Kieran, our oldest son, is a happy kid who loves to read books, use his weed whacker, wander around with our chickens, and learn about tarantulas and didgeridoos. He brings us great joy, and we are so blessed to have him in our lives.
When he was nine months old, he was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Williams syndrome. Williams syndrome is caused by a deletion of about 25 genes on the seventh chromosome and can lead to physical, cognitive, and developmental disabilities. It is considered a “spontaneous” mutation, meaning my husband and I are not carriers of the disorder.
As part of his syndrome, Kieran has a heart condition called supravalvular aortic stenosis, which requires periodic monitoring. He has intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities, such as low muscle tone, making it more difficult for him to write and coordinate his movements.
But we’re thankful that the Lord created him fearfully and wonderfully and gave him to us (Psalm 139:14).
As Christians who embrace a life-affirming worldview, we often discuss how beautifully designed the human body is—a masterpiece of God’s creation. So how does a child with a genetic disorder, or anyone with a disability, fit into this worldview?
The pro-all-life worldview we teach our children today will inform their actions tomorrow.
This is an important pro-life question to answer, for ourselves as well as for the generations coming after us—those with disabilities and those without. And the pro-all-life worldview we teach our children today will inform their actions tomorrow.
According to one research study, “Since prenatal screening tests were introduced in Iceland in the early 2000s, the vast majority of women—close to 100 percent—who received a positive test for Down syndrome terminated their pregnancy. . . . According to the most recent data available, the United States has an estimated termination rate for Down syndrome of 67 percent (1995–2011); in France it’s 77 percent (2015); and Denmark, 98 percent (2015).”1 And how many babies with other types of disabilities (including Williams syndrome) are killed while still in their mothers’ wombs?
Abortion is not the only possible tragic outcome. Far too many have rejected God and the Christian faith once their child was diagnosed with some type of disability. We need to make sure that we’re encouraging an all-encompassing pro-life attitude and a proper view of God in ourselves and in our children today so that they’re prepared for what they may face tomorrow.
Some people wonder, “How can physically imperfect newborns be admired as ‘the handiwork of God?’” And “Did God create diseases and disabilities and disorders?”
From a general perspective, these questions boil down to this: “Is God the author of pain and suffering?”
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth in six literal days. When he finished, he said that everything was “very good.” His creation was a reflection of his good nature. It was full of life and joy, just as he is.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)
God created the first man Adam in his image from the dust of the ground. He gave the first man (and, a short while later, the first woman) a “very good” combination of DNA. He encouraged them to be fruitful and multiply.
And had things stayed the way they were in the beginning, that “very good” genetic combination would have continued combining in “very good” ways as Adam and Eve brought forth children.
But by studying Genesis 3, we know that things did not stay the way they were in the beginning. God had told Adam that he was free to eat from any tree in the garden of Eden, except one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God declared that the punishment for disobedience was death.
Yet Adam disobeyed, and as a result God placed a curse on his beloved creation—the just punishment for the commitment of high treason against the Creator of the universe. The culmination of the curse is separation from God’s goodness forever through pain, suffering, disease, genetic disorders, and disabilities, culminating in death, our enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26).
The Apostle Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the church in Rome:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:20–22)
Over 50 million people in the US live with some type of disability. One out of every five people is acquainted with disability in some way. The reason that we’re saddened and shocked by disability is that we all know, deep down, that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. In this general sense, genetic disorders and disabilities are not God’s fault; they are a result of no longer living in the “very good” world he created.
When we study God’s Word, we see that God, as the Creator, is sovereign over his creation. This means he is not a laissez-faire deity that wound up his creation and now lets it go as it pleases. He created it in the beginning and is still actively involved in sustaining his creation.
In Chronicles, we read,
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. (1 Chronicles 29:11–12)
And then from Nebuchadnezzar, that pagan king of Babylon, we read,
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35)
We do not serve an impotent deity who is unable to accomplish his purposes or whose hands are somehow tied. We serve the living Creator of the universe who is in active control of his creation. And just as God is in control of the intricate workings of the universe, I believe he is also in control of the intricate workings of conception.
God takes credit for forming the Prophet Jeremiah just as he wanted him to be.
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
David praises God for making him fearfully and wonderfully.
For You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, When I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, The days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:13–16)
From studying such Bible verses, we know that God is the author of life. He forms each one of us and knits us together carefully and purposefully while we are still in the womb. And we use these verses with our healthy children. Yet if God is the author of life, mustn’t we also say that God is the author of the lives with physical, mental, or emotional problems?
God gave our son (and each one of us) a specific genetic combination, which in our son’s case included a deletion of part of one of his chromosomes. The world may call it a “spontaneous” mutation, but I call it a providential one. The genetic mutation that pervades each cell of our son’s body has effects that can be seen more apparently—from his facial features to his heart and kidney problems to his learning disabilities. Yet each one of us is suffering from 6,000 years of the curse. In fact, which one of us would say that we have a completely perfect body and mind? Our problems may not be as apparent as Kieran’s, but we have them just the same.
So how many mutations—or which specific mutations—separate the “normal” people from those with “disorders”? If we’re not prepared to say that God created and fashioned each and every person, at what point do we say, “Yes, you manifest the handiwork of God, but you don’t”?
One theologian defined disability this way: “the degree to which we are able to fulfill the mandate God gave Adam in the beginning—to be ‘fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:28).2 How many of us can say that we’re able to perfectly fulfill this command?
When God called Moses to go to the Egyptian pharaoh and ask for the release of his people, Moses made excuses for why he couldn’t go by pointing out to his Creator that he was “slow of speech and of tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11).
In this passage, God is taking credit for making some people blind and some deaf. It’s no great extrapolation to also include that God creates some with genetic disorders and other things we consider “defects.”3
Does this make God an ogre or less than completely good? Let’s remember what the Bible teaches about God’s goodness.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8)
The Lord is good to all,
And his mercy is over all that he has made. (Psalm 145:9)
And he [Jesus] said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” (Matthew 19:17)
There’s a mantra in Christendom that goes like this: “God is good, all the time.” Many times, Christians toss out that phrase, for example, when they were in a car accident and survived without any bodily harm. Yet wouldn’t God still be good if the opposite were the outcome? Even if they had been badly hurt or killed?
We tend to talk about God’s goodness when things are going “good” for us. This shouldn’t be a phrase that we just use when things are going our way or according to what we define as “good.” This should be ingrained in our hearts and minds so that we really do see God as truly good all the time.
When my dad prays, he often begins like this: “Lord, we know that you are good and whatever you do is good.” Even the way we pray can teach our children.
So what is the purpose behind disabilities, pain, and suffering? This is a question that theologians have raised for centuries.
First, I believe that he creates everyone for a reason: to bring glory to himself.
The Lord says to Isaiah,
Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made. (Isaiah 43:7)
And Paul writes in his letter to the people in Rome,
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36)
Second, I believe he fashions us as he does for our good.
As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1–3)
Although mutations, diseases, disabilities, and suffering are part of the curse and are the result of our sin in Adam, they aren’t necessarily a direct result of any specific sin that we’ve committed. Jesus makes this clear here. Although the man and his parents were sinners, his blindness wasn’t the direct result of a sin that they had committed.
So why was he blind? Why does God make us—every imperfect one of us—the way he does? So that the works of God might be displayed in our life.
I understand that it may be tempting to doubt God and his goodness, particularly when we’re put in situations like this. And many skeptics use people with disabilities to mock God. But what happens when we remove God from the picture?
First, let’s examine the worldview of those skeptics. They deny there is a God and accept that we are the result of molecules-to-man evolutionary processes. According to their worldview, we are simply the result of natural processes over billions of years:
In the evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural. The earth was not created: it evolved. So did all the animals and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves, mind and soul as well as brain and body.4
I see no reason for attributing to man a significant difference in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand.5
If we are truly no different from a grain of sand, then who is to say the way one grain of sand is formed is any better—or any worse—than the way another grain of sand is formed? Skeptics who don’t believe a good God exists have no ultimate standard by which to say that one sand grain is “good” while another sand grain is “bad.” Therefore, they can’t hold the Creator accountable for doing something that they deem to be “wrong” since the concept of “wrongness” can’t logically exist in their worldview.
William Provine, an evolutionist and biology professor at Cornell University, states, “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear. . . . There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life.”6 And Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, evolutionist and physics professor at the University of Texas, states, “I think that part of the historical mission of science has been to teach us that we are not the playthings of supernatural intervention, that we can make our own way in the universe, and that we have to find our own sense of morality.”7
If no foundation for ethics exists and if we have to find our own sense of morality, then on what basis can they say that God is “wrong” for creating some with disabilities? These skeptics don’t have a logical basis on which to say, “God cannot be good and allow birth defects at the same time,” because they don’t have a logical basis on which to determine what is “good” in the first place.
A second point is this: within an evolutionary worldview, people with birth defects and genetic disorders are considered a “trial and error” of evolutionary processes. In fact, this is the basis for the eugenics movement, promoted by Francis Galton and Charles Darwin.
We recoil in horror at what has been done to those with disabilities in the past, but getting rid of those deemed “less than” the general population is the logical extension of an atheistic, evolutionary worldview. And, Christians, when we doubt the goodness of God or deny his sovereignty over his creation, this is the path we begin to travel down.
So why would those who hold to this worldview use genetic disorders and disabilities to argue against a good God? Why would they bother to be concerned about people with genetic disorders if they’re simply a bump in the evolutionary road, which evolutionary processes will eventually work out? Their concern about disabilities is inconsistent with their worldview.
The basis for the sanctity of life is found only in the pages of the Bible. God has created each and every human in his image, and he has told us that because we are all—every one of us—image-bearers, we are not to take the lives of other image-bearers, no matter how “disabled” they are.
And in God’s family, according to the Apostle Paul, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22).
Let’s think about that for a bit in relation to those with disabilities. Do you view people with disabilities as an indispensable part of your life?
Jesus taught this: “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:13–14)
I have a good friend who has changed what her feast looks like because of her relationship with Kieran. A few years ago, we started attending a small group at Mary’s house. Kieran was one of the first people with disabilities that Mary really got to interact with. She could see past the disabilities, and in the process the Lord developed in her a heart for helping those with disabilities. Through a series of providential events, Mary and her husband, Ron, began working with a pastor in Nicaragua, who has rescued 17 children from the city dump. Mary and Ron have started The Mercy Kids Foundation to come alongside this pastor and help him minister to families who have been touched by disability.8
An article from LifeNews.com said, “Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion are both internationally renowned singers. They have two of the most beautiful voices in the world. But in addition to being amazing singers, they have one other thing in common.”9
The article goes on to explain that when Andrea Bocelli’s mother was pregnant with him, she had an attack of appendicitis. After the treatments, the doctors encouraged her to abort him because they believed he would be born with disabilities. She refused, and Andrea was born blind. But, in spite of that, he has blessed many with his talents in music. Celine Dion’s mother was pregnant with her 14th child and didn’t believe she could care for another baby. She asked her priest for permission to abort the baby. The priest told her she could not. And over these past many years, Celine Dion has also blessed many with her musical abilities.
The article ends with this: “Listen to them sing together, a song called ‘The Prayer.’ And think about what the world would have lost had these two people been lost to abortion. Imagine what the world HAS lost because of over 50 million abortions in the US alone.”
There are a few issues that I want to address with this type of pro-life argument as we think about speaking life.
The first is that this is a very utilitarian argument. Utilitarianism is a “moral principle that holds that the morally right course of action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefits over harms for everyone affected.”10 Of course, we must ask the question, “Who decides which benefits are best for everyone?” One person says that children with disabilities have so much to offer to the world, so they should have a chance at life, like Andrea Boccelli.
Another person, like Jen Gann, argues the opposite way. Jen wrote an article titled “Every Parent Wants to Protect Their Child. I Never Got the Chance. To Fight for My Son, I Have to Argue That He Should Never Have Been Born.” In the article, she says that had she known her son had cystic fibrosis and would bring a host of medical challenges and trials, she would have killed him in utero because that, in her opinion, was best.11
And, of course, we know what Adolf Hitler thought was best for everyone with disabilities: people with disabilities (mental and physical) were among those sent to the concentration camps where they were eventually killed (200,000 individuals with some type of disability were killed between January 1940 and August 1941).12 They were classed as arbeitsscheu or “work shy”—unable (or unwilling) to work and make a contribution to society and therefore deemed unfit to stay in society and/or live.
Returning to the Bocelli/Dion statement, the essential idea is that it’s a good thing the babies weren’t killed because their voices have blessed so many people. But what does that mean for the babies who don’t end up as international singing sensations? Here’s the thing: if, as a major reason for allowing children with disabilities to live, we offer up the idea that they can contribute much to society, we run the risk of defining the value of life in terms of “ability” rather than as it should be defined—in terms of being made in God’s image. And we remove any type of absolute authority from God who says, “Do not kill those who bear my image.”
And we lose the ability to say that Hitler was wrong. In fact, if we try to define the value of human life in terms of “work,” then Hitler’s approach was valid.
The argument for giving children with disabilities the right to live is—must be—because this is what God teaches in his Word, the Bible.
No, the argument for giving children with disabilities the right to live is—must be—because this is what God teaches in his Word, the Bible.
Let’s watch out for utilitarian and pragmatic arguments and make sure that we are contending for life with God’s Word as our foundation.
It is true that each child is a gift and blessing from God, but I think we also need to be honest that disability is hard. It is difficult to see your child struggle and even suffer. Medical bills can rack up. In our quest to contend for life with these types of arguments, we are perhaps unwittingly buying into a form of prosperity gospel where we only want to talk about the good aspects. Part of speaking life is speaking and embracing truth about life. If we gloss over the difficulty of disability, we aren’t dealing with real life, and we can’t accurately minister to individuals who find themselves in these situations.
We serve a God who gives grace for every day and every situation. We also serve a God who uses his people—you and me—to encourage and help those going through difficult situations. When is the last time you’ve looked for an opportunity to not only speak life but also share life and provide tangible, practical help to someone?
I appreciate Paul’s honesty in this passage from his book to the church in Corinth:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the afflictions we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.
Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
You also must help us by prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2 Corinthians 1:8–11)
Paul despaired of life itself, but relied on God’s grace and the ministry of the body of believers to him. In contending for life, we need to look for hands-on opportunities to not only speak life but also minister life to those without hope.
Have you ever heard or said something like this?
Man, that’s retarded.
Don’t be such a retard.
That movie was retarded.
This weather is retarded.
I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.13
If he’s “the smartest guy in the room” it must be one retarded room.14
According to some tests in the past, Kieran would have been labeled as “mentally retarded.” As I scoured the internet for information on Williams syndrome in those early days after his diagnosis, it was this label that caused me to continue to read page after page, searching for something that gave me hope that this wouldn’t be his label for life.
That term, as a medical definition, has fallen out of use because the word retard is generally used in a derogatory way, and those who would be labeled by it don’t appreciate the association. So today, terms such as intellectual disability are used in its place.
When individuals began to call out Ann Coulter on her derogatory use of the r-word in 2012, she responded with this:
I used the word retard the same way people use idiot, cretin, moron and the rest of them which were all once technical terms and I had it with the language police.15
And she’s right. Words such as idiot, moron, cretin, feeble-minded, and imbecile were all, at one time, used as descriptions of those thought to be mentally deficient. In fact, mental retardation was a replacement for some of these words because they came to be used in a derogatory way.
Now, I don’t want to turn into the Politically Correct Word Police because that’s not my point. It seems to me that perhaps there’s a bigger picture that we’re missing when we focus on just one word. When we call someone any of these derogatory words, not only are we demeaning the ones who bore that label, but we’re also doing it with the intent to demean the one we’re referring to.
With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9–10).
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
But he who is generous to the needy honors him. (Proverbs 14:31)
Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker;
he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished. (Proverbs 17:5)
Instead, as Christians, we are called to be champions of those with disabilities.16
Open your mouth for the mute,
For the rights of all who are destitute. (Proverbs 31:8)
And we are called to be careful with our words (Matthew 12:36) and to speak words that bring life to those who hear us (Proverbs 18:21). If we truly see each individual as an image-bearer of our good Creator who creates everyone for his own glory and for our good, would we use words like these to describe them? It’s true that we all certainly do foolish things at times as a result of our sin nature (Romans 3:23), but is there a difference between referring to someone as unwise (who goes against the commands of our Creator) and referring to them as a moron?
There’s another saying that even those in the pro-life community use regarding those with disabilities. When asked whether she is having a boy or girl, often a pregnant woman will respond, “It doesn’t matter to me, as long as the baby is healthy.” Of course, my question to this would be, “So what happens if the baby isn’t healthy? Would you still want him or her?”
Now, I understand that of course none of us would wish disability on any of our children. But are we really prepared to receive whatever child the Lord gives us? Even a child who may have all sorts of health problems? We must think about what we’re saying and what message our words are conveying.
How do we view our fellow human beings? And how do we talk about—and to—them? There are many ways we can use our tongues to speak life. Let’s examine the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts toward our fellow image-bearers as we strive to speak life.