Ignorance is bliss?

On the day that our lives were turned upside-down by an emergency 38-week scan, I remember begging the neurologist to put us in touch with other families with children like our as-yet unborn child.

Some part of me knew – despite the medical predictions (“Your baby will never walk, or talk. He won’t be able to feed. He won’t survive the birth”) – that this wasn’t the whole story. I wanted a glimpse into the future. I needed to know, not just the worst case scenario, but the lived experience.

[Image by Peter H from Pixabay]

For whatever reason – perhaps because we were so very short of time to make our decision; perhaps because there were so few other families with children like ours in our area; perhaps because our wise consultant didn’t think it fair for us to invade their already complicated lives – for whatever reason, we never met with those other families. For whatever reason, we made the decision to go ahead with the pregnancy despite advice to the contrary. For whatever reason, Benjamin came into our lives.

Thanks to the amazing charity SWAN UK, I now do know several families with children similar to Benjamin. I know that their lives are just as complex and, at times, difficult, as ours. I also know that not one of them would have it any other way. Yes, we wish our children didn’t have to suffer. Yes, we wish society were more inclusive, accessible and equal. Yes, we wish our children’s siblings had a more ‘normal’ home life. But we never, for one moment, wish that they had not been born. Even the folks who, after that unpromising scan advised us to take the termination option, now acknowledge that all our lives are better with Benjamin in them.

The same is true of other disabilities and differences. You only have to watch this “carpool karaoke” video from last year to see how much joy, life, meaning, and promise children with Down Syndrome bring to their families – as much, if not more, than any neurotypical child.

And yet…

And yet at least nine out of ten women faced with a prognosis like ours would choose an abortion. Ninety-one percent of mothers in the UK who receive a pre-natal diagnosis of Down Syndrome terminate their pregnancy. According to the European Surveillance of Congenital Abnormalities, between 2006 and 2010 in England and Wales 157 foetuses were aborted for cleft lip and palate and 205 for club foot. More than 90 previously much-wanted pregnancies terminated each and every year for conditions arguably much less severe than Benjamin’s.

Why the disparity? Why, despite all the evidence that children with disabilities are better off alive than dead, are so many of them killed in the womb? Why do parents, after much heart-searching, honestly believe that this is the best thing to do, for their baby, for their family, and for themselves? Why do they, in alarming numbers, reach such an apparently contradictory conclusion?

One answer could be that they don’t have all the information on which to make such a decision. That, as we were, they are given the stark medical ‘risks’ but no inkling of the beautiful chances. They assume they have been fully informed, and they don’t ask for more. And who can blame them? Suddenly finding that the child you are carrying has a disability is, for most parents, completely outside their experience or previous encounters. It’s not something covered in NCT classes. So they trust the medical professionals by whom they are surrounded at that critical time. They don’t press the doctors for the other side to the story, because they have no concept that one exists. The medical story appears to be the whole story. This puts a huge amount of power and responsibility upon (already overstretched) medical professionals.

What if the responsibility wasn’t all theirs? What if they could do their job, of giving us the medical information, safe in the knowledge that everyone already has some idea of what it is like to be disabled, to bring up a disabled child, to have a disabled sibling? What if people weren’t afraid of disability because they see it in their everyday life: at school, at work, at church, on TV, in the supermarket, on the bus, …? What if we hadn’t had to beg our consultant to put us in touch with another family like ours because they were already all around us?

He ain’t heavy… he’s my brother

What if all disabled people went to mainstream schools, were supported to live in their own communities, could access their playgrounds, shops, restaurants, cinemas, zoos, theme parks, leisure centres, trains and planes? What if everywhere met the requirements of the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments?

What if, instead of special schools, special “autism friendly hours,” and “purple Tuesday” shopping days (one day a year when disabled people are invited to go shopping… on a Tuesday, outwith the lucrative sales and Christmas shopping periods, of course!), disabled people could learn, shop, work, travel, and play with everyone else? What if people who need support to leave their house, get support to leave their house, rather than being docked financial support because they can’t leave their house to get to an assessment? What if people with “challenging” behaviour (i.e., unmet communication needs) were able to live with their families and peers instead of being locked away for years, in units hundreds of miles from home?

Then, we might all be better informed. We might all have the lived experience necessary to see the full picture. We might see that disability is not scary. Disability is not wrong. Disability is not a tragedy. Disability is not to be locked away. Disability is not to be culled from the population. Neither is disability an “inspiration.” Disability is simply an ordinary part of the rich tapestry of human life. Then, we might realise that ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is missing out on the wealth of gifts, skills and talents that is hidden in the diversity of our population; which rarely see the light of day.

Benjamin loves to swim. He loves to visit the park. He loves to go to school – and he is making great leaps in his ability to communicate. He is a joy to be around and if he could go to school, go to the park, swim, and so on, with his peers, a generation would be better informed and a generation would grow up for whom termination is not the obvious or only answer to what is seen as purely a medical problem. A generation in which everyone is a citizen with common human needs and a contribution to make, whether they need a little help or a lot.

I know that inclusion, mainly for historical reasons, isn’t easy to achieve. But it’s currently getting worse: we live in an increasingly hostile climate in which government policies, procedures, and propaganda, and the public attitudes they foster, threaten to force disabled people back from the society they have pushed so hard to enter, into nursing homes, segregated schools, or as prisoners in their own homes, just as at the same time medical advances such as NIPT make it easier and “safer” to identify and “deal with” disability in the womb. These combined pressures could see minorities such as the Down Syndrome community effectively eliminated in our lifetime.

We have a collective responsibility to turn this around. Our government needs to overhaul the benefit system and its mind-set so that it is no longer in contravention of Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Our local councils, businesses and attractions need to make Changing Places and accessible design a matter of course. As citizens, we need to lobby for better allocation of funding to children with ASN in mainstream education, for our rights to accessible public transport, and so on. As medical professionals we need to modify our language from “I’m sorry,” “There’s something wrong with your baby,” “Not able to live a ‘normal’ life….” To “Congratulations!” “Your baby may need more support than others,” “We can help you to live an ordinary life.” As parents, we need to foster our children’s naturally inclusive nature, not nurture a sense of disgust at anything different. As parents of disabled children, and as disabled self-advocates, we need to put ourselves out there as beacons of human rights. Because ignorance of disability is not bliss. Ignorance of disability is deadly.

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Breaking the chain

Last week was a tough one. My eldest was under-the-weather and whiny. My youngest was angry, violent and loud. My husband was overworked and unwell. Benjamin’s health was up and down, as usual. No-one had enough sleep.

We had problems with transport, issues with medication, missed phone calls from professionals, unnecessary arguments, and at times it felt like I would never make it to the course I was due to go on at the weekend.

But did I ask for help? Did I call anyone to let off steam? Did I dare admit it’s been tough? No. These are things I find incredibly difficult.

In my mind, it’s because I voluntarily chose this less-travelled path. Unlike many of my fellow parents of disabled children, who received a diagnosis at birth with that painfully inappropriate “I’m sorry,” or those who faced the agonising months and years of feeling that ‘something was wrong’ before anyone would take them seriously, I had the luxury of choice and preparation. I knew that Benjamin was going to have significant physical disabilities, learning difficulties, developmental delays, and a limited life expectancy. I was offered an opt-out and I refused to take it. So, I’ve brought this all upon myself and my family. I’ve made my own bed and that’s where I must lie. I deserve everything that’s happened to me and I don’t deserve any help.

And because, for all the unborn Benjamins out there, I need to prove I can do this. I have to keep up a façade that everything’s perfect, because anything else would be fuel to the already rampant fire that disabled people and their families are scroungers, burdens, and second-class citizens. That it’s perfectly justified and in no way discriminatory to allow them to be aborted up to birth.

In other words, because I’m proud. People want to help, but I don’t ask and I won’t let them, because I fear their unspoken, “We told you so.”

I shared these feelings with some fellow parent bloggers and found that – while few were in the position of a prenatal diagnosis – many had experienced similar feelings. “I knew the chance of having twins was higher with IVF, so I felt I couldn’t ask for help when they arrived.” “My previous pregnancies were risky, so by deciding to have another child I had only myself to blame if anything went wrong.” “When I fell pregnant for the fourth time my mother told me I should have an abortion … I feel I can’t ask her to look after the kids now because she will think it’s my fault for having another child who now has so many appointments.” “I struggle to ask for help as I feel the need to prove the naysayers wrong.” “Because I wanted him so much, he’s mine; my burden.”

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But, they also pointed out that, “Any pregnancy is risky.” “No-one knows what they’re going to get when they choose to have a child.” “Everyone who has children faces the possibility that their child may need extra help, support, care, or they themselves may need to support due to circumstances outwith their control.” And the wonderfully insightful Alison of Downright Joy simply said, “It takes a community to raise any child and your community are far better off for having your child in their midst… You and your child can give them an incredible opportunity to really value what it is to be human and live in community.”

I need to swallow that pride, don’t I? In being too vain to admit it’s hard, reluctant to ask for help, scared to show the ‘warts and all’ picture, I am also failing to show the beauty that Benjamin brings to our lives. I fought for Benjamin like I have never fought for anything before or since. But what’s the point in fighting for something if you don’t share it? Neither Benjamin nor his sisters belong to me; I don’t have exclusive rights.

How will the prevailing view of disability as something to be cured, shut away, or eliminated, ever change if we don’t give our families, friends, and neighbours the chance to experience disability and neurodiversity as things to be embraced, included, and learnt from? As normal. Families with disabled children need a village, and that village needs them too.

I did, after all, make it to my course this weekend. We were learning about inclusion (more, much more, on this in future posts). We learnt that the first key to inclusion is as simple as a welcome, a greeting. Many of us find it hard to greet disabled people. We don’t know how to say “hallo” in Makaton. We don’t know whether to make eye contact. We can’t look beyond the wheelchair. And such awkwardness stems, itself, from a lack of familiarity, from segregation and exclusion. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle – until we break the chain. By keeping Benjamin to myself, by trying to do it all myself, I’m extending that chain still further.

I want to share this letter written by Parents for Inclusion. I wish I, and my family, had read it before Benjamin was born.

“Dear Little One,

Welcome to the world! We are so glad that you have come. You have a right to be here and belong. You belong to your family, your community, your culture, your country, this world which we share together. How wonderful to have you here.

The people who love you may be feeling sad and scared and will need to cry away their fears. This does not mean they don’t love you and that you are not right for each other.

Like all children coming into this world you need to be loved and valued for who you are including any difficulties you may be facing. You need to be loved, touched, cuddled, smiled at, sung to, talked to, made to feel safe.

As you grow up you need to have fun and laughter, play and music, friends and people who are willing to listen and learn from you. Yes, you may need to have more help and support at times possibly all the time; but remember, the most important thing for you is to be included in ordinary life and for your life – long or short – to be valued. That is not different to any baby in this world.”

Yes, I deserve my beautiful boy … but everyone else deserves a part of him too. It’s time to break the chain.

Just because it’s difficult, doesn’t make it right

A few of days ago an article popped up on my timeline. It was entitled How working in an abortion clinic changed my mind about terminations, and was written by a student midwife, Lucy Kelly. A bit ‘clickbaity,’ but I was baited and I clicked.

It is a beautifully written, convincing, strongly worded essay. The direction in which the author changed her mind (spoiler alert) was towards terminations. She wasn’t put off by what she bravely and compassionately witnessed, she was inspired by the fortitude of the women she met in that clinic. And some of what she wrote, yes, I do agree with. It is a terrible decision to have to make and I do not believe many parents take it lightly, whatever they decide.

But some of it, profoundly, no.

‘Women who are having late term abortions are only doing so if their baby will not have any quality of life outside the womb.’

Termination of pregnancy after 24 weeks may legally be considered, in the UK at least, on the grounds of foetal abnormality if there is a substantial risk that the child would suffer physical or mental abnormalities that would result in serious handicap. There is no definition, in the law, as to what constitutes a ‘substantial risk’ or a ‘serious handicap.’ Quality of life is not required to be evaluated.

Sadly, on this basis, women are undergoing mid and late term abortions of babies with Down syndrome, with spina bifida, with hydrocephalus, with cleft palate. Conditions which do not, necessarily, affect ‘quality of life,’ whatever that means. Let alone affect it so much as for it to be preferable to have no life at all. Who are we to decide, as mothers or as a society, that those lives are not worth living, or would be better not lived?

I was advised to abort my son at 38 weeks because his brain was not properly formed. Because he would likely never walk, talk or feed himself. Ours wasn’t one of those miracle stories you read in the Mail where the doctors are proved wrong. My son is indeed profoundly disabled – he will never walk, talk, feed himself. He will likely never roll, sit, or support his own head. However, I would dispute anyone who says he has no quality of life.

And, while the child’s quality of life may be one of the reasons (rightly or wrongly) for women to have a late term abortion, I know that it is not the only one. In fact, the child’s quality of life may be less important in the decision-making than the effect on the mother and any other members of the family. I know because I could have been one of those women. The arguments (and yes, there were arguments: painful, heated, lengthy and almost irreparable ones) surrounding our decision whether to abort, centred partly on our son’s likely quality of life, but partly on the impact on the rest of the family – myself, my husband, our at the time one-year-old daughter, the grandparents. Had we decided to abort – and don’t get me wrong, we very nearly did – it would have been in no small part for the latter reason: to ensure a better life for our existing daughter, to protect her from the isolation, stigma, and lack of opportunity that may come with being sibling to a disabled child. Protection that I believe could and should be achieved by changes in society: by inclusion, accessibility, support, kindness and a lack of judgment. Not by terminating the life of an innocent individual.

I do not doubt that the mothers, fathers, families, who choose abortion on the grounds of disability do so with much heart-searching. As, in fact, do those who choose abortion for other reasons. They may do it on the basis of misinformation. They may do it under strong pressure. They may do it because they truly believe they have no other option. But that does not make it right.

‘I cannot fathom how any politician can believe that they understand more about a woman’s health, and survival, than the doctor caring for her… This is not your life. This is not your pregnancy. This is not your experience. You do not get an opinion’

No, I cannot fathom that, but this is not just – or often even at all, except in incredibly rare and tragic circumstances – about the mother’s life. This is about – as Ms Kelly agrees from 24 weeks at least – a child’s life. The child whose life is at stake doesn’t get an opinion unless doctors, parents and policymakers give them one. That is our duty as a civilised and compassionate society – to give a voice to those who are voiceless.

‘Until you have lived this hell, made this decision, held the tension of two terrible fates and had the courage to make a choice that will break you to pieces, you do not get to judge a woman or decide what is best for her.’

I have lived this hell. I have made this decision. It still breaks me every single day. I am not judging these women; I am judging the circumstances they are placed in, the information they are given, the pressure that is brought to bear, and the expectations forced upon them by the misguided and mis-prioritised society that we live in.

I wonder if Ms Kelly is confusing respect for these mothers – which I share unreservedly – with agreement with their decision. Just because the decision was difficult, just because it was made thoughtfully, carefully, heartbreakingly, soul-searchingly… doesn’t make it right. The solution to this terrible, terrible dilemma is not to make it more acceptable, easier, less traumatic to abort a baby; the solution is to work change in our society so that it is easier to bear that baby, to birth that baby and to bring that baby up, whatever its nature and its circumstances.

**As a courtesy, I offered this piece to Spinoff, the site on which Ms Kelly’s article was published. They declined to publish, saying they weren’t ‘that kind of website’. I think it’s sad that they aren’t the kind of website that would like to show two perspectives on this issue; that they are willing to publish an opinion piece about a certain group of women, but not willing to publish the thoughts of one of those women; that they are not keen to be involved in working the kind of change in society that I describe above. I hope other readers will be**

A world without…

A week ago I – along with at least 50% of people on my Twitter feed, it appears – watched Sally Phillips’ emotive documentary A World Without Downs?, exploring the possible outcomes of a new, non-invasive prenatal test (NIPT) for Downs Syndrome. The test allows risk-free, early prenatal diagnosis of almost 100% of Downs Syndrome babies. It is sadly no surprise that the vast majority of parents, who discover their unborn baby has Downs Syndrome, choose to abort. In countries where NIPT is already routine, that means 100% of Downs babies are ‘screened out.’ When the NIPT is introduced on the NHS, Downs could be eradicated in the UK as effectively as smallpox. A world without Downs is a very real possibility.

Although I have little experience of Downs Syndrome, the programme stirred up a host of not-so-deeply buried emotions. Because we also, thanks to non-invasive testing, were given the knowledge that our child, in utero, would be severely disabled. We were given the choice to ‘screen him out.’

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In our case, despite the prognosis that Benjamin would be much more severely disabled than most of the Downs community, we chose to continue the pregnancy. It was an unusual choice: a choice that at least some of the people Phillips so bravely interviewed would consider anathema. Yet, almost three years down the line, having out-survived the dire predictions made for him, I remain convinced that our choice was the right one, for Benjamin, for us, and for everyone.

In this respect, our experience mirrors Phillips’: the quality of Benjamin’s life has, so far, exceeded the prognosis; for Phillips the lived experience of Downs does not match the medical risks associated with having an extra copy of chromosome 21. Therefore, she argues, the medical facts alone should not be used to justify, promote or allow the termination of Downs pregnancies; the truth of the lives of the Downs community – their achievements, their integration, their quality of life – must also be considered.

However, while this argument may hold for her cherry-picked examples of high-achieving, articulate, much-loved people with Downs Syndrome, in other cases the worst predicted scenario may in fact come true (see, for example, this headline-hitting story from a couple of years ago). Nor may Phillips’ experience apply to the host of other, less cuddly, genetic conditions that we’ll be able to screen for over the next few years: conditions whose bearers may be less able, less sociable, less comfortable, in more pain, and requiring greater levels of intervention. This is not just about Downs! Downs is the thin end of the wedge, yes, but we need a much stronger, less subjective argument to avoid slipping faster and faster towards the eugenics of the thick end. I didn’t choose to keep Benjamin because I thought the doctors were wrong; I chose to keep him because I loved him even if they were right.

The fact is, as Phillips makes clear, choice is not always all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, choice without information is no choice at all. Parents are called upon to make a life or death choice, yet they are sometimes the least informed party. They have no medical background, no knowledge of what it is like to parent a disabled child in todays’ society, or of what it is like to be disabled. Caught in the moment, they cannot get their heads around hospices and trust funds, community healthcare and special schools, motability and carer’s allowance. They rely upon the medical profession, as their only point of contact, to provide all their information. With the clock ticking towards full term, they may be rushed into a decision before they can research it from all angles. A decision that – either way – they will live with for the rest of their lives.

Choice without information is no choice at all, says Phillips. But neither is choice without support. Because choice almost inevitably leads to hindsight, leads to ‘what if?,’ leads to guilt. The climate in which we made our choice left us (me) with a huge legacy of guilt.  Because although it was a joint choice – and to my dear husband I am hugely grateful that we made it together and bear joint responsibility – at the same time it was my choice. I was the one who had borne Benjamin for eight and a half months. I was the only one who knew him. It would be my body to birth him, dead or alive; my signature on the consent forms; my choice to condemn the rest of my family to a life they hadn’t planned or chosen.

I feel the guilt every time my husband has to take time off work to come to yet another multidisciplinary consultation. I feel guilty every time Jackie has to spend the afternoon colouring in, in A&E. I feel guilty for the weeks spent juggling home life with hospital. I feel guilty every time Benjamin is in pain. I feel guilty when we spend £750 on a new base for his wheelchair that could have gone on a new carpet for Jackie’s room. I feel guilty when we can’t climb a mountain together. I feel guilty when I spend the afternoon making purees for Benjamin instead of cupcakes with Jackie. I feel guilty when Caitlin needs a cuddle but Benjamin needs my immediate care.

Of course ‘mummy guilt’ or as Google insists on rephrasing it for me, ‘mommy guilt’ is far from my unique prerogative. Guilt for working, guilt for not working, guilt for letting them cry, guilt for spoiling them, guilt for using disposable nappies, guilt for formula-feeding, guilt for feeding them junk, letting them watch too much TV, spending too much time on your phone, not noticing when they smack another child in the head, not noticing when they get smacked in the head… But this guilt runs deeper. Whichever path they choose, parents like us make a life-or-death decision: to end a life, or to forever change the lives of those around them.

The brilliant, honest and thoughtful blogger Orange this way admitted in a post earlier this year that ‘I would have mistakenly and quite offensively believed that life with a disabled child would be tragic and terrifying, joyless, isolating and punishing, and that the hardships would far outweigh love.’ When Benjamin’s disabilities came to light, I felt the same, and those feelings were reiterated by the few people around us with whom we shared that nightmarish news. I felt we had to choose between a life of freedom without Benjamin or a life of hardship with him. Hardship not just for the mother, but the father, siblings and extended family too. In my journey with Benjamin I have come to know several parents who faced a similar choice at 12, 20, 30+ weeks pregnant. Some decided to terminate, some to continue. Our paths since that choice may have diverged but one thing we all share: the weight of guilt.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we made the wrong decision, not at all. I don’t wish we had chosen to abort Benjamin. I don’t wish he had never been born or even never conceived. He is my Benjamin, my brave, beautiful, brown-eyed boy, and I love him with all my heart. But I do wish, with that same heart, that we hadn’t faced that choice.

I don’t blame the doctors, who were only doing their job, giving us the information they had and telling us the rights that we had. I don’t blame the midwife who sent me for that fateful 38-week scan. But I wish we hadn’t faced that choice.

The choice, the decision, and the guilt, threatened to drive a wedge through the heart of our family. Between myself and my husband; myself and my daughters, who will live a very different life to the one we planned for them; myself and the family members who weighed in with (well-meaning) advice and opinion. I wish we hadn’t faced that choice. And NIPT places such a choice in the hands of hundreds more parents, each year, in the UK alone.

I am not asking that we reverse or ignore the amazing advances that scientists and medics have worked so hard for. I am not arguing against screening. In the right hands, prenatal screening can provide valuable information. For Benjamin, it meant that the medical team were thoroughly prepared for his arrival and ready to hit the ground running. Not for us the months of fighting that so many SN parents face, to be taken seriously, and to get much needed treatment and support. From the very start we had nurses, paediatricians, dieticians, physiotherapists, palliative care specialists, neurologists, geneticists, and more, queuing up to see Benjamin and to help him be the best that he can be.

What I am asking for is a society that makes the choice less punishing; a society that doesn’t place parents between a rock and a hard place; that doesn’t make them choose between life for their unborn child and life chances for their other children. I’m asking for a society where life becomes the easy and obvious choice: a society of fairness, accessibility and tolerance.

And until we get that society, I am begging for support. Support to parents at the time of screening – provided not just by doctors but counsellors, peer supporters, palliative care specialists, social workers, family and friends. Non-judgemental, non-directed, support. Space to ask questions and have them answered; help with work, cooking, housework and childcare while they grapple with their choice. Reassurance that the choice they will make is the right one for them, and that no-one needs to feel guilty. And support afterwards, to heal the psychological scars that will inevitably left by such a choice, by simply being a normal, lay person thrown into making a life and death decision. One good place to start would be with more Diana Children’s Nurses, who were such a support to us while I was pregnant with Caitlin. If only they had been there during my pregnancy with Benjamin too.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to watch A World Without Downs? It raises important questions and starts an important debate. But it doesn’t go far enough. Pitting the ‘Downs community’ against – well, against whom? Scientists? Politicians? Doctors? Mothers? – in this way may in fact make it more acceptable to terminate pregnancies with worse prognoses. The fact is we are all a community, and all part of a continuum of humanity, all able and disabled in different ways. If we do begin to provide fuller information about life with genetic conditions, as Phillips hopes, are we then more justified in screening out the worst? And who chooses what constitutes ‘the worst’? Where do we, should we, draw the line between someone who is a valuable member of society and someone who is a drain on it? Who chooses who has a right to life? Should we outlaw the choice itself? Or should we build a society where life becomes the easier choice to make? And who will be there to pick up the pieces of those on whom that choice is placed, whatever they decide?

To those who say my son is a drain on society

It’s about a year since I wrote a post for Scope about my disabled son, Benjamin, whom we decided to keep despite being offered a late termination of pregnancy. Amongst the many supportive comments on the post was one (swiftly removed by admin) that stuck in my mind: a comment berating me for my selfishness and the expense Benjamin would cause to the taxpayer. Benjamin’s recent stay in ICU – at an estimated cost of perhaps £10,000 (estimate based on this article) – brought this back to my mind. In fact I’ve heard variations on this opinion several times, perhaps increasingly in today’s political climate: that disabled people are ‘a drain on society’ and those of us ‘lucky enough’ to have the opportunity should prevent them coming into the world.

As new genetic tests become available, it is becoming more and more possible to do just that – for instance, as the NHS considers rolling out a non-invasive prenatal test for Down’s Syndrome (as well as Edwards syndrome, Patau syndrome and Turner syndrome), many are voicing concerns that it is being presented as an opportunity to ‘eradicate’ Down’s. As Hayley Goleniowska puts it in her blog, Downs Side Up, ‘I fear Down’s Syndrome is just the very visible tip of a much larger iceberg, with adults with non specific learning disabilities now being swabbed to look for genetic patterns to enable earlier diagnosis [and termination].’ Discriminatorily, for disabled babies there is no legal limit in the UK on abortion before birth although the limit for non-disabled babies is 24 weeks.

Quite apart from being frankly insulting to the millions of disabled people who contribute fully to society in every way on a daily basis, the premise that even the most severely disabled are a ‘drain on society’ is built upon a fallacy: that society is fundamentally about money. Taken to its logical conclusion, the moment any one of us is hit by a bus, contracts meningitis, enrols at state school, or wants our dustbin emptied, according to this argument we become a drain on society.

The word ‘society’ comes from the Latin socius (companion) and was first found in English in the mid-16th century meaning ‘companionship, friendly association with others.’ Society as thus defined is based on give and take. Yes, Benjamin receives disability living allowance from the state. Yes, in his first two and a half years he has received more healthcare input than we would have liked. Yes, his education may cost more than that of other children. But Benjamin gives hugely in other ways. No one can fail to be brightened by his smile, relaxed by his hug. The determination with which he tries simply to reach out and touch something that has caught his interest could teach many of us a thing or two about persistence. He has certainly taught me about priorities, principles and prejudice. He makes me acutely aware of the state our society is in, and more dedicated to making it better. It is no coincidence that disabled people, their families and carers are often the ones campaigning for social justice, battling against climate change, fighting discrimination in its many forms.

Benjamin will never get married or hold down a job. He will never start a business, own a house or vote in an election. He will also never get drunk and cause a multi-car pile-up, hold up a shopping mall with an AK47, or evade his tax bill. But his life has value, his voice should be heard and his needs should be met, because that is what society is all about.

I am very aware how lucky we are to live in a country where society, on principle and in practice, provides help with the extra needs associated with being disabled or caring for a disabled child. But believe me, families like ours are far from living a life of luxury at the expense of the state; nor do we enjoy being dependent on it. Benjamin’s specialist bed, bath chair, even his toys, are second-, third- or fourth-hand, and go back into stock to be used by another child when he outgrows them. For his feeds and medications, we make do with the same number of syringes in a month that a hospital would use in one day! Benjamin is too young to receive nappies from the continence service, but when the time comes we will receive perhaps half the number needed to keep him comfortable; the rest we will have to buy. I hesitate to speak for other families, but I suspect that most of those in our position are proud, even stubborn, and as a consequence extremely resourceful. Our dignity and that of our children is precious, so we tend to explore every avenue before finally turning to the state. Furthermore, a recent campaign has highlighted the extra costs of being disabled: costs over-and-above those borne by the state. Thanks to society, living with a disability has been made easier, but it is still harder than it should be. Choosing to let Benjamin live was never the easy option.

It is often said that the measure of a civilised society is how well it looks after its most vulnerable members. Benjamin shows us all that is good about our society, and all that can and should be improved. I cannot fault the care he has received from the education, health and social services, nor that from charities such as the Newlife Foundation, Capability Scotland and our local children’s hospice. We would not be where we are without the support of friends, family and neighbours. But there is a long way to go until our whole society values people like Benjamin for their true worth and doesn’t disparage them as a drain on resources.

Giving Benjamin a chance was the right decision for him, for his family and for society. Anyone who thinks otherwise should come and meet him; they might just change their mind.

Wrestling

I feel a little bit naughty. I’m on my own – completely on my own – on my way to London, in the middle of the night. It’s okay, it’s legitimate. Hubby has given me a two-day pass to go to the Mumsnet “Blogfest.”

I also feel a little bit guilty. Like many mums, I don’t feel I have a right to a life away from my family. I feel pathetically grateful to my partner for granting me some time away. I’m not sure I’ll even enjoy it all that much although I know I should make the most of it and let my hair down!

I certainly feel a bit of a fraud. I’m not a great blogger. I’m not even a very regular blogger. And despite my best attempts to look professional for tomorrow, to be honest I look a complete mess. I’m wearing my “trendy” (maybe 25 years ago) ripped jeans and a smart velvet jacket that is too tight over my bump, shrouded for the first cold night of the Scots winter in a down jacket (that also fails to meet in the middle), bright pink gloves and a straggly bobble hat. I’d started to pack into a smart leather overnight bag but it seems – once a mum always a mum – my desire to cover all eventualities necessitated a transfer to a larger, grubbier backpack, water bottle peeking out one side, umbrella the other. There are still traces of poster paint on my arms from this afternoon’s wet weather activity. Add to this a night in a shared cabin on the sleeper train and I’ll be surprised if they let me into the smart glass conference centre at all.

Anyway, I digress. As you can guess, I don’t often get time on my own to think. In fact, pretty much the only time I do get is when I’m picking up or dropping off a car. We don’t own a car; whenever I have to ferry the kids somewhere I borrow one (a car, not a kid) from the local car club. This entails a certain amount of logistical juggling since (I might be supermum but) even I can’t transport two children and two car seats across town to where the nearest club car is parked. So usually, the night before any excursion, I wait until my husband is home from work and the children are in bed, then I head out into the dark, check into the car, drive back and park it outside our house until the morning.

Except I don’t. Not directly. What actually happens is I walk over to the car, check into it, adjust the seat and the mirrors, and then I sit. And think. Wrestle might be a more appropriate term. Where shall I drive to?

Shall I go straight home, maybe be in time to read one last bedtime story, then hunker down on the sofa with some mindless telly and try to forget, for another few hours, what I might have to do in ten days’ time?

Or shall I turn the other way, head out into the dark, along the coast or across the hills, it doesn’t matter, anywhere I can hide away and protect my baby. I know my other kids would be safe. They’ve got warm cosy beds and a doting father who would keep them fed and clothed and happy. They’d miss me. I’d miss them – and my husband – like crazy. But it’s hard to resist the desire to run. I’m constantly in “fight or flight” mode. My body knows my baby is under attack.

You see none of the scans ever brings good news. At best they say “wait and see.” At worst, it will be game over for this baby. I don’t dread having another disabled child – far from it. I would love and nurture it as I have been doing for the last six months. I dread what I have promised to do to that child. To sacrifice it for the sake of the rest of my family. If I don’t go to the scans, I can’t keep that promise. And now there are only ten days left until the next one.

I tried to talk about my fears on a Facebook support group. About how I hate the waiting so much I would almost rather have the abortion now than wait for the next scan, and then the next. How I feel I don’t deserve to have a healthy baby anyway, because of what I’ve agreed to. How every afternoon, when Jackie is at nursery, I sit at the kitchen table and cry because I feel so trapped I don’t know what else to do. How I’m becoming a shadow of a mother and a wife because I’m too tired from battling my own thoughts to do anything other than watch Cbeebies. When the first comment came back: “How dare you talk like that? Don’t you know how lucky you are? Pull yourself together…” I deleted the post in shame. They’re right, of course. I have two lovely children. I have a fertile body that has made another. I have the luxury of choice. I have made my bed and I must lie in it.

I tried to talk to my husband about adoption. He says we can’t, because once we see the baby we will love it and want to keep it. He’s right, of course. But me, I’ve already “seen” this baby with my body. For six months I’ve unwittingly got to know it. I know the shape of its head. I know where it’s feet are. I know when it likes to rest and when it likes to have a good old rummage around. Despite myself, I have an inkling what sex it is and what I’d like to call it.

I never do it. Every time – I’ve lost count of how many – I blink, turn the radio up loud, and turn the wheel for home. Back to my warm house and my loving husband and my beautiful children. I can’t risk all that for this little soul that I carry with me everywhere. I can’t tear the rest of my family apart. On Sunday I will get back on the train, the day train this time, and be home in time for tea.

Hypocrite

I am now 24 weeks pregnant. Twenty-four weeks and still no closer to knowing whether I will carry a healthy baby to term. With every day, with every kick, with every scan, with every “Congratulations,” the hope builds, and the fear builds with it.

This date marks the start of the period I find, ethically, the most challenging. From this point, were my baby to be born, the chances are it would survive. Thanks to medical science it is now likely a viable independent being. Partly for that reason, it would now be illegal to abort my child if it were healthy. And here the discrimination begins. Because if the child is disabled – whether seriously, life-limitingly like Benjamin, or (in practice) mildly, treatably, cosmetically – I have the right to an abortion until birth. Sixteen weeks during which ‘normal’ children are afforded the protection of the law and disabled children can be terminated at will.

I find this abhorrent, unjust, uncivilised. I am also shamefully grateful for it. If it weren’t for the get-out-clause it gives us, I would not be pregnant right now, we would not have taken the risk. I just pray I never have to invoke that right.