Are we living in a risk-averse world?

There has recently been a resurgence of discussion around pre-natal screening for Down’s Syndrome because of Heidi Crowter’s current case at the High Court, defending the lives of people with Down’s Syndrome and their rights to equal opportunities before birth. 

As you know, I was shocked and appalled to learn that one of our children’s lives was valued more highly than the other when we had the option to terminate Trudy up to 39 weeks and Patrick not after 24.  This is not a discussion about abortion rights or whether we, as parents, are pro-choice for women, but rather a discussion about equality and discrimination when we presume to inhabit a progressive world which is committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities.

It has forced me to reflect on our current situation with Covid-19 and how we are so eager to eliminate risk to such an extent that we would be prepared to terminate the life of an unborn child on the basis that that life carries too great a risk.  My question would be and always has been: ‘what risk is that exactly?’ True – from a scientific perspective, children with Down’s Syndrome carry greater ‘risk’ of contracting Leukaemia for example, of being coelic, of suffering from respiratory or heart defects. Our child doesn’t have the genetic markers for Leukaemia (yes, they check for that) or coeliac and she does not have a heart defect. Yet, we would have potentially deprived ourselves of this joy of a girl on the grounds that she could have contracted one of these life-threatening conditions. Patrick also carries a risk: a risk of heart disease, of contracting cancer, of suffering from mental or general ill health. We all carry risk to a greater or lesser extent depending on who we are and where we come from. Despite our best efforts, we will never be in a position to eliminate this entirely.

It seems to me that this law which allows us the freedom to terminate the life of an unborn child at 39 weeks is merely giving us the feeling that we are exerting some kind of control over the uncertainty of having a child with a disability. Just as we do in teaching when we complete risk assessments, we acknowledge the risk and then put in control measures to mitigate at least some element of that.

Isn’t this what we are doing in our response to Covid-19 – a million and one rules for different regions, settings and people to mitigate the risks of catching it? We are trying our best to ‘control the virus’. I am, in equal measure, committed to protecting the lives of our most vulnerable but, despite my better judgement, I am wondering how much of this virus can be controlled when I think back to how much I could control when our midwife placed our little girl in our arms and told us she had Down’s Syndrome. By putting all these control measures in place, we are mitigating the risk of the virus spreading.  A noble cause and one which is appropriate to the context as our individual actions have huge consequence on society as a whole. Or are those in power merely protecting themselves from reproach so that they can hold their head up high and think ‘we did our best to “save lives”’, or was that to reduce the risk of death?

By actively encouraging terminations of children with disabilities through legislation as well as practice, we can content ourselves with the thought that we are also reducing the risk of premature or unnecessary death. What we are really doing is altering the statistics to suit our model: the fewer people with disabilities = the fewer cases of serious illness or premature death = the better our lives? It is just like kicking the naughty kid out of school so that the exam results look better and, believe me, that happens!

By no means do I wish to advocate a Churchillian response or indeed Trumpian response to the pandemic by saying that we should all just get over it and stop being so risk-averse. The 21st century is in no way comparable to a world war context when science and medicine was not half as advanced as it is now. With greater knowledge and progress, we are burdened with the desire to eliminate risk. We must not allow the figures to remain as they are: People must live longer, there must be fewer deaths and people cannot get ill. In education, children must not fail, there should be no difference between an affluent family and a disadvantaged family, pass rates should improve. But what are we going to do when pass rates are at 100%? How will we measure our children then? How do we choose who moves on in academia and who follows a different path? Failure often leads us in a much more appropriate and satisfying direction. What are we losing through the avoidance of risk and failure?

As much as I am the first person to want to exert some control over the situations I face, having a child with a disability has taught me so much about what I can realistically achieve and the satisfaction I can get in just getting by.  I wonder how long we can live in our risk-averse world whilst we slowly lose our ability to cope with uncertainty and situations that are out of our control. A GP friend of mine recently said that the only thing we really know for certain about Covid-19 is that the future is uncertain, despite our best efforts to understand it. Our wonderful health practitioners are on the frontline just doing what they can to protect lives with the weight of accountability on their shoulders. That should be enough for us right now and I leave you with this, written in my diary at a conference by Heidi Crowter herself: “Hiya Lauren! Stay happy and always look on the bright side!” No simpler but truer words have ever been said.

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