By David Roach
REYKJAVIK, Iceland (BP) — Southern Baptists involved with special needs ministry are lamenting a report that virtually 100 percent of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in Iceland are aborted. Individuals with special needs, the ministry leaders say, are made in God’s image and bring unique giftedness to churches and society.
Iceland’s abortion rate for Down syndrome babies is “a tragedy,” said Tracy McElhattan, a Kansas children’s ministry professional who holds a Ph.D. in special education.
“Children with special needs make [a church] stronger,” McElhattan told Baptist Press. “We learn from each other. They’re able to be a part of Sunday School classes and learn Gospel truth just like anyone else. We also learn [from them] how to minister to people with diverse needs.”
According to an Aug. 14 CBS News report, Iceland “has on average just one or two children born with Down syndrome per year” out of a population of 330,000. The reason for the lack of Down syndrome births is that genetic testing leads nearly all mothers whose children are expected to have Down syndrome to opt for abortion.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder associated with physical growth delays, distinctive facial features and moderate intellectual disability. Individuals with Down syndrome have an average lifespan of 60 years, according to CBS.
Icelandic law requires all expectant mothers to be informed about the availability of prenatal genetic screening, and some 80-85 percent perform the testing, CBS reported. Some children born with Down syndrome are carried to term only because screenings misdiagnosed them as healthy, according to CBS.
In contrast with Iceland’s trend toward abortion, McElhattan, director of early childhood ministries at Blue Valley Baptist Church in Overland Park, Kan., said she has seen “care and concern about special needs ministry really take off lately” in the United States. A “buzz about special needs ministry” has “grown.”
In October, LifeWay Christian Resources‘ ETCH Family Ministry Conference will feature multiple breakout sessions on special needs ministry led by McElhattan, a member of the Kansas City Special Needs Ministry Network.
Among Southern Baptist churches with ministries for individuals with special needs is First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn. The church offers Bible study classes for people of all ages with disabilities, hosts Vacation Bible School for individuals with special needs and provides care several Friday nights each year so parents of special needs children can take a break from caregiving.
First Baptist pastor Bruce Chesser said expectant parents “do not have the right to take life” from babies with special needs.
“Special needs individuals are just that: special,” Chesser told BP in written comments. “God created them uniquely and we count it an honor and a privilege to minister to them. Our special needs adults and children are some of the most loving and tender-hearted people I know. I love to be around them.”
Will Hall, editor of Louisiana’s Baptist Message newsjournal, is the father of a 19-year-old son with Down syndrome. He told BP he was grieved at a scene in CBS’ report in which an Icelandic hospital counselor stated, “We don’t look at abortion [of Down syndrome babies] as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication … preventing suffering for the child and also for the family.”
Hall said it is “brutally ignorant” to “end a child’s life and not even allow him or her the opportunity to experience any joy in life because of your perception of what suffering would be for that child.”
Though Hall’s son Jacob has undergone heart, ear and eye surgeries, his life is characterized by joy far more than pain, Hall said. For example, as Jacob was taken into the operating room for major heart surgery, “he was singing and signing a song to Christ. I was stunned…. That was what was on his heart.”
People with Down syndrome also bring joy to others, Hall said, recalling the time two expectant mothers carrying babies with Down syndrome chose not to seek abortions after holding Jacob when he was a baby. Jacob also drew a standing ovation from his classmates and teachers at his high school graduation.
“I want someday for Jacob to realize the hero he is,” Hall said. “That may not happen until heaven.”
Iceland’s high abortion rate for babies who test positive for Down syndrome, McElhattan said, should remind churches “to embrace children and adults with special needs and lead the way in showing the world how to include those with special needs.”
Families with special needs children are a fertile ministry field, Hall noted, since the vast majority are unchurched for fear of negative reactions to their kids.
According to CBS, 67 percent of U.S. babies diagnosed with Down syndrome were aborted from 1995-2011.
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.