PZ also has a post on the abortion and Down syndrome issue. In it he says this:
I recommend reading any of Michael Bérubé’s stories about having a child with Down Syndrome— he doesn’t have any regrets at all. Or you could read about how Bérubé schooled Peter Singer, and Singer did the right thing and changed his mind. He also wrote a book on the subject,reviewed in the NY Times.
I was thinking of Michael and Jamie Bérubé and of Peter Singer during all this, so I was glad to see that link, which is to a piece I read with interest at the time. (The time was December 2008.) Reading it again reminds me what a fiendishly good writer Michael is. Read the whole post, because it’s fiendishly good. I’ll just extract a little, because it’s relevant.
Surely you’ll recall—my post was only two months ago!—that in the passage at issue, Singer wrote, “To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. It can still be a warm and loving experience, but we must have lowered expectations of our child’s ability. We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.”
Well, Singer wrote to me to say that my reply to this passage suggests that he is wrong about Down syndrome, whereas in fact it takes more than a couple of exceptional children here and there to challenge the general rule. After all, the passage speaks of expectations, and although people do win the lottery now and again, it would be unreasonable to buy a lottery ticket and expect to win. Professor Singer then asked me to direct him to some evidence that would indicate that Jamie is not anomalous—and, he said, this is not an idle challenge: if he is mistaken about Down syndrome, he will correct himself in the future.
They wrote back and forth, and Michael requested and got permission to quote his own replies.
Many thanks for noticing that blog post, and for taking the time to write. Thanks also for your kind words about Jamie. I do, in fact, enjoy a handful of Woody Allen movies here and there;Broadway Danny Rose is a wonderful piece of work, and I’m fond of Bullets Over Broadway as well. But I do think “we cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen film” instates a distinctly Upper West Side-y performance criterion, and is worth critiquing on those grounds alone. More seriously, I note that in the 1920s we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning to speak; in the 1970s, we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning how to read. OK, so now the rationale for seeing these people as somewhat less than human is their likely comprehension of Woody Allen films. Twenty years from now we’ll be hearing “sure, they get Woody Allen, but only his early comedies—they completely fail to appreciate the breakthrough of Interiors.” Surely you understand my sense that the goalposts are being moved around here in a rather arbitrary fashion.
I do appreciate the fact that you’re not issuing an idle challenge. I don’t think you would do that. I have three responses to it.
Here is the second response:
The larger point of my argument with your claim is that we cannot (I use the term advisedly) know what to expect of children with Down syndrome. Early-intervention programs have made such dramatic differences in their lives over the past few decades that we simply do not know what the range of functioning looks like, and therefore do not rightly know what to expect. That, Professor Singer, is the real challenge of being a parent of a child with Down syndrome: it’s not just a matter of contesting other people’s low expectations of your child, it’s a matter of recalibrating your own expectations time and time again—and not only for your own child, but for Down syndrome itself. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a young man with Down syndrome playing the violin—quite competently, at that, with delicacy and a sense of nuance. I thought I was seeing a griffin. And who could have imagined, just forty or fifty years ago, that the children we were institutionalizing and leaving to rot could in fact grow up to become actors? Likewise, this past summer when I remarked to Jamie that time is so strange that nobody really understands it, that we can’t touch it or see it even though we watch the passing of every day, and that it only goes forward like an arrow, and Jamie replied, “except with Hermione’s Time-Turner in Harry Potter,” I was so stunned I nearly crashed the car. I take issue with your passage, then, not because I’m a sentimental fool or because I believe that one child’s surprising accomplishments suffice to win the argument, but because as we learn more about Down syndrome, we honestly—if paradoxically—don’t know what constitutes a “reasonable expectation” for a person with Down syndrome.
There’s more; it’s all that good.