Marybeth Hagan is a writer in Merion Station.
Fourteen years ago, I started to look at the pro-life movement more closely, and that included attending my first March for Life in Washington. My goal was to learn more about the people involved so I could write about them accurately.
I quickly discovered that certain pro-life advocates are unforgettable speakers. People like the lovely Gianna Jessen, who was born alive during a saline abortion procedure in 1977, or the dynamic Rev. Clenard Childress, who founded BlackGenocide.org, or Robert P. George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
Here's another, I thought this past November, as Karen Gaffney addressed 1,200 people at the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia's annual banquet. Gaffney raises awareness about the capabilities of people with disabilities. She advocates for their well-being within families, schools, workplaces, and society through her nonprofit Karen Gaffney Foundation.
Gaffney is well-versed on the subject of Down syndrome.
After a quick adjustment of her eyeglasses and a slight toss of her blond head, the spunky speaker in the little black dress defined Down syndrome. "I have it," Gaffney confirmed. "It is not a disease. ... And, I certainly don't suffer from it. I just have it."
Overachievers come from all walks of intellectual life.
When Gaffney, 39, is not laboring on behalf of people with disabilities, she competes as an accomplished athlete. This long-distance, open-water swimmer was the first person with Down syndrome to swim a relay across the English Channel as a member of a team from her hometown, Portland, Ore.
"I also like to tell people that I am the first person with Down syndrome to escape from Alcatraz," Gaffney quipped. She has completed the swim from Alcatraz Island across the choppy, chilly San Francisco Bay 16 times.
She moved toward the point of her Pro-Life Union address with similar resolve.
Gaffney noted British physician John Down's discovery of Down syndrome in the 1860s, and credited French pediatrician and geneticist Jerome Lejeune for finding its cause in 1958. Lejeune found "that all of us with Down syndrome rock an extra chromosome," Gaffney said. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Down syndrome occurs when a person has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.
Lejeune dedicated his career to improving the lives of people with Down syndrome, Gaffney mused. So, it's likely that he "would be troubled as I am about prenatal screenings" that lead to the abortions of Down syndrome babies today.
"The population of individuals living with Down syndrome is 30 percent lower than it would be if there was no prenatal diagnosis that results in abortion," the Jerome Lejeune Foundation USA reported, based on a study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics in 2015. Moreover, "this study validates an earlier 2012 study that claimed the abortion rate in the U.S. following prenatal diagnosis is around 67 percent."
Gaffney said she was among the first generation of Down syndrome children to benefit from the efforts of people like Lejeune. These pioneers recognized the value of family support groups, early intervention programs, inclusion in schools, speech and physical therapies, regular exercise, rising expectations, employment, and independence for those with Down syndrome.
Yet, "a whole industry has grown up, and the race is on to find newer, faster ways to test for Down syndrome and screen us out," Gaffney asserted. "Yes, screen us out!" Medical "experts" are quick to advise termination rather than education about Down syndrome, she added.
"We need to help people see that a life with Down syndrome is a life worth saving," Gaffney said. "It is a life worth choosing. It is a life worth living."
Gaffney is one face of the pro-life movement. There will be many others, between 40,000 and 500,000 depending on the weather, with whom I will walk at this year's March for Life in Washington on Friday. As always, signs and banners there will identify all sorts of participants, including Feminists for Life, Physicians for Life, the National Association of Prolife Nurses, the National Black Prolife Union, the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation, countless Christian organizations, every Catholic group imaginable, along with organizations such as Secular Pro-Life and the Pro-Life Alliance for Gays and Lesbians.
Members of Silent No More, who bear signs that read "I regret my abortion" or "I regret lost fatherhood," will stand at the foot of the U.S. Supreme Court building. There, they will speak for themselves and their missing children as they tell sad stories of post-abortion remorse.
Like Gaffney, their goal is to "change minds and hearts" about abortion.
There's an insidious hardness of heart in a country that nips its posterity in the bud. If we really want to halt other forms of violence against humankind, why not begin at its beginnings?