the world. Not only because it is their simple human right to be allowed to live, but also because, in a time where the world is sorely troubled, we need the prayers of people like him more than ever.
The Rev. Patrick G Burke is the Church of Ireland rector of the Castlecomer Union of Parishes, Co Kilkenny. A regular contributor to Position Papers, he was formerly a broadcast journalist with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network. He blogs at