Pregnant woman getting ultrasound from doctor. (Pablo_K/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Deputy editorial page editor

Cathy McMorris Rodgers serves as chair of the House Republican Conference, which puts her in charge of the congressional GOP’s messaging. McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) is also the proud mother of a 10-year-old who has Down syndrome, which makes it unsurprising that she directed an unhappy message my way after a column about state legislation to prohibit abortions for fetuses with Down syndrome.

“I struggled to put into words how offensive it is,” McMorris Rodgers tweeted about the column, in which I wrote that I would have terminated a pregnancy had prenatal testing shown Down syndrome.

“When our son, Cole, was diagnosed with Down syndrome, my husband and I were given a long list of challenges and complications from his doctors,” she added. “But when we looked at Cole, we still saw lots of potential. Today, Cole is in the fifth grade. He finds joy in learning. He is a great big brother. . . . He is in cub scouts and plays basketball. He lights up a room and people are drawn to him! He is living a life full of huge possibility.”

Later, on “Fox & Friends,” McMorris Rodgers said that the two-thirds of women who have abortions in such circumstances “don’t understand in that moment how that child is going to positively impact their lives.”

To listen to McMorris Rodgers is to grasp the sincerity of her convictions and the depth of her love. So I write not to add offense but to suggest, respectfully, that while McMorris Rodgers’s choice was the right one for her and her family, it would not have been the right one for me and mine — nor for many others who reached out with their stories, both about living with relatives with Down syndrome and terminating such pregnancies.

“I had a sweet, lovely sister with Down syndrome for many years who I loved dearly,” one reader emailed. “I would say on balance that it was a strong if not dominating factor in our family and our individual lives. It took a toll. It consumed our priorities. . . . After my father died prematurely, it left my mother with four kids, one handicapped, and only one income.

“In balance, having seen it up close and lived with it myself, I would support a mother who chose NOT to give birth to a Down syndrome child. And if you haven’t lived it you can have NO idea what you are proposing for other people. Hence, each person has and MUST have the right to decide for themselves.”

Another reader, who made the choice I had only imagined, said she had no regrets about terminating a fetus with Down syndrome. “I have a 14-year-old son who is the light of my life. . . . After he was born, I tried again. As the youngest in a large family, I hoped that my son would grow up with a sibling with whom to share experiences. But the pregnancy was a Down’s pregnancy. Without hesitation, I chose to terminate. Of course, I was sad. I mourned the loss of the possibility that pregnancy had held. . . .

“I look at my son’s life now — his joy, his freedom to stretch and try new things, his kindness and curiosity — and I look at my own life — the satisfaction I get from long walks with him and from challenging days at work — and I am sure that, for us, I made the right choice.”

And the mother of one now-grown child with Down syndrome confided that she would “no doubt” have aborted a second pregnancy had prenatal testing — not available at the time of her first pregnancy — come back positive.

“I’d never knowingly bring another Down syndrome child into our lives,” she wrote. “My son turned 50 last September. He lives in a group home, has worked . . . for 29 years and has a good life, with lots of fun and quite a bit of independence. My life has been filled with advocacy for those with developmental disabilities. We are the lucky ones with our son. Nevertheless, I would fight to the dying breath for a woman’s right to choose.”

These emails reflect a silenced majority — silenced because, as I discovered, saying that you would terminate a pregnancy for this reason unleashes fury and invective. That these readers reflect the majority view is not proof that their attitude is correct; morality is not determined by popular vote.

But their voices do illustrate the agonizing complexity of the matter and reinforce my fundamental point: This is a choice that must remain with the individual who will live with the consequences, not with a government imposing its will on her.

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