I was struck by the powerful image referenced at the beginning of this piece; you can see a full reproduction at this link. (You will also notice that one of the angelic figures at the manger is evidently wearing a dalmatic.)
That was the 16th century. But now, these angels among us with Down syndrome are rapidly vanishing—or, more accurately, being killed.
The sobering story, from The Telegraph:
A painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York called The Adoration of the Christ Child. Created in the 16th century by a Flemish artist, what stands out in this sublime presentation of the Nativity is the detail of the characters standing around the crib. Two of them, an angel and a shepherd, appear to have Down Syndrome.
This suggests that the condition has been around for a very long time, and it helps illuminate the early modern approach to disability. Religious art normally conformed to classical standards of beauty. By implication, the artist regarded people with Down’s as angelic. As, indeed, they are.
Unfortunately, society goes through peaks and troughs of sympathy towards the disabled – and we risk entering a darker age. The National Screening Committee has approved a simple blood test for Down syndrome that in many ways is wonderful news. It should reduce the need for invasive testing procedures, which trigger around 350 cases of miscarriage every year.
But what do most women do when their baby tests positive for Down’s? They abort. Around 90 per cent of pregnancies that involve the condition end in a termination. In 2014, 693 abortions were carried out for this reason – a jump of 34 per cent since 2011. The rise is blamed on increased access to blood tests via private clinics. American campaigners warn of the risk of “extinction”. In Denmark, the head of a midwife association blandly told a newspaper: “When you can discover almost all the foetuses with Down syndrome, then we are approaching a situation in which almost all of them will be aborted.”
It’s the woman’s right to make this choice and the reasons why it’s taken are entirely understandable. We’d all be frightened of the thought of being left to ourselves to care for a disabled child. But these fears are shaped by a popular culture that, for all its apparent sophistication, remains remarkably ignorant about the realities of Down’s.
Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982