Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the
“No Room in Rural Villages, Cities and Homes for Those with Disabilities?
Are Girls and Boys with Down Syndrome Being Left Behind?”
62nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women
In Observance of the 13th World Down Syndrome Day (3-21)
March 20, 2018 | UN Headquarters Conference Room 12
Delegates to the Commission on the Status of Women,
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to welcome you to this afternoon’s event which the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See is co-sponsoring together with the Pujols Family Foundation, The Center for Family and Human Rights, The Jerome Lejeune Foundation and the soon to be released film Summer in the Forest.
Here at the United Nations there is much sincere talk and normally passionate action to fight against any form of discrimination. The unofficial motto of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to “leave no one behind” (A/Res/70/1). We are in the midst of the 62nd Session of the Commission of the Status of Women, and for more than six decades, the international community has been discussing ways to end discrimination against women in the workplace, education, healthcare, culture, access to ownership and control over land and other property, financial services, inheritance law and other legal structures. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, has resolutely sought 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 as firm as these commitments are in principle, in practice many States, UN agencies and members of civil society tolerate gross violations of these commitments. The international community says that it wants to leave no one behind and to defend the rights and equality of women and girls, for example, but then refuses to do anything when data show that the youngest girls are being systematically discriminated against in the womb, as in the case of sex selective abortion. As scholar Mara Hvistendahl — who says she supports abortion in general — documented in her monumental work Unnatural Selection, there is now an international deficit of 160 million girls who have gone “missing,” because they have been preferentially chosen to have their lives ended through the combination of pre-genetic screening followed by sex-selection abortion. Many groups and agencies that say they are advancing the cause of women and girls are notably silent when the most vulnerable of those they claim to be defending are being left behind and indeed left dead. Such tacit cooperation in this lethal form of discrimination against girls is, at the least, inconsistent.
The inconsistency, however, is even more pronounced when we turn to what is happening with those prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Despite the commitments made in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, including that of the right to life, by all persons with disabilities, so 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.
Last August, a major U.S. television network reported that one country was on the verge of “eliminating” Down Syndrome, but what it really meant was that it was eliminating those with Down Syndrome, because 100 percent of parents of babies who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome were choosing to end the life of their son or daughter. Several other countries, as we’ll hear in one of our presentations, have similar statistics, to such a degree that last week a famously measured and punctiliously precise columnist in the Washington Post called what is happening to Down Syndrome children in the womb a “genocide.”
Rather than stop it, some in the international community are abetting it. In November last year, one of the members of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, based in Geneva, stated during an official meeting of the UNHRC, “If you tell a woman, ‘Your child has … Down Syndrome … or that he may have a handicap forever, for the rest of his life,’ … it should be possible for her to resort to abortion to avoid the handicap as a preventive measure.” Defending those with disabilities, he said, “does not mean that we have to accept to let a disabled fetus live.”
Is such a position consistent with the UN’s concern to leave no one behind and to protect the rights of those with disabilities?
Pope Francis has called attention to the underlying attitudes at work in such thoughts against those with Down Syndrome. Speaking in June of 2016 at a Jubilee Mass for the Sick and Those with Disabilities, he said, “It is thought that sick or disabled persons cannot be happy, since they cannot live the lifestyle held up by the culture of pleasure and entertainment. In an age when care for one’s body has become an obsession and a big business, anything imperfect has to be hidden away, since it threatens the happiness and serenity of the privileged few and endangers the dominant model. … In some cases, we are even told that it is better to eliminate them as soon as possible, because they become an unacceptable economic burden in time of crisis. Yet what an illusion it is when people today shut their eyes in the face of sickness and disability! They fail to understand the real meaning of life, which also has to do with accepting suffering and limitations. The world does not become better because only apparently ‘perfect’ people live there … but when human solidarity, mutual acceptance and respect increase.”
Last October, at a Vatican Conference on People with Disabilities, Pope Francis added, “At the cultural level, through a prevailing false understanding of life, … an often narcissistic and utilitarian vision unfortunately leads not a few to consider persons with disabilities as marginal, without grasping their manifold human and spiritual richness. In the common mind-set, there is still too strong an attitude of rejection of this condition, as if it prevents one from achieving happiness and self-fulfillment. It is demonstrated by the eugenic trend of ending the lives of the unborn who show some form of imperfection.”
In response to that “eugenic trend” with regard to babies with Down Syndrome, we gave to ask: What are the facts? Can those with Down Syndrome be happy? Can their family members be happy? The facts are revealing.
A 2011 Study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics by Harvard University Researchers associated with Boston Children’s hospital showed that 99 percent of those with Down Syndrome say they are happy with their lives, 97 percent like who they are, 96 percent like how they look, 99 percent of them loved their families, 97 percent liked their siblings and 86 percent said they made friends easily; 99 percent of their parents said they loved their child with Down Syndrome, 79 percent said that their outlook on life was more positive because of their child, and only 4 percent regretting having their child; and among siblings 12 and older, 94 percent said they were proud to have a brother or sister with Down Syndrome, 88 percent said they were better people because of him or her, only 7 percent said that they were embarrassed by their brother or sister and only 4 percent said that they would “trade their sibling in” for another.
I cannot think of any other situation that would show such high numbers among children with a particular condition or no condition at all, and among their parents, and siblings. Down Children and their families are simply among the happiest groups of people alive — and the world is happier because of them. We’ll have a chance today to hear from those with Down Syndrome and their families to explore where this infectious happiness originates.
And tomorrow we will have a chance to celebrate the gift that they are as we mark World Down Syndrome Day. On December 19, 2011, the UN General Assembly declared March 21 as World Down Syndrome Day (A/RES/66/149) and invited all Member States, relevant organizations of the United Nations system, other international organizations, and civil society to observe it annually to raise public awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding persons with Down Syndrome. Since 2006, March 21 (or in numerals 3-21 for Trisomy-21) had been observed as World Down Syndrome Day by advocacy and research groups.
On the first observance of World Down Syndrome Day at the United Nations on March 21, 2012, then Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said, “On this day, let us reaffirm that persons with Down syndrome are entitled to the full and effective enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. Let us each do our part to enable children and persons with Down Syndrome to participate fully in the development and life of their societies on an equal basis with others. Let us build an inclusive society for all.”
That truly inclusive society is what this event seeks to promote. Pope Francis said last October that the response to the eugenic trend of ending the lives of the unborn who show some form of imperfect is, in short, love.
“The answer,” he emphasized, “is love: not that false, saccharine and sanctimonious love, but that which is true, concrete and respectful. To the extent that one is accepted and loved, included in the community and supported in looking to the future with confidence, the true path of life evolves and one experiences enduring happiness.”
I am confident that your coming here demonstrates your interest in being part of that culture, society and worldwide community where love reigns, the true path of life evolves, and we find lasting joy.