Far be it from me to criticize the work of George F. Will, the longtime syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and the reasonable voice of conservatism for as long as I have taken an interest in national politics. Agree with him, or disagree with him, you will almost always find something worth consideration in his writings.
So it was a few weeks ago when I picked up a George Will column in the May 2 edition of the Post and set it aside for some Father’s Day ruminations.
The column celebrated Will’s first-born son as only a father can do. What’s exceptional in this case is that Will’s first born, Jonathan, now 40 years old, has lived life with Down syndrome, a condition that is not necessarily a bad thing, as Will eloquently notes:
“Judging by Jon, the world would be improved by more people with Down syndrome, who are quite nice, as humans go. It is said we are all born brave, trusting, and greedy, and remain greedy. People with Down syndrome must remain brave in order to navigate society’s complexities. They have no choice but to be trusting because, with limited understanding, and limited abilities to communicate misunderstanding, they, like Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ always depend on the kindness of strangers. Judging by Jon’s experience, they almost always receive it.”
Fair enough, but that was not the only point of Will’s column, nor the point of mine today. For George Will the brightness of his son’s life is a counterpoint to the darkness of abortion and its “pro-choice” adherents.
Will points out that “Jon was born just as prenatal genetic testing, which can detect Down syndrome, was becoming common. And Jon was born eight months before Roe v. Wade inaugurated this era of the casual destruction of pre-born babies.
“This era has coincided, not just coincidentally, with the full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby. So today science enables what the ethos ratifies, the choice of killing children with Down syndrome before birth. That is what happens to 90 percent of those whose parents receive a Down syndrome diagnosis through prenatal testing.”
“Casual destruction.” That’s quite a charge leveled by Will. How does he know?
As a pro-choice father of two college-age sons I can still vividly remember the amniocentesis procedure and the prolonged genetic counseling that came with it. Casual? Not on your life, George. And if the results of that prenatal testing had been something out of the ordinary the subsequent decision-making would have been even more intense.
“An entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps.” Perhaps in George Will’s crowd an imperfect baby is the worst card that can ever be dealt in the hand of life. Perhaps he should spend an hour or two at a Planned Parenthood clinic with a parent who has just lost a job, or who has been chronically under-employed, or who has no health insurance, and is facing the most difficult choice (that word) between maintaining the quality of life of their born children and welcoming another, as-yet unborn child.
Entitlement is something that Will — the son of a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois who earned degrees at Trinity, Oxford in England, and Princeton (a 1968 Ph.D.) — may have encountered on occasion. A Pulitzer Prize winner for his political commentary, he also has written two best-selling books on the game of baseball. He has been fortunate enough to have passed on his interest in America’s pastime to his eldest son.
“Two things that have enhanced Jon’s life,” Will writes in his column, “are the Washington subway system, which opened in 1976, and the Washington Nationals baseball team, which arrived in 2005. He navigates the subway expertly, riding it to the Nationals ballpark, where he enters the clubhouse a few hours before game time and does a chore or two.”
We learn that Jon Will attends all the Washington Nationals’ home games. I wonder if George Will knows that, for many of the clients at that Planned Parenthood clinic, the cost of attending even one major league baseball game is close to prohibitive. For many a father, the joy of spending an afternoon with a son at a major league game is a privilege not easily acquired.
No one should deny the beauty of the father-son relationship that George Will describes in his column. But you don’t need to turn a testimony about the beauty of life into a diatribe against the complexities of choice.
Rather than criticize George Will’s argument, let me hold up another essay, written by a senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, Melissa Bergman. The senior wrote her essay as part of an application for a scholarship award, and described how she overcame a serious case of perfectionism thanks to the presence of a younger brother who was less than perfect. The presenter, a West Windsor police officer, read the last paragraph of the essay aloud at the awards ceremony:
“Before Nicholas, I was good at being tolerant of other people’s differences. It was after Nicholas that I began to clearly see the difference between tolerance and acceptance. My baby brother taught me that there is more joy to be found in embracing the diversity in individuals than in searching for perfection.”
Unlike George Will, Melissa chose not to extrapolate from her family’s situation into a moral lecture on reproductive rights and national public policy. In rhetoric, as in life, less is often more.