Columnist Joe Orso: Examining a tragic statistic

Columnist Joe Orso: Examining a tragic statistic

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My friend, who used to work in special education, recently told me a story about an elementary school prophet.

One day, this teacher noticed one of her third-graders missing from the classroom.

Searching for her in the bathroom, she found the young girl staring at her naked Buddha body in the mirror.

Upon seeing her teacher, the child, born with Down syndrome, smiled big and asked, "Aren't I beautiful?"

My friend affirmed her beauty, asked her to put her clothes back on and come back to class, and more than a decade later, still tells the story with a smile.

Since hearing it, this story has permeated my experience, and the young prophet has become a kind of prayer for me.

I tell others about her.

I feel compassion well up inside when I imagine her there, gazing at herself and feeling no shame as she invites her teacher to admire her body.

I find myself longing for her freedom in the same way I long for the freedom of prophets.

And so when a July issue of the National Catholic Reporter came across my desk a couple days later, this child's presence added another dimension to an article about prenatal testing for Down syndrome.

The article reads: "Several studies show that 80 to 95 percent of women who receive a definitive prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to end their pregnancies."

The article goes on to describe how biotech companies are working on new tests for Down syndrome that wouldn't pose a risk to the unborn fetus - as current tests do - and how a U.S. study shows that from 1989 to 2005, there was a 15 percent decrease in children born with Down syndrome when a 34 percent increase was expected.

What does it say about us that we choose to abort these brothers and sisters out of our human community? What does it say about our values? And what does it say about our technology? Is it drawing out the best or worst in us?

I don't want to belittle the anxiety and challenges that can come to parents who learn their child will have Down syndrome. But regardless of your opinion about abortion, these statistics reveal a tragedy and a desecration of our hu-manity, for the wisdom of the young girl in the bathroom is not an anomaly.

If you talk to people with Down syndrome and those who know them, you sense a unique wisdom seems to be available to people living life from this vantage point.

Not to be patronizing or to deny the struggles and foibles of any human being, but this just seems to be a fact: what we call "disability" is always coupled with a powerful gift similar to that of great spiritual leaders: to expand the capacity for compassion of those around them.

Unfortunately, it seems we are denying that gift.

And to the young child who is asking us, "Aren't I beautiful?" we are not responding with the resounding affirmation that we are called to.

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