What can parents do when faced with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome or other medical conditions?  Notre Dame alumna Mary O’Callaghan addressed this and other difficult questions as students and faculty gathered for the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s fifth annual Bread of Life Dinner.

Dinner attendees socialized over hors d’oeuvres before the main portion of the evening. Each table had a mix of students (both undergraduate and graduate) and one faculty member who helped facilitate discussion.

O’Callaghan, who holds a PhD in developmental psychology and is a mother of 5 children, the youngest of whom has Down syndrome, addressed the challenges and benefits presented by prenatal diagnosis. She took into account both the scientific and the human side of prenatal screening.

Regarding the “scientific side,” O’Callaghan presented some troubling facts. Over 90 percent of babies who are prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted.  While prenatal diagnosis used to be reserved for older or “at-risk” pregnant mothers, in 2007 the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists began recommending prenatal testing regardless of the mother’s health.

O’Callaghan’s second discussion point revealed that this recommendation could be enforced at a governmental level due to provisions in the new health care reform act. She also addressed a new, non-invasive blood test announced recently. This test diagnoses Down syndrome and other developmental disorders at a very early stage of pregnancy.

O’Callaghan then described how the nation of Denmark is celebrating the fact that by 2030, no babies will be born with Down Syndrome. When Denmark began comprehensive prenatal testing in 2005, only 60 babies were born with Down Syndrome. That number dropped to 31 babies the next year, and the number has decreased by 13 percent each following year.

Dismissing popular assumptions regarding pro-life opposition to prenatal screening, O’Callaghan acknowledged its potential importance in preparing parents for what they will face once their child is born. She offered suggestions for a strategy to return prenatal diagnosis to its original intent, that of helping young infants and their parents.

O’Callaghan proposed what she called a “radical approach” to prenatal diagnosis, centered on showing parents and doctors the personhood of the unborn child, regardless of the circumstances. She wants parents to recognize that they have options and support. She stressed that parents must understand that “characteristics may describe but never need define their child.”

Finally, O’Callaghan said that informational material about Down Syndrome should include pictures and stories of children with various difficult diagnoses within a familial context. Parents should be assisted to see their unborn children as persons rather than the “list of symptoms” which doctors often present today without offering treatment.

After O’Callaghan finished speaking, the dinner portion of the evening began. Students shared their opinions and were challenged to discuss issues at the heart of prenatal diagnosis.

Students described the conversation and the insights that they gained.

“My table talked about the importance of allowing people to feel capable, capable that they can raise this child. Sure, there will be challenges that originally the parents were not expecting, but all parents face challenges with their children that they weren’t expecting,” junior Samantha Stempky said.

Sophomore Christina Mondi also offered her perspective.  “O’Callaghan’s professional expertise as a developmental psychologist and her personal experiences as a mother and advocate for the developmentally-disabled combined to give incredible witness to what it truly means to be pro-life,” she said.  “Listening to O’Callaghan’s presentation, as well as sharing a meal and conversation with those at my table—ranging from an undergraduate freshman to a second-year medical student to O’Callaghan herself—allowed me to gain a better understanding of the complex issue of prenatal diagnosis.”

O’Callaghan offered a poignant closing comment. In the context of a loving family, “you would not see a child with a life-altering illness.” Rather, she said, “You would see a child with breathtaking beauty, surrounded by love.”

Hope Feist is a very undecided freshman fascinated by the freakishly giant Notre Dame squirrels. She recently decided that the bells of the basilica make her feel like she lives in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. She can be reached at hfeist@nd.edu.