Experts at Holy See Event Call for Greater Protection
of Unborn Children with Down Syndrome
On March 20, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN held a side event during the Commission on the Status of Women entitled “No Room in Rural Villages, Cities or Homes for the Disabled? Are Boys and Girls with Down Syndrome Being Left Behind?” in collaboration the Center for Family and Human Rights, the Pujols Family Foundation, the Jerome Lejeune Foundation, and the newly released film “Summer in the Forest.” The event was held in light of World Down Syndrome Day, which the UN General Assembly in 2011 decreed to be celebrated March 21, or 3-21 in numerals, for its scientific name Trisomy-21.
Archbishop Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See Mission to the UN, said that most boys and girls with down syndrome experience lethal discrimination before they take their first breath through disability-selective abortion after parents receive genetic testing.
“At the United Nations there is much sincere talk and passionate action to fight against any form of discrimination,” Archbishop Auza said, noting the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006 which aims to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities,” including “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments,” and to “promote respect for their inherent dignity.”
But, he added, “Many members of the international community stand on the sidelines as the vast majority of those diagnosed with Trisomy-21 have their lives ended before they’re even born,” he said, “Rather than stop it, some in the international community are abetting it,” pointing to a recent instance in which a member of the UN Human Rights Committee promoted abortion for children with Down Syndrome to “avoid the handicap.”
While raising any child, including a child with Down Syndrome can be challenging, researched published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics by Harvard University Researchers shows that 99 percent of people with Down Syndrome are happy with their lives, 97 percent said that their outlook on life was more positive because of their child, and 94 percent of siblings said they were proud to have a brother or sister with Down Syndrome.
“Down Children and their families are simply among the happiest groups of people alive — and the world is happier because of them,” he said.
Dr. Mary O’Callaghan, Developmental Psychologist at the University of Notre Dame and a mother to a boy with Down Syndrome, said that laws that explicitly allow for abortion on grounds of impairment violate the International Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“The extent of disability selective abortion worldwide is so vast. Disability selective abortion as a rights violation must be taken seriously,” she said, pointing to the many countries such as Iceland and Denmark whose abortion rate for children with Down Syndrome is virtually 100 percent, with many of these States' providing funding for parents to receive pre-natal screenings.
Deidre Pujols, vice president of the Pujols Family Foundation, wife of Los Angeles Angels player Albert Pujols, and mother of Bella Pujols, her 20-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome, spoke out against the genetic testing that discriminates against children like her daughter, and leads to judging a person’s value based on his or her mental and physical condition.
“Populations of people who are profiled before their first breath,” she said. “Instead of using science to better the health and well-being of individuals with Down Syndrome, some have instead have used science to detect the condition in an unborn child and end his or her life.”
Some panelists testified that a Down Syndrome diagnosis does not deter individuals from pursuing their goals and impacting their communities.
Minnesota-born Mikayla Holmgren, 23, recently made headlines as the first person with the Down Syndrome to compete in a Miss USA Pageant, and won the Spirit of Miss USA Award.
“I did not win the crown, but I won so much more,” she said. “I was able to show the world that people with Down Syndrome have beauty that starts from the inside out.”
Holmgren, who now attends her parents’ alma mater, Bethel University, uses her platform as a “voice for those who cannot speak.”
“There are countries that would like to get rid of people like me. That makes me sad,” she said.
Like any typical fourteen-year-old, Chloe Kondrich enjoys playing sports, watching Youtube videos on her iPad, and attending school dances at her high school. But unlike her peers, she has also won an Emmy Award, appeared in multiple billboards in Times Square, met President Donald Trump, and is the namesake of a Pennsylvania law that requires doctors to provide women whose children receive a Down Syndrome diagnosis in utero with supportive information on how to best care for their child, rather than merely advise them to undergo abortion. Chloe has Down Syndrome, but her extra chromosome has, in many ways, contributed to her extraordinary life.
Her father, Kurt Kondrich, retired from as a police officer to become an advocate for children with Down Syndrome and is currently working, with his wife Margie Kondrich, to pass another Pennsylvania bill that will ban discrimination of children with Down Syndrome through abortion.
“As a police officer, I thought here’s a group of people who I’ll never have to arrest, but I learned they’re being killed systematically,” Kondrich said. “I thought, ‘Not on my watch.’” He was appalled, he said, to see more legal protection for unborn turtle eggs, than unborn children with disabilities.
“Now I like animals, but I don’t think we should criminalize killing animals but legalize killing children,” he said.
Dr. Patricia White Flatley, who specializes in the biomedical research of Down Syndrome and is a mother to a son with the condition, said that scientific research has not only “enabled individuals with Down Syndrome to live longer, fuller lives and to participate more fully in their schools, communities and in the workplace,” but has also led to important findings for the health of the general public.
In addition to the cognitive, speech and learning impairments associated with the disorder, those with Down Syndrome are more likely to have heart abnormalities, autoimmune disorders, and leukemia than the general public, but less likely to have cardiovascular disease, strokes, and certain tumors like breast cancer. The presence of extra genetic material on the additional 21st chromosome could be the key, and the research, which has now caught the attention and funding of pharmaceutical companies, has led to clinical trials that can yield better health for people with many of the related diseases.
“This is truly a new era for Down Syndrome,” Dr. White said.
Randall Wright, producer of the new film Summer in the Forest, uses storytelling to highlight the dignity and joy of people living with Down Syndrome.
“It’s made with very high production values,” he said. “I wanted to film them with the same intention and respect that would be given to a celebrity.”
To watch the event in its entirety, click here.
To read Archbishop Auza’s full remarks, click here.
African Women at a Holy See Event Speak out against Ideological Colonization
On March 19, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN co-sponsored a side event entitled "Promoting the Integral Development of Rural Women and Girls in Africa in the Era of Ideological Colonization” together with Campaign Life Coalition, Culture of Life Africa and Human Life International during the 62nd Session of the Commission of the Status of Women. It was an opportunity to listen to African women to discuss their needs and how the international development community has not met them.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, echoed the words of Pope Francis in his 2015 Address to the UN General Assembly, in which he indicated that the need for development in Africa and other developing countries can sometimes be used for abuse and corruption, or what the Pope called “ideological colonization.” In the thirty months since his UN visit, Pope Francis has used the term repeatedly to describe the attempts of wealthy, powerful donors to offer development assistance under the condition that African countries accept practices that that go against their culture and values with regard to human sexuality, life, family and even basic anthropology.
In the last 20 years, there has been a shift in foreign aid budgets from development aid for education, health, water supply, sanitation and other essential needs to population control programs.
“The development system should never be used as a Trojan Horse to attack the cultural and religious values of developing nations,” Archbishop Auza said. “This process of ideological colonization needs to be called out.”
Archbishop Auza noted that the Catholic Bishops of Africa and Madagascar spoke out against the practice in a 2015 Common Declaration to unveil how foreign governments have tried to impose their values on African peoples as a condition for receiving basic healthcare, education and military supplies.
Obianuju Ekeocha, Founder and President of Culture of Life Africa, said that the reliance of many African countries on foreign aid from donors and other more developed countries has created a similar power dynamic to the colonization era.
“This is the gateway for neo-colonization,” Ekeocha said. “While some donors have good intentions, there are other donors whose gifts to Africa are determined by their own set ideas, ideologies and world views.”
She called for donor-funded projects to be based on the expressed needs of the recipients, not the agendas of western countries that spend an increasing amount on population control in Africa as opposed to other basic needs.
“Women who lack access to food, water and basic amenities, have their local legislators and leaders spend much time and effort on family planning projects which they may not even use it,” she said. "Respect us and let us live in dignity and self-determine.”
Sheila Muchemi, a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology whose research focuses on cultural issues around mental health in Africa, said that psychology for Africans must be done within the cultural context of Africa in order to be fruitful,. While Africa is comprised of many countries with unique cultures, she said that there are shared cultural values from region to region, especially for women and girls.
“Becoming a mother is a symbol of honor in Africa,” she said. “The child does not belong only to her parents or the mother, but to the community.”
Aketch Aimba, Founder and Director of Pearls and Treasures Trust in Kenya, an organization that provides support to women after they undergo an abortion, said that because of African women’s deep identity as mothers, the overwhelming majority of Africans find abortion to be morally unacceptable, which makes the practice of abortion especially traumatizing for them. She has firsthand experience, as the survivor of two abortions herself.
In eight years, she has seen more than a thousand women who have come for emotional and psychological support to heal from abortions.
“We give them an environment where they can grieve healthily without feeling victimized, where they can talk about the guilt and shame and embrace them,” Aimba said.
Joy Mdivo, Executive Director of the East Africa Centre for Law and Justice, said that the key is allowing Africa to self-determine, starting from the people.
“We should not force ideological change through the law. We need to let society grow organically,” Mdivo said. “We need strong governance to utilize resources effectively so we don’t have to rely on money that comes from donors with strings attached.”
To watch the event in its entirety, click here.
To read Archbishop Auza's full remarks, click here.
New Technology Advances Health for Rural Women
The health needs of women and girls in rural areas often go underserved, but a holistic women’s health platform is using modern technology to meet those needs.
On March 22, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations co-sponsored a side event together with the World Youth Alliance and Fertility Education and Medical Management (FEMM), entitled “Affirming the Human Dignity of Rural Women and Girls through Healthcare and Education," during the 62nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations.
FEMM is a comprehensive women’s health program that teaches women to understand their bodies and by recognizing and charting hormonal markers, and its free phone application links rural women to doctors they may not otherwise have access to.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to United Nations, said that FEMM offers women a holistic way to value and understand her body’s natural cycles to either avoid conception or help them conceive.
“Respecting the dignity of woman means accepting and valuing her at the level of her full humanity, including the maternal meaning of her femininity and the innate patterns of her fertility cycle,” he said, noting that many contemporary approaches to reproductive health and undermine the natural functions of a women’s. “There’s another way. A way in line with her dignity.”
FEMM not only offers an integrals alternative to mainstream family planning methods, but can also be used to diagnose many underlying women’s health issues such as infertility, PMS, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, and acne that hormonal contraception can often mask, he said.
Anna Halpine, CEO of FEMM, gave a detailed look into how the program monitors physical markers to identify how hormones are reacting in a woman’s body, which can often lead to contact with doctors and hormonal testing if concerns are found. This is good news for rural women who are often far from doctors, and gives them the opportunity to make safe healthcare decisions.
“FEMM is uniquely positioned to bring innovations and excellence in health information and care to rural women,” she said. “FEMM’s application [on iPhones and Google] currently has over 390 thousand users, many of whom are in Latin America and Africa.”
Halpine showed a video which showcased the impact FEMM is making in rural villages, even refugee camps for internally displaced people, in Nigeria. The video featured one rural woman who faced serious health risks when a high-dosage implant inserted by a foreign organization caused her to hemorrhage.
“Healthcare providers who provide these implants are not often there to remove them when difficulties emerge,” Halpine said. “They are eager for this information and ready to be educated about their cycles. They want to be given the tools they need.”
Kekuut Hoomkwap, Chief Technology Officer for the FEMM Foundation, walked the room through the FEMM App to highlight how it uses technology to help rural women track their cycles and physical markers to monitor their health and plan their families. They have different versions of the phone App depending on a woman’s literacy level and a platform to connect them to doctors remotely.
“Education is key,” Hoomkwap said. "We provide e-learning allows people to access educators they can help them manage their health and accomplish their goals.”
Since access to cell phones can be limited in many rural areas, Hoomkwap said that multiple women can log into their accounts on one phone, which often belongs to the health educator, to track their data.”
Dr. Zakia Jahan, Founder and Director of the Center for Human Development, has brought FEMM to the rural women of Bangladesh and said that FEMM’s fertility awareness and health resources, like the online app, network of certified FEMM teachers, and trained medical providers, provide for many of the unnmet needs women and girls in Bangladesh face, especially in the conservative cultural contexts where rural women often live.
“Comparing FEMM Family Planning to alternate methods of contraception and their mechanisms of action, effectiveness rates, and side effects, one can conclude that FEMM is just as effective but more attractive because it does not risk unpleasant side effects and also empowers women to monitor their health,” she said, noting that clinics that use FEMM find a reduction of unwanted pregnancies, resulting in a decrease of abortions.
Dr. Don Bouchard, who works at the Holy Family Healthcare Center in Kalamzoo, Michigan where the majority of his patients are migrant farmers, said that the Center works with FEMM and its parent organization to educate and help patients become agents involved with their own healthcare and that of their families. They teach the Human-Dignity Curriculum that the World Youth Alliance has developed to build the self-worth and responsible practices of students.
“Each visit is an opportunity to educate those who are entrusted to our care,” he said. “Taught and received well, this program educates women to understand how their bodies work. This knowledge empowers and equips women through this understanding to identify and address common health problems.”
To watch the event in its entirety, click here.
To read Archbishop Auza's full remarks, click here.
On March 23, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, gave a statement during the High Level Launch Event of the “International Decade for Action: ‘Water for Sustainable Development’ 2018-2028.
In his intervention, Archbishop Auza focused attention on the quality of water available to the poor, since unsafe water results in death and the spread of water-related diseases. Pope Francis, he said, has emphasized that access to safe, drinkable water is a basic and universal human right and a condition for the exercise of other human rights. As such, there must be increased funding to ensure universal access to basic water and sanitation, efforts to reduce waste and inappropriate consumption, and increased education and awareness. Archbishop Auza mentioned the projects supported by the Holy See, like the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel, that provide safe drinking water for the poor, fight against desertification, pump water, train technical personnel, and develop agricultural units. The world’s water challenges are not just technical, economic, political and social issues, but ethical ones as well, requiring what Pope Francis called an “ecological conversion” to a culture of care and solidarity.
His intervention can be found here.
Upholding Human Dignity for Migrants and Refugees, From Principles to Practice: Faith Based Organizations and the Global Compacts
1:15-2:30 | May 3, 2018 | UNHQ Conference Room 4
RSVP by April 30 at holyseemission.org/rsvp3May2018
The Santa Marta Group: Police and Religious Leaders
United to Eradicate Human Trafficking
1:15-2:30 | May 22, 2018 | UNHQ Conference Room 7
Registration coming soon.