Madeline Stuart is a young aspiring model from Brisbane, Australia. With her mother’s help, she maintains an active online presence via social media. Twice she’s walked the runways during New York’s Fashion Week and has recently won a contract modelling bridal wear. Madeline also has Down Syndrome, making her the world’s only professional model with that condition.

“Maddy really wants to change the way people discriminate against disability through gaining attention through social media,” says her mom on her website. “She wants people to know that Down Syndrome is a blessing, something to be celebrated.”

Indeed, Maddy’s story has been celebrated in the press, and understandably so. Cosmopolitan, for instance, published an article in praise of her “empowering and exciting” achievements thus far.

It’s sadly bizarre, therefore, that on the same day that article appeared, Cosmo also published an attack on an Indiana bill that would’ve prevented abortions based on disabilities such as Down Syndrome.

How to reconcile such cognitive dissonance? How can Cosmo – or anyone – champion Maddy’s life while defending the murder of countless others like her before they even see the light of day? There’s a number of social and philosophical factors at work here.

Is every human being a person?

For most people at most times, the answer to that question would be an unequivocal “yes.” In fact, it may seem strange even to ask such a thing. Throughout the world, people of all backgrounds have recognized human life as unique and of inestimable value – in a word, sacred.

This sanctity of human life – of personhood – is rooted in the fact that humanity is made in the image of a personal God. Everyone senses this, even if only on an intuitive level. That’s why virtually every society in history has held murder to be the worst crime a person can commit against another.

Nevertheless, modern materialists have come to dispute this bedrock truth of human existence. Having jettisoned the idea of divine creation, and of God Himself, they argue that there’s nothing special or sacred about human life. People are simply machines made out of meat. Personhood, the materialists claim, is not a universal property intrinsic to all humans. It’s a status to be conferred only on those who are healthy, useful and independent.

Consequently, such thinkers don’t consider it murder to end a life that doesn’t meet these criteria, whether in the womb, after birth or on a sickbed. These kinds of arguments are being put forward by leading bioethicists such as Peter Singer, who is incidentally a fellow Australian of Maddy Stuart.

Real versus ascribed value

Once the real, intrinsic value of a human life is rejected, all that remains is the subjective value others ascribe to it. This, of course, provides the ideal philosophical support for the pro-choice enterprise. Inherent in every woman’s purported “right to choose” is her right to determine the value of the child she is carrying. If she wants the child, then it is a person, an unborn baby, a precious human life. If she doesn’t, then it’s an impersonal fetus, mere organic tissue to be discarded.

As a result, Cosmopolitan can celebrate Maddy Stuart’s life because her mother wanted her and kept her. Conversely, if her mother had chosen not to bring a Down Syndrome baby into the world, Cosmo would have equally celebrated her “right” to end Maddy’s life in utero.

But this line of reasoning leads to some disturbing questions: What if Maddy’s mom had second thoughts? What if she decided, after a few days or months or years, that she didn’t want to raise a girl with Down Syndrome, after all? What, if any, is the statute of limitations on devaluing a human life? Thankfully, most pro-choice advocates aren’t going there, just yet. But academics like Peter Singer are pushing them in that direction.

Motives for parenthood

People decide to become parents for a variety of reasons. In older, more traditional cultures, child-bearing was seen as a social duty. It produced the next generation of workers and provided support for parents in their old age. For people of faith, having children has always been connected with obedience to the divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply. Beyond that, for the vast majority of couples, parenthood is one of the central, most fulfilling experiences of life.

In an affluent, individualistic culture, however, this sense of personal fulfillment via parenthood can grow out of proportion and become distorted. Considerations for God, society, family – and even the child – become secondary. They’re pushed to the periphery by a sense of entitlement to an idealized parenting experience. Anything that would detract from that experience – a child with severe or even mild disabilities, for instance – is not permitted to intrude.

“Not in my backyard”

The truth is that all people suffer from a degree of cognitive dissonance, in one area or other, between what we claim to believe and how we act. It’s one thing to support an ideal in theory, quite another to live it out in practice.

Just so, there are many individuals who are quite happy to sing the praises of Maddy Stuart, but who would reject the challenge of raising a child like her as their own. And rather than calling foul on such a glaring inconsistency, popular cultural voices such as Cosmopolitan revel in it.

A one-way street

The other Cosmo article, the one denouncing the Indiana bill, decried the fact that the bill “requires pregnant women to view the fetal ultrasound and hear the heartbeat at least 18 hours before the abortion procedure.” Then, with no apparent sense of irony, it complained that the bill “will emotionally burden women during their pregnancy [and] impede honest communication between patients and their doctors.”

In other words, “honest communication” – giving a woman all the medical facts to help her make an informed decision – is a one-way street. In the world of Cosmo, it should only be used to move a woman toward an abortion rather than away from one.

If an ultrasound reveals any potential disabilities, Cosmo would advise, then by all means show it to the mother and encourage her to terminate her pregnancy. On the other hand, if she has already decided to abort, she must not see that ultrasound or hear the beating of her child’s heart. After all, it might “emotionally burden” her or confuse her with the facts, when she’s already made up her mind.

Models of diversity

Madeline Stuart may be the only professional model with Down Syndrome, but she’s far from the only one with a visible disability. Indeed, there’s a growing number of models working in the industry who are missing limbs – either by accident or birth – or who are wheelchair users or who suffer from conditions such as spina bifida or cerebral palsy. A few years ago, there was a reality show in the U.K. called Britain’s Missing Top Model, devoted to women with disabilities. And there’s now an agency that represents disabled talent, appropriately called Models of Diversity.

It would be presumptuous to assume what any of these models might think of the prevailing cultural attitude toward their disabilities. What do they make of an ethos that celebrates their achievements while defending their mothers’ right to reject them for their flaws and kill them in the womb?

As their ranks continue to grow and their faces become more visible, perhaps more of them will recognize that such an ethos is profoundly wrong. And perhaps they will take courage in their numbers, and use their platform of visibility to speak out against it.

At least one can hope.

Sources and further reading

Joy Pullmann, “Meet the one down syndrome girl Cosmo doesn’t want to kill,” The Federalist, March 16, 2016.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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