By Dave Andrusko
So the mother says she wished she’d have aborted her son, who has Down syndrome, whom she has cared for for 47 years. She tells her story to the British publication, The Daily Mail, and we are advised in the subheadline, “It’s a shocking admission – but read on before you judge.”
Thus, before we even get into the story by Gillian Relf (as told to Helen Carroll), we’ve already been admonished to hold our tongues. So what do we read?
Besides what every person of good will can sympathize with—that caring for a child with disabilities can be a real challenge [but also filled with blessings]—what is it that Relf chooses to begin with?
That their son Stephen embarrassed them no end by refusing to get up off the tarmac. And he was not an “obstreperous toddler” but 45 years old. “Hot-cheeked and humiliated,” Mrs. Relf’ and her husband’s family vacation had been ruined.
This took place two years ago and seems to taken on especial importance for her, although it was “just one of the many challenges we have faced since Stephen, our second child, was born with Down’s Syndrome.” How difficult? “So difficult has it been that I can honestly say I wish he hadn’t been born.”
In case we think we might have misread, Relf immediately tells us, “I know this will shock many: this is my son, whom I’ve loved, nurtured and defended for nearly half a century, but if I could go back in time, I would abort him in an instant.”
Embarrassment seems to be the thread—embarrassment that Stephen was called a “mongol” a few months after he was born. Embarrassment that her mother had insisted Stephen did not have Down syndrome when Relf was sure he did. Embarrassed and angry that “normal life” ended when Stephen was born.
Angry that an amniocentesis was not performed on her? “A healthy 22-year-old, with a thriving baby [Stephen’s older brother Andrew], I was considered very low risk to have a Down’s baby.”
“Perhaps you’d expect me to say that, over time, I grew to accept my son’s disability,” she writes. “That now, looking back on that day 47 years later, none of us could imagine life without him, and that I’m grateful I was never given the option to abort.”
Nope. Instead, Relf doubles down:
“However, you’d be wrong. Because, while I do love my son, and am fiercely protective of him, I know our lives would have been happier and far less complicated if he had never been born. I do wish I’d had an abortion. I wish it every day.”
She appears to have been emboldened by Suzanne Treussard, who “bravely” told her story of aborting her baby diagnosed with Down syndrome (“Abortion: ‘the kindest thing I could do for Baby Oscar.’”)
Like Treussard, Relf dares the reader—any reader—to “judge” her. In fact, it is more likely that she is looking for condemnation, so she can hurl back in their face (what she writes here): the defiant challenge to first “walk a mile in the shoes of mothers like me.”
We’ve figured out by the third paragraph that Reif is exasperated and more than tired of being “saddled with a needy, difficult, exasperating child who will never grow up.” But she keeps piling on.
We learn she and her husband had a second chance, in a manner of speaking, when Stephen was around three. Turned out the reason Stephen cried so much was he had a hereditary condition. She tells us
One day, Stephen’s doctor sat us down and told us that Stephen needed an operation to remove his spleen. Without it, he said, he would ‘go to sleep and never wake up’. Those were his exact words.
Looking back, I believe the doctor was guiding us towards allowing our son to pass away naturally, but we were not much more than children ourselves, in our mid-20s, and didn’t understand then what he was trying to do for us.
I wish we had – it would have spared us all a great deal of pain. Instead he had the operation and spent five weeks at Great Ormond Street Hospital recovering, with me at his bedside as often as possible.
Ponder that for a moment. Don’t perform the surgery, which meant he would die. A kind of retroactive abortion?
Stephen has not lived at home for a long time—“Since leaving school he has lived in about five different local authority houses, visiting us every other weekend and for holidays”—but even those visits are times of misery and regret for Relf.
Only once does she mention another element, a different “failure” on Stephen’s part: he’ll never be “settled with a wife and children, or established in a career.”
In the United States (I’m not sure about Great Britain), October is National Down Syndrome Awareness month. It is intended to be a time to reflect on how far we have come in our understanding of Down syndrome; how much longer people with Down syndrome live and how much fuller their lives; and how much —contrary to Relf and Treussard—enjoyment children with Down syndrome bring to families.
It is awful that The Daily Mail would consider these accounts representative of anything other than frustration and anger (in Relf’s case for not aborting) and justification after the fact (Treussard’s decision to abort).