Lord our God, help us to love you with all our hearts and to love all men as you love them. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Karen Gaffney is a thirty year old long-distance swimmer. Her many accomplishments include swimming nine miles across Lake Tahoe, competing in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, and being part of a relay team to swim the roughly thirty miles of sixty degree water in the English Channel. An inspirational person to be sure, Karen Gaffney also shatters the myth that having Down Syndrome, a genetic chromosomal disorder, ruins a person’s life. She states, “Yes, we are different…But we also are filled with potential and abilities and dreams…”
The Gift of Joy
Thirty years ago, Gaffney’s parents, both Catholic, received the gift of new life with open arms. The secret to their joy was their faith and trust in God. They also saw in Karen’s special needs a way to express their thankfulness for the gift of a new human life. And Karen brought them great joy too. In fact, joy is a very good way to describe Karen. She brings joy to all around her by her warm and loving personality.
Karen did many of the same things all children do. She went to school – Gaffney received her High School diploma from St. Mary’s Academy, a private Catholic high school in Portland, Oregon in 1997. She surpassed many other students in her class, graduating with a 3.0 GPA. And like other high school graduates, she then went off to college. She received an Associates Degree and a certificate to be a Teacher’s Aide from Portland Community College in 2001. Unlike most people however, Karen also developed her unique talent as a swimmer, breaking many records along the way.
Most people are not aware that Karen’s positive experience is true of many of those living with Down Syndrome.
A Step Towards a Better Future
On February 28, 2008, a bill entitled The Pre-natally and Post-natally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act made a positive step towards approval when it was passed unanimously by the Senate HELP Committee. This bill was developed by the bipartisan workings of Senators Sam Brownback (R) and Edward Kennedy (D). It will help to provide better education and a more positive understanding of the realities of Down Syndrome for expectant and new parents who are facing this difficult diagnosis.
The bill seeks to develop, on the national level, a way for parents of children with disabilities to assist parents who have just received a similar diagnosis for their own child. Sharing the positive experiences of living with a Down Syndrome child will help families make more balanced decisions – decisions based in truth, not in fear. Today the sad reality is that 90% of children diagnosed with Downs Syndrome are aborted.
Consistent with Faith
As a convert to the Catholic faith, Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas has been consistent in his support for laws that seek to respect human life at every stage. By being outspoken about the value and dignity of every human life, the Senator allows his faith to inform the decisions he makes working for the common good.
Senator Brownback believes that sharing positive information, such as stories like Karen’s, will allow families to see that having a Down Syndrome baby can be a life-changing gift from God.
In his book From Power to Purpose: A Remarkable Journey of Faith and Compassion, Brownback writes, “Many Down syndrome children are the centerpieces of their families. They have amazing gifts and are full of affection…This bill ensures that each family would get sound and balanced information, connection to support services and information about the possibility of adoption so families would not be misled and children could be saved.”
Right from the Beginning
All people, for no reason except that they are human, should have the right to life. The Declaration of Independence affirms that right: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Years ago Down Syndrome was considered a debilitating condition. With great wisdom and with the light of faith, Sen. Brownback recognizes that disability is a natural part of the human experience. We all have disabilities to one degree or another. Helping each other work with our disabilities, we become more humane and compassionate.
With advances in technology and medicine, people living with Down Syndrome today can work, live independently and pursue many hobbies and activities. This is the truth about Down Syndrome that needs to be shared.
Support from a Surprising Source
Desperate Housewives star, Eva Longoria shares the joy of having a sister with Down Syndrome. In an article for the British newspaper, The Mirror, she says, “When people walk into a room Elizabeth’s face lights up because she’s just so delighted with life. She gives off this warm glow that everybody responds to. Elizabeth is such a positive person who completely believes in herself and everyone else.”
Growing up with her oldest sister having Down Syndrome, Longoria learned first hand about what it means to be a selfless person: “It is a hard lesson to take when you are little but as you grow older you just appreciate how important it is to think of someone else first.”
A Hero and a Friend
Brad Hennefer – a 5 foot 10, senior at Cherry Hill East in New Jersey – is the first varsity basketball player with Down Syndrome in the nation. Highlighted in a February article on SI.com, Hennefer has been on the team since his freshman year. Scoring in 8 of 21 regular season games, Hennefer has 23 points for the year, including a 3 point shot made with 26 seconds to go. A well-rounded athlete, Brad is also the New Jersey Special Olympics golf champion. He prefers basketball to golf however, because he likes to be part of the team. “I played golf growing up, but I like basketball because I get to be with my teammates. Drew is like a brother to me. Coach lets me in the fourth quarter and I shoot. But I think I’ll remember my senior year here and making the best friends ever. I’ll miss the guys when they go off to college. I’ll remember these guys for the rest of my life.”
Learning to Focus on the Positive
A physical therapist at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Helen Milligan had just delivered her third child when the child was quickly taken into surgery for a heart defect. The Milligans were prepared for the surgery – advanced technology identified the problem even before their son, Aidan, was born. They were not prepared however, to learn that Aidan also had Down Syndrome.
After much reflection, Aidan’s dad, Mark, explains the negative myth around Down Syndrome in this way: “What bothered me was that if Aidan didn’t have Down syndrome no one would be making predictions about his future abilities or disabilities. When our two other children were born, our doctor didn’t come in and say: ‘There’s a 50% chance that Ryan is going to get divorced after he gets married’ or ‘statistics show that Meagan will probably take drugs as a teenager.’ The doctors didn’t look down the road at what the negative possibilities might be for our other kids.”
March 21st is dedicated to World Down Syndrome Day and it will be perfect timing if the Brownback-Kennedy bill is passed through Congress. Passage of this bill will give hope to those families facing a difficult diagnosis. The number of those with Down Syndrome in the world is quickly diminishing. As we stated earlier, sadly, statistics also show that since January 2007 nearly 90% of babies pre-natally diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted.
Welcoming the Gift of Joy
How does Helen Milligan feel about that? “The way it’s made to seem like this huge burden and not like a child who is full of love and joy, it makes you want to run away from it all or try to change it. With abortion being an option and so quickly offered, that’s why it’s taken. By refusing to accept these children who are full of pure love we’re making the world a colder place. I think if couples were given the chance to spend time with people who have Down syndrome and their families they would feel very differently.”
Advancing the Culture of Life
As citizens we benefit from the processes of our democratic government. We can call or write our own Senators or Representatives to share with them our own individual convictions. In fact, it is part of our duty as citizens and Catholics to be involved in the political process and to affirm the right to life from conception to natural death.
The fact that Senator Brownback, a Republican, has reached across party affiliations to work with one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, Sen. Kennedy, is a powerful example of how our Catholic belief in affirming the dignity of life has no boundaries. Even if we don’t agree with others on some life issues, we are called to work with them where we can find common ground.
The right to life is the most basic of all rights. With our love and compassion as Christians we will also convince the world that every new human life is a beautiful gift.
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. (Jeremiah 1:5)
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth. (Psalm 139:15)
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him. (Romans 8:28)
As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40)
The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself (Benedict XVI, February 8, 2007)
Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right — it is the very opposite. It is a deep wound in society. (Benedict XVI, February 8, 2007)
It is, in fact, the duty of all to welcome human life as a gift to be respected, safeguarded and promoted, especially when it is fragile and in need of care. (Benedict XVI February 5, 2008)
The American people’s historic appreciation of the role of religion … is reflected in the efforts of so many of your fellow-citizens and government leaders to ensure legal protection for God’s gift of life from conception to natural death. (Benedict XVI, February 29, 2008)
1829 The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy.
1937 These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others. These differences encourage persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods.
1932 The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
2273 A diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence.
2258 No one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.
1829 Love is itself the fulfillment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest.
Saints and Heroes
BLESSED HERMAN THE CRIPPLE (1013-1054)
Herman was born with a facial deformity, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida. His parents were too poor to take care of him, so they gave him to a Benedictine abbey nearby. Herman became a monk himself and studied hard. Despite his physical condition, Herman was a genius. He studied and wrote on astronomy, theology, math, history, poetry, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. He also built musical instruments and astronomical equipment. Eventually, Herman went blind and had to give up his academic writing. He began composing poetry and became the most famous religious poet of his day. He wrote the prayer Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen), which we often recite as part of the Rosary.
Blessed Antonia Mesina (1919-1935)
Antonia was born in Sardinia, Italy, the second-born of ten children. She grew up between World War I and II. Her mother, Grazia, developed a heart condition that required her to stay in bed most of the time. Antonia left school to take care of the whole family. She was in third grade at the time. Her mother often called Antonia “the flower of my life” and claimed that Antonia “never once went against me”. A loving and brave girl, she cared for her brothers and sisters as if she were already an adult. She cooked, cleaned, washed clothes, changed diapers, carried water, and gathered wood. She sacrificed her wants for the needs of her family and friends.
Antonia didn’t let either her lack of education or her poverty keep her from loving Christ. When she was ten, she joined Catholic Action, Italy’s national apostolic movement for lay people. She was a model member, and energetically fulfilled her commitments and recruited other young people to join the group. As she continued to work, honoring Christ and living in friendship with him was her first care and her first priority.
On one afternoon when she was 16, she went out to gather wood for the stove at her house with a friend. After her friend went down another path to return home, Antonia was accosted by another, older teenager, a boy who tried to rape her. She resisted, defending her purity with strength and decision. The boy in his lust and anger struck her repeatedly with a stone and eventually killed her.
Right from the moment of her death the people in her town venerated Antonia as a saint. In the years that followed, the story of her love for her family and her love for Christ spread throughout Italy. On October 4, 1987 Pope John Paul II beatified Antonia. People continue to go to pray at her tomb. Her deep charity and her faithfulness to Christ has infused (and continues to infuse) strength and grace into the Church.
Ability– power or capacity to act or do physically, morally, etc.; natural aptitude or acquired proficiency
Assist – give support aid or help to
Balance – habit of calm judgment and behavior; emotional steadiness; being in harmonious or proper arrangement
Basic – fundamental
Change – transform, to undergo a modification
Common good – the good of all people and the whole person; the social conditions which allow people to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily; The common good includes especially the right to life.
Compassion– sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress with a desire to alleviate it.
Connection – link; relationship with others
Consistent – firmness or coherence; free from contradiction
Conviction – a strong belief
Dignity – worthiness; nobility or elevation of character
Duty – a moral obligation, the binding or obligatory power of that which is morally right
Faith – personal relationship with God; trust in God
Gift – something given voluntarily without charge; present
Hope – trust in God; trust that God wants the best for us; confidence in heaven; confidence in God’s goodness.
Humane – characterized by tenderness, compassion, and sympathy for others, especially the suffering or distressed.
Independent – not relying on another or others for aid or support; possessing a competency
Inspiration – the action or power of moving the intellect, the heart, or the will
Joy – 1) a state of happiness or felicity;
2) one of fruits of the Holy Spirit listed by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22. It is the result of seeing and doing things from God’s perspective, influenced by his Spirit. Joy as a fruit of the Holy Spirit corresponds to the gift of understanding. The highest and most complete joy of which man is capable is the spiritual joy of seeing and being with God.
Potential – a latent excellence or ability that can be developed
Respect – an act of giving particular attention: consideration; a high or special regard: esteem
Right to life – A right is something that one has a just claim to. The right to life is given to every human being by the mere fact that he or she is a human being. It is a right that is based on the fact that every human being has infinite value in himself or herself, because a human being is not only a material creature but a spiritual creature. From a Christian and Jewish perspective, every human being has the right to life because every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.
Selfless – devoted to other’s welfare or interests and not one’s own; unselfish; altruistic
Share – to participate in or enjoy something with others, to use or receive jointly
Surpass – to go beyond in amount, extent or degree
Thankfulness – consciousness of benefit received; expressing gratitude or appreciation
Trust – Confidence in the goodness of God and in the goodness of his plans for us
Truth – Conformity with fact or reality
Understanding – 1) knowledge or familiarity with a particular thing;
2) one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Through the gift of understanding we are given a certain insight and familiarity with God and the things related to God.
Value – worth, merit, or importance; something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable
Wisdom – knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; discernment or insight. Wisdom is also one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It helps us get to know God more personally and helps us see things better from God’s point of view.
- How familiar are you with Down Syndrome? Do you know anyone who lives with this condition? Would you expect someone living with Down Syndrome to be able to do all of the things that Karen Gaffney accomplished?
- What kinds of preparation does it take to do all of the things that Karen did? Are there things that you are involved in that require this kind of committed preparation?
- Do you need help from others to accomplish important goals in your life? In what ways do people with disabilities remind us that we all have limitations? Is this a good thing for us to be reminded of?
- How can helping others do great things also enrich our own life? Do you think Karen parents feel fulfilled seeing her accomplish these goals? What sort of things do people learn about life through parenthood? What sort of things do we learn by helping others?
- Why do you think it was necessary for Senators Brownback and Kennedy to propose this bill? Should it be left up to the parents on both sides to organize their own support networks and seek out their own information? What role do you think the government should play in situations such as this? Why is it important to present the positive aspects of having a child with Down Syndrome?
- Do you think our current culture and our current laws respect the principle stated in the Declaration of Independence by the phrase: “…they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? In what ways can we promote a greater respect for this principle in our country today? Can you list any other initiatives that try to promote a greater understanding and living out of this principle? What things can you do in your own community to promote this more?
- Read the Sports Illustrated article listed in the resources below. Do you think the NJ basketball coach did the right thing in allowing Brad to play ball? Why or why not? How did this opportunity impact Brad? His teammates? The members of the teams that he played against? How would this also impact the people in the stands just watching the game – would they have left with a different perspective?
- Does society treat people with disabilities as inferior people? Can you name situations which support your response? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to change negative attitudes towards people with disabilities? Are there people in your school or your family that are treated differently for one reason or another?
- How would you react in a situation where you would need to work with someone with a disability? Would that make you feel uncomfortable? What could be done to make you feel more comfortable in that situation? What motivations can we find to treat others with greater respect and charity when our first reaction might be one of distance or fear?
- Is there any truth to the idea that people would begin to feel differently about Down Syndrome if they met families coping successfully with this situation? How could this be encouraged?
- Why would God allow someone to be born with a disability of any kind? How would this change someone who knew them?
Partial answer to Question 11:
Through allowing disabilities to exist, God helps us all learn to be more humane, more focused on the deeper worth of each person, more empathetic, more loving, more like Christ. People with Down Syndrome also help us see that being a loving person is more a source of joy than being the most talented, most attractive, most intelligent, etc.
- Determine the names of the acting Senators/Representatives for your district. Write them letters or emails in support of the Bill. You can state your concern that the right to life of every child be protected and promoted. Express your desire that women with difficult pregnancies be given the full support of the government to welcome their children with love and joy. Express your own thoughts on the dignity of each human life.
- Have a mock debate about this bill. Argue the reasons why it is important for the Brownback-Kennedy Bill to pass.
Imagine that your parents came to you and told you they were having a baby and your new sibling would have Down Syndrome. How would this new situation impact your life right now? Write about your worries and your concerns. Do you seen any positive aspects of this possible situation after reading this article? Would you have enough room in your life for a sibling with special needs? How do you think your life would be changed?
From The Gospel of Life (Pope John Paul II, 1995) “It is therefore a service of love which we are all committed to ensure to our neighbor, that his or her life may be always defended and promoted, especially when it is weak or threatened. It is not only a personal but a social concern which we must all foster: a concern to make unconditional respect for human life the foundation of a renewed society.
We are asked to love and honor the life of every man and woman and to work with perseverance and courage so that our time, marked by all too many signs of death, may at last witness the establishment of a new culture of life, the fruit of the culture of truth and of love.”
Information on Karen Gaffney: www.karengaffneyfoundation.com
- “People have just been tremendous, and when I returned after some maternity leave, I brought Cole with me that first night to the House floor.”
- His son, Max, has Down Syndrome (John was 2006 & 2007 National Buddy Walk Spokesman):
“A great blessing – Student with Down syndrome inspires school:” The Catholic Review October 13, 2006