Question: "How should Christian parents respond to having a child with Down syndrome?"
Answer: If a test administered during the first trimester of pregnancy reveals that an unborn baby has Down syndrome (or any other birth defect or disability), there are essentially two responses that the parent(s) will be confronted with. The first is to view the baby as intrinsically valuable and an individual to be cherished, nurtured, and protected. The second is to do something of a cost-benefits analysis to determine if the “quality of life” that the child can reasonably be expected to enjoy will outweigh the hardships that the child and the parents will face. If the perceived hardships outweigh the benefits, the parent(s) sometimes make the decision to end the pregnancy through abortion. The first approach is endorsed by Scripture, because every unborn child (as well as every person regardless of age, race, gender, and mental or physical abilities) is valuable because he or she is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:28).
Down syndrome is so named after Dr. John Langdon Down, the doctor who first published a paper describing the condition in 1862. Dr. Down described it as “Mongolian idiocy,” for the typical physical appearance reminded Dr. Down of people from Mongolia. Later, the World Health Organization designated the condition as Down’s syndrome, and now it is referred to as Down syndrome (DS). The term idiocy did not carry the derogatory connotation it does today. At the time it was an accepted medical term that was eventually replaced by mental retardation, which today is also considered derogatory. The current accepted medical term is intellectual disability. At a time when evolutionary thinking was becoming popular, Dr. Down theorized that the condition was a regression to an earlier stage of evolutionary development.
We now know that Down syndrome is caused by an extra chromosome (chromosome 21). Normally, each parent contributes half of the genetic material found in each of the 23 chromosomes found in every cell of the body. In the case of Down syndrome, one parent contributes more than the normal one-half. The extra genetic material changes the way the baby’s brain and body form. Those who have Down syndrome are normally recognizable by their appearance. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, 1 in 700 babies, or about 6,000 babies per year, are born with Down syndrome in the United States.
Unlike Dr. Down, who viewed those with Down syndrome as having regressed on an evolutionary scale, Christians with a biblical worldview will recognize those with Down syndrome as valuable human beings, created in the image of God. Although, in many instances, those with DS will have diminished physical and mental abilities, their intrinsic worth is not based on their abilities—just as the value of any human being is not based on abilities.
Christian parents who have a child with Down syndrome need to realize that their child is a gift from God, and there are no accidents with Him. Although all diseases, genetic defects, and “syndromes” are the result of sin generally, there is no warrant for thinking that a child with Down syndrome is punishment for the parent’s sin in any specific instance. The disciples speculated about whose sin was to blame for a man born blind, but Jesus corrects their thinking: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, . . . but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). If God has entrusted Christian parents with a child who has any kind of disability, those parents can be assured that God has a purpose for them to bring glory to Him by their loving response—and God will provide the grace necessary to provide the proper response!
When Moses objected that he was not fit to lead Israel because of his inabilities, God responded, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). It would fit the spirit of the passage to include any person with a disability, including Down syndrome—the Lord is the Creator of those with DS. The Lord has a plan and purpose for disability. There are no accidents with God.
Children with Down syndrome can grow up to be highly functioning adults. One mother whose second son was born with Down syndrome stresses that she was burdened by preconceived notions and prejudices and was unaware of what her son could actually achieve (see Carlene K. Mattson, “My Very Special Son” in Focus on the Family Magazine, April 1993). People with Down syndrome can learn to read, hold jobs, and even get married, although they may need additional support. Like all other children, children with DS will need love and discipline and training in the Lord. Parents who find out that they will have a baby with Down syndrome will most likely need extra help and support, as well. Help is available through a variety of government programs and support groups in the United States, and hopefully relatives and the church family are also available to assist. A mother or couple who feel that they simply cannot provide what is necessary to raise a child with special needs should never consider aborting the baby. There are many Christian couples who are happy to adopt children with special needs and give them loving, stable homes.