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  (Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)


(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)

Ian Brown: New thinking on the limits of a parent's love Add to ...

Mr. Solomon introduces us to a young woman named Brenda Henriques. She was raped in her junior year of high school, and gave birth to a girl she named Rebecca. Four years later, Brenda marries a man named Chip, who raises Rebecca as his own. But when Chip and Brenda split, Rebecca, now 15, is herself raped by one of Brenda’s new boyfriends – whereupon Brenda tells her how she was conceived. Rebecca is furious, and proceeds to have two children by the next two men she meets.

A nightmare. But the grandchildren are for Brenda, now 35, her reason for being, a chance to do motherhood again, properly. “I didn’t think that I could love like that,” she tells Mr. Solomon.

Even Sue and Tom Klebold, the parents of Dylan Klebold – one of the two teenagers who killed a dozen students, a teacher and then themselves at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 – keep their late son in their hearts. Mr. Solomon makes it clear, sifting the evidence of Dylan’s stellar record, that there was no way the Klebolds could have foreseen the shooting, though many jumped to the opposite conclusion.

But even here, in the face of national tragedy, the rosy filter of parental love tints their outlook. “I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did,” Sue Klebold tells Mr. Solomon. “Because the love for them – even at the price of this pain – has been the single greatest joy of my life. … I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had not been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.”

How, why, by what mechanism can a parent think that way?

The history of disability has always been a struggle between those who want to eliminate or cure it, or at least make the disabled appear as undifferent as they can; and those who, while they also seek cures, want to recognize the disabled as contributing human beings just the way they are. It’s hard to predict who will end up in which camp.

Alexander Graham Bell – who had a deaf mother and a deaf wife – was an enemy of sign language, as he thought it would hold the deaf back. Activists in the Deaf community fear cochlear implants because they threaten to kill Deaf culture (the number of people classified as deaf is declining). Down syndrome parents object to cheap, non-invasive prenatal tests, because they could render the Down population extinct; the pro-choice movement can make them nervous.

The question that terrifies every identity group Mr. Solomon found is this: If the afflicted are not worth keeping as they are, what will we do with the ones we can’t fix? In 1968, he reports, a father named Joseph Fletcher wrote in The Atlantic Monthly that no guilt ought to be felt putting a Down child in an institution: “A Down’s is not a person.” Peter Singer, the Australian moral philosopher and bio-ethicist at Princeton, has claimed that “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

Three-quarters of the intellectually disabled (and half to two-thirds of schizophrenics) live with their aging parents, in part because other accommodations are in catastrophically short supply. That is the choice we have made as a society, as a human community. As Mr. Solomon – always even-handed, never a blind advocate – points out, spending on housing and treatment of people with intellectual disabilities in the United States averages $380.81 per person a day. Are they worth it? Why or why not?

Tom Robards, a Wall Street businessman and the father of a Down child, offers one of the book’s most compelling answers. He would cure his daughter if he could – “but the diversity of human beings makes the world a better place, and if everyone with Down syndrome were cured, it would be a real loss. The personal wish and the social wish are in opposition. The question is whether we collectively learn more than we hurt.”

“There are some qualities that are generally acknowledged to be advantageous,” Mr. Solomon said as the sun began to go down and our meeting came to a close. “But that narrow notion of perfection is a difficult one. I think having the cochlear implants would be likelier to make a child’s life easier. But if I contemplate the idea of a society from which Deaf society is banished altogether, it seems to me like a very sad development. … The social good is not served by narrowing the range of human experience.”

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