REVIEW: “A World Without Down Syndrome”?
British actress Sally Phillips may be best known to Americans for her roles in “Bridget Jones’ Diary” or “Veep,” but she’s taking on a new role in the UK that is causing many to pay attention.
Phillips is the mother of three children, and her oldest son Ollie, has Down Syndrome. She is one of many parents of children with Down Syndrome concerned about the UK government’s proposal to implement a new prenatal test (second-line cfDNA screening: NIPT – non-invasive prenatal testing) that is projected to result in a significant increase in terminations of children with Down’s Syndrome.
According to the advocacy group, Don’t Screen Us Out, the consequences of this testing “would have a profound long-term effect on the population of the Down’s syndrome community, and enable a kind of informal eugenics in which certain kinds of disabled people are effectively ‘screened out’ of the population before they are even born.”
Troubled by these reports, Phillips embarked on the process of making a documentary about the testing, and to show the world firsthand the inherent value and dignity of individuals like her son Ollie. She opens the film with the questions: “What kind of society do we want? And who should be allowed to live in it?”
This is a fascinating, and at times hard film to watch, as a wide variety of individuals share their thoughts on Down Syndrome, genetic testing, and abortion. One must also keep in mind that Phillips has never claimed to be a pro-life advocate; in fact, she has one comment to a researcher that would indicate that she supports a “woman’s choice.” However, the overwhelming message of the documentary is that the extremely high (and increasing) rate of abortion for diagnoses of Down Syndrome is not only a bad thing for society, it’s discrimination in the worst way towards a group of people.
The films opens with some poignant and hilarious scenes of Phillips and her three children. She quips that when she first learned her son had Down Syndrome (not until several days after he was born), “I was expecting tragedy but I got comedy.” She also mentions here that a majority of families with an individual with Down Syndrome are very happy.
She interviews a fetal genetic testing doctor, and questions “why is everyone behaving like having a baby with Down Syndrome is a catastrophe?” One of the reasons he cites is that people think of the child as a burden to the family for many years.” Phillips responds, “A burden that lasts a long time? That’s not how I see Ollie.”
A visit to Iceland, where the termination rate has reached nearly 100% for babies with Down Syndrome, is also part of the documentary. Phillips visits an exhibition of photographs of individuals with Down Syndrome by Sigga Ella, and interviews one of the few remaining individuals with Down Syndrome in Iceland. “It felt like they were coming after me,” the young woman shares when she hears reports on the “elimination of Down Syndrome.”
Ultimately, Phillips questions the idea of choice. She interviews a mother who chose to abort her child because of a Down Syndrome diagnosis. You can visibly see that Phillips is having a hard time with this. The mother spoke of a desire for happiness for her and her child. Afterwards, Phillips reflects,
“I think she’s wrong that an increase in choices increases happiness…The thing I keep coming up against is this idea of choice. Ollie had 1 in 10000 chance of Down Syndrome – back then if I was told I’d have a child with disability, I’m not sure if I’d had been able to say yes. But having him in my life has changed me and my family for the better. That makes me question whether choice is the great thing it’s cracked up to be. Where will all these choices take us?”
Sadly, she concludes, that the “choice” to terminate with Down Syndrome nearly 100% of the time, could lead to the frightening vision of “a world without Down Syndrome.” That is a world Phillips – and the March for Life – wants to prevent. As she poignantly concludes, “there is great value in things not being perfect.”
You can watch the full documentary below: