THE CAT WITH MY foot on its tail shrieked suddenly, his vocal chords stretched out to their full length. I stepped back. Kathryn darted from across the room, picked the cat up and turned towards the door. One half of her attention was for the flea-bitten mutt-cat that she held in her arms to "comfort." The other half was for me. "Idiot," she said. "You hurt a kitties tail."
Ten years ago an especially long summer was ending. We hadn't gone visiting or to the shore because Mom had Kathryn, and babies cried a lot. Mom cried a lot too that summer, and we didn't really understand. One hot night Daddy came in and sat on my bed and talked a little. Finally I gave him the opening he needed. I wanted to take trombone lessons in school in September.
"Gee hon, I don't know if I'll have the money this year. You know I'm going to have three children to put through college."
I was good at playing games like that. "No Daddy," I said. "You have four. Me and Peter and Martha and Kathryn."
Daddy settled into the purpose of his visit. "No, hon, Kathryn's not going to be like other children."
THE MOTHER OF A friend of mine identifies each of her nine children by their "causes." "Well, the first three times I tried rhythm. My diaphragm slipped twice. For the next one, I think I missed a pill ..."
Mothers of mongoloid children, that is, children like Kathryn, can't really point to anything that caused the birth of this child. Medical science has so far only discovered a correlation between the age of the mother and the child's possession of the one extra chromosome that is characteristic of Mongolism: the older the mother is, the greater the chance of having a Mongoloid baby. So when a Mongoloid child is born, even the doctors do not really know what went wrong. They only know that that one little chromosome will make a Mongolian idiot out of a normal baby. They know it will give this infant bendy knees, slanted eyes, a slack jaw, a low IQ and a nebulous place in society.
When Kathryn was born, the doctor came to see my mother. He told her about Down's Syndrome and how it could not be cured. He felt that mothers should be told the facts and he didn't spare any.
"She will probably never have an IQ of more than 20. She will not be able to talk, or probably ever to walk. For all practical purposes she will be a vegetable. Mongoloids have a life expectancy of around five to ten years. I would advise you right now to put her in an institution and tell the other children that she has already died."
THERE ARE MANY ways that infanticide--the killing of less-than-perfect children--can be accomplished. Some are more socially acceptable than others. One simple way is institutionalization which is often recommended at the moment of birth. While not precisely infanticide, social "killing" of a defective infant by shutting him or her off from the world could not be more complete. In addition, given the poor quality of public institutions, the assumption is generally that the infant will die before attaining maturity.
Although public sentiment today seems to be moving toward the humanization of the institutionalizing process, technology seems to be veering in the opposite direction, toward a more dehumanizing goal. One thing that has emphatically not changed, however is professional attitudes towards retardation and especially towards Mongolism. And what this means is that Mongoloid children may be, in ever increasing numbers, the victims of a society that finds it easier to bury its problems than to deal with them.
One technological advance that affects the fate of Mongoloid children is the development of amniocentesis. This method of determining if a fetus has genetic defects by analyzing fluid drawn from the amniotic sac during pregnancy was developed during the early 1960s to detect blood type incompatability between the mother and her child.
Since then, doctors have found that with amniocentesis Mongolism can be detected in a fetus as early as the third month. With this knowledge, a doctor would be free (and legally justified) to advise the mother to abort. Since the incidence of Mongoloid children is higher in older women, some suggest that amniocentesis be routinely performed on pregnant women over 40. Others would like to see amniocentesis become a routine part of prenatal care for all women.