“We choose to go to the moon:” remembering John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, the power of imagination, and choosing Down syndrome

jfk cs lewise

Today we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a very sad day in our nation’s history. The words of President Kennedy, and the words of someone else who died that same day, share a wisdom about how we should make choices for our future.

Choices. That’s what prenatal testing for Down syndrome is all about. You choose to have prenatal testing, or you choose not to. You choose to have diagnostic testing, or you choose to stop with screening results. And, you choose whether to continue your pregnancy after you learn your baby has Down syndrome, or you choose to terminate your pregnancy.

Those whose lives we remember today had something to say about why we make the choices that we do.

On the same day that JFK was killed, the author C.S. Lewis died. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia series and is well-known for his writings on his Christian faith. I read a column today that shared Lewis’ views on the importance of imagination.

Lewis considered imagination, “the organ of meaning. Imagination … is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” Meaning, to arrive at truth, one must first have imagination. Michael Ward wrote an essay on Lewis in which he further explained this belief:

In Lewis’s view, reason could only operate if it was first supplied with materials to reason about, and it was imagination’s task to supply those materials.

On reading that, I thought how true it is.

We can apply our gift of reason, but only by using the materials we have. For example, it seemed entirely reasonable for centuries for some Americans to own other people as property, because those other people were not imagined to be of equal worth.

Similarly, with Down syndrome, how one makes an informed decision is based on the materials the mom has when she is making that decision.

If, like most people, she has not had a relationship with a person with Down syndrome, then she likely does not have a positive view of the condition since it is a disability–the very word emphasizes what cannot be done. This can be reinforced by the counseling she receives from her physician, who very likely has had limited experience with actual individuals living with Down syndrome, and likewise her partner and family members. So the materials she has to apply her reason to make a decision are very limited, and typically biased towards the negative.

How difficult must it be, then, for an expectant mother who is not given materials showing accurate photos of children living with Down syndrome and reading about how parents and siblings experience life with a loved one with Down syndrome, to imagine a life that is anything but negative, burdensome, difficult? This is why expectant mothers need to be provided these accurate written materials, which are listed at the Prenatal Resources tab.

But, even then, it is no doubt daunting to consider continuing a pregnancy after a prenatal diagnosis knowing that there will be challenges that the parents did not expect when they first got pregnant. At that moment, the words of President Kennedy should be remembered.

Consider his speech on why America chose to go to the moon:

In that speech, President Kennedy was appealing to the nation’s imagination. Going to the moon must have seemed like the most unreasonable thing to do, because consider the materials the nation had to reason with. America had only just put a man into space a year prior and here was President Kennedy saying we were somehow going to get an American all the way to the moon. But, again, how did Kennedy explain this choice:

not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept …

When women receive a prenatal test result for Down syndrome, very often it can seem as impossible as going to the moon seemed at the beginning of the 1960’s. But, with imagination, and the right materials, people can choose to make the hard choice, because they are hard, because the goal will serve to organize the best of their energies and skills.

Indeed, many, many women and their partners are willing to accept that choice more and more every day.

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