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Like most of you, I have repeatedly seen video and news coverage of Sarah Palin's speech to the Vanderburgh County Right to Life dinner last week. And, again like most of you, I have been appalled to watch her sanctimoniously christen herself the high priestess of "family values" because she decided not to abort her fifth child, Trig, who has Down's Syndrome. During the snippets of her speech that I have been able to stomach watching, Palin talked about how she prayed after learning Trig would have Down's and how the love in her heart just exploded after his birth, and she knew she made the right choice. The implication of her speech, of course, is that if those godless liberals just had a little love - and followed Palin's version/perversion of Christianity - we'd all stop cavalierly killing our babies.

Well, at the risk of ticking off every parent of a special needs child, I'm going to call "bullsh*t" on that one. Trig's just a year old, and the Palins haven't yet begun to learn the challenges of raising a child with Trig's difficulties. As someone whose extended family has faced those challenges, I know of the ramifications - the effects, both positive and negative - of the choice Governor Palin has made.

I'm not saying she made the right choice or the wrong choice, but her speech, in fact her entire attitude since Trig's birth, ignore the true complexities and complications of her decision. Social conservatives like Palin like to claim that it just takes love, or God, or both to do the "right thing" in situations like this, but those of us who are grown-ups know that there is far more to it.

Like the Palins, my grandparents were in their mid-40s when their fifth and final child, my Uncle Ab, was born; he too had Down's. Because it was 1947, Gram and Gramps were told they should consign Ab to a state institution and forget he'd ever been born; Gram simply could not do that. Unlike Governor Palin, Gram had no option of abortion, but she did have the option to raise her son or not, and she simply could not fathom forgetting his existence.

It was very rare for families to keep special needs children at home in those days, and there were pitifully few resources to help families like my mother's. When I have related my grandparents' decision to people nowadays, they seem to think Gram and Gramps were some kind of minor saints for what they did. It is true that rather than being abandoned in a state facility, Ab lived most of his 22 years surrounded by a loving family who strived to give him as full a life as possible, but that is only part of the story. The rest is the story of a family nearly torn apart by the difficulties of raising a child who would mentally stall around the age of 2.

I was just a baby myself when Ab died, so I have no memories of him, but I grew up hearing about him and how the family coped. Ma used to say that in situations like this you either laugh or cry, and her family chose to laugh, so what we mainly heard growing up were what we called the "Ab stories" - the wacky adventures and antics of living with a perpetual toddler.

As children my sister and I, along with our younger cousins, would ask to hear the Ab stories again and again, particularly when Ma, a masterful storyteller, was the one doing the talking. We would laugh 'til we cried about the time Uncle Bob inadvertantly taught Ab to drive, and he managed to understand the intricacies of an old-fashioned three-speed, column-mounted manual transmission enough to take off on Gramps one day when he left Ab in the car. The image of my then 62-year-old Gramps running after the car (Ab never did manage to get it into second, so he didn't get far) and then later bursting into the house yelling "Who taught that kid to drive!" was simply priceles.

We learned about how my Aunt Eileen taught the then 8-year-old Ab to crawl on the morning of her college graduation; how Ab took an old doll carriage and converted it into a carrier for his bat, glove and baseball and would cruise down to the field at the end of the street to play with the other kids (who were infinitely kind to the funny-looking retarded kid);how Ma avoided a couple of speeding tickets when Ab, full of love like many Down's kids, tried to hug the patrolman; how Ab would try to order his favorite meal at Friendly restaurant and completely flummox the waitresses who could not comprehend his speech (Ma would serenely turn to the waitress and say "I believe the young gentleman would like...").

As we matured, though, we also understood the darker side of those stories, the stresses that raising Ab put on my grandparents and the other 4 kids. We learned about the endless cycle of medical crises, the late-night rides to the hospital, and the number of times Ab was thought to be dying, only to rally. We learned about how Gramps, already stressed from supporting a family on a mailman's salary (about $80 every 2 weeks in the mid-50s) and dealing with another sick child - my mother - "crawled into the bottle and pulled the cork in after," as my uncle would say. We were appalled to hear about how it would take 8 or 9 full-grown adults, mainly family members, to hold Ab down during painful medical procedures, and how he would lash out at them, feeling understandably betrayed.

The funny Ab stories stop around 1967, although Ab lived another 2 years. That's when Gramps died, leaving Ab a lot less loving and happy. His limited mind simply could not comprehend death - if Daddy's car is in the driveway, where was he? His tantrums became worse and more violent, and he would leave Gram, already coping with the heart disease that would kill her, bruised and bloody. Ma and her siblings faced the horrible choice of what to do with Ab - in the words of Gram's doctor "it's your mother or your brother; you have to choose."

For a few months Ma and her siblings, all of whom had growing families and jobs to handle, tried keeping Ab each for a few weeks (none of them could afford to keep him full-time), but that just confused him and caused stress in 4 more families. Had they continued, Ma would say, there would have been 4 divorces.

So in 1969 the siblings made the horrible choice, and institutionalized Ab. As part of the deal they were not allowed to see him for 2 months, to let him "acclimate." He died within 6 weeks. The official cause was pneumonia, but Ma always said it was really a broken heart. One year after his death came the worst blow, a newspaper expose that detailed the rampant abuse of residents of the facility Ab was sent to. The resulting guilt and shame caused a wedge among the siblings that has never really healed. I often wonder how much of my Uncle Jack's alcoholism was due to genetics, and how much was due to guilt about Ab; he was reportedly inconsolable at Ab's funeral and began drinking more heavily soon after.

I understand that modern medical technology and social support systems mean that the Palins will not face the same stresses as my grandparents. I also understand that having a Down's child can be a wonderfully fulfilling experience; Down's kids seem to be almost perfectly innocent - the very best of humanity with little of the worst.

But even with support, even with good medical care, which will only ensure that Trig outlives his parents, the Palins are only beginning the difficult journey of raising a Down's child. And that journey is not one that Todd and Sarah Palin will take alone - all 4 of their other children will also be there. Already their oldest two children, who like my aunt and uncle were teenagers when their Down's brother was born, have less education and fewer skills than my working-class relatives; will they have the capability of caring for their brother when their parents are gone, or too old? I really hope that Trig lives his life in a loving and supportive family environment, but it is just as likely that his family will suffer damage from the challenges of raising him.

Social conservatives love to point to the 90% abortion rates of those who learn they have a Down's child as evidence of moral decay, but I simply can't see it that way. Whatever the reason, abortion is rarely a decision made quickly or easily. When faced with the overwhelming emotional, psychological and financial stresses that special needs children bring to their entire families, can we really be shocked that so many choose to abort? We may dislike their decisions, but I don't believe we can consider them either cavalier or capricious.

The core of the abortion debate is a classic moral dilemna, one that by definition has no "right" answer. Every decision about pregnancy and abortion means balancing the human rights of the pregnant woman and the developing human rights of the fetus - a balance the Supreme Court clumisly tried to resolve in Roe v. Wade. It cannot be solved with the simple arguments and political slogans of the social conservatives, no matter how folksy the speaker.

Update: Here is the obligatory "Holy Cow" I'm on the rec list update! I posted this and then went to run errands, never thinking anyone would read it.

I have been thinking about writing this for a couple of days and the words just came this morning. I never thought it would get such a wonderful response. So many issues that the religious right believe they have settled are actually just as complex - my uncle's case is just one example. One of the things I truly appreciate about Daily Kos is the thoughtful and intelligent (for the most part) discussions we can have about a variety of issues. I can only imagine the Freeper response to such a diary.  

Update 2: I've addressed this in the comments, but want to make two things clear. One is that I am not into eugenics; I don't believe that any fetus that is not "normal" should be aborted. The second is that I am not arguing that every family who faces a challenge like my mother's family did will end up estranged, alcoholic or with broken marriages. There are many families who have thrived when dealing with a kid with special needs, including one who lived across the street from my family when I was young.

My point with this diary is to demonstrate, through one example, that the answers are not a simple as Sarah Palin and her ilk claim. Progressives aren't pro-choice because we advocate killing babies or because we lack love or faith in God (and even those of us who are atheists still have a much higher faith in the inherent goodness of humanity than the typical conservative). Rather, we are pro-choice because we understand that every family, every woman, who faces the question of abortion, for whatever reason, faces it with a specific set of circumstances that no one but the individual can know and assess. To even claim that we can, through legislation, make global decisions about which of those circumstances should allow for a choice of abortion and which cannot is so simplistic as to be laughable, if it weren't such a serious issue.

Originally posted to CPT Doom on Sat Apr 18, 2009 at 12:24 PM PDT.

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