When It's Best Not to Be Born


Washington -- HBO, the cable movie channel, showed a film last week called "A Private Matter." The story was about Sherri Finkbine, who was "Miss Sherri" on a children's television program called "Romper Room." She and her husband Bob, a high school teacher, had four children.

When she became pregnant again, she took a drug that Bob had bought for her in London which was supposed to help her sleep. The drug was Thalidomide. It was discovered to cause severe birth defects when a woman took it during pregnancy.

When Mrs. Finkbine's doctor told her the baby was likely to be born deformed, she and her husband opted for an abortion, which was illegal at the time. She went to Sweden for the procedure.

The film attempts to capture the moral high ground by showing the "agony" the Finkbines went through in deciding to abort the child. It also subtly asserts that the handicapped are tremendous burdens which "normal people" ought not have to bear. Viewers might also conclude from watching the film that handicapped children and adults would consider it a favor if their parents had aborted them because they are doomed to lives of misery and unfulfilled dreams.

Fortunately we have a significant number of handicapped people to tell their side of the story. That is precisely what the former surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, did for a 1978 film he helped make called "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" Don't look for it to be shown on HBO or a commercial network or public television. The producers tried but were turned down.

Former patients of Dr. Koop, who were born with maladies that may be considered "legitimate" reasons for abortion, were interviewed for the film. All were helped by modern surgical techniques. None regrets being given a chance at life.

One woman tells Dr. Koop, "You don't realize how it will turn out when you start. Now I'm a normal functioning human being. . . . Because the start was a little abnormal, it doesn't mean you're going to finish that way."

Another patient says, "I'm very glad to be alive. I live a full, meaningful life. I have many friends and many things I want to do in life."

A young man named Craig, who was a Thalidomide baby, born with no arms below the elbow and impaired but usable legs, graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in philosophy and from Covenant Theological Seminary. Craig said of those who wish to abort or euthanize the handicapped, "They don't understand. They're talking about people. They only see the handicap. When I was born, my dad said, 'This one needs our love more.' People make a mistake when they look at the handicap, not the person."

Why aren't the voices of these and millions of other handicapped persons considered? The Americans With Disabilities Act requires society to accommodate the physically and mentally handicapped, but the message of the HBO film is that we don't have to be burdened by such "unwelcome" people if we can use medical technology to exterminate them in the womb. Think of the money that can be saved on wheelchairs and other devices. Think of the room that would be available in the supermarket parking lot with fewer of those bothersome handicapped spots to tie up the spaces closest to the door. Think of how shallow we are becoming for thinking like this.

In the HBO film, actress Sissy Spacek, as Sherri Finkbine, is shown talking to her neighbor, who says that she would have the baby, handicapped or not. Says Sherri to her neighbor, "You're being a saint, thinking about everyone but yourself."

We could use more saints and fewer selfish people. The handicapped are not a burden. They are a blessing to many whose lives have been enriched by them. Their lives matter to them and to those who love them. Ask them. They'll tell you. HBO wouldn't ask and, in refusing to do so, has helped make selfishness appear more attractive than sainthood.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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