By Allison Ciraulo
SOUTH BEND — As an academic researcher and now as a parent and pro-life advocate, Mary O’Callaghan has found that it is those living at the margins of society who show us what is most central to who we are as humans. O’Callaghan holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Notre Dame and is the mother of five children, including her youngest, Tommy, who has Down syndrome.
After completing her doctoral work in developmental disabilities, O’Callaghan started a family and devoted herself primarily to raising her children. But when Tommy was born eight years ago, she says, “I felt like I kind of came full circle and returned to the field of disability in a way I hadn’t anticipated, with a much different perspective.” Having studied disability in terms of addressing deficits, she found that parenting a child with disability shattered the neat categories she had used as a researcher.
“When you have your own child,” she says, “you realize that those categories are not at all helpful, because the way that people function is not in isolation but in relationship and in community with other people. We realized quickly that it almost didn’t matter what Tommy’s disabilities were, because in our family we could adjust and compensate. We focus on the gifts he gives us as a person.”
O’Callaghan admits that she had never thought of abortion as a disability issue until Tommy was born. “It wasn’t until I was holding my own child with a disability in my arms that the horror of it struck me, because the gift of his life was so self-evident that it was really painful to contemplate that people could so easily dispose of children like my son.”
While O’Callaghan continues to raise her children and homeschool her two youngest, she has also become a passionate advocate for the pro-life cause as it relates to disability. As a Public Policy Fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, she regularly gives talks on the topic of prenatal diagnosis, disability and abortion. In February 2015, she testified before the Indiana Senate in favor of a bill that would ban abortion due to poor prenatal diagnosis.
Because the U.S. does not keep consistent data on the reasons that abortions are performed, it is difficult to determine the percentage of children aborted due to a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome or other disabilities. Recent research suggests that between 60 and 90 percent of babies diagnosed definitively as having Down syndrome while in utero are aborted in the U.S.
Parents are often pressured to abort by medical personnel, O’Callaghan says. “They use euphemistic terms like ‘early induction’ or ‘therapeutic abortion.’” Parents also wrestle with their own fears of what it would mean to raise a disabled child.
O’Callaghan says that what’s frustrating is that “there is a really deep disconnect between the fears that parents have and the actual lived experience.” The medical community often fails to provide support and resources for families facing a prenatal diagnosis and are even reluctant to refer them to organizations like the Michiana Down Syndrome Family Support and Advocacy Group, in which O’Callaghan has been active for the last eight years. She thinks that parents often choose abortion because they only hear about the difficulties but not the joys associated with raising a child with disability.
“We love our son despite all of his issues related to his condition, and it helps us realize that this is how God loves us too,” O’Callaghan says. “So it’s a joyful life, because I feel like we understand what it means to be loved by God in a way that might not be as easy to grasp when you have kids without special needs.”
What prepared O’Callaghan and her family perhaps more than anything else for the gift of Tommy’s life was their experience of previous loss. O’Callaghan had several miscarriages and two daughters who were stillborn before she got pregnant with Tommy. “For us, a disability wasn’t a problem; death was a problem. We had lost so many children that we were just glad he was alive,” she says.
O’Callaghan’s experience has led her to reach out to other families who are walking the same path she and her family have walked. She is in the process of establishing a ministry at the diocesan level that will support families facing difficult prenatal diagnoses in which the child may or may not live to term or long after birth. Modeled after a non-profit called Be Not Afraid, the outreach will connect families with a peer mentor to help them walk through the process of carrying their child to term, understanding the diagnosis, dealing with grief or whatever the family may need.
“I think that the Church, and rightly so, asks parents to step out in radical trust when they have a child with a poor prenatal diagnosis,” says O’Callaghan. “I love this approach because it’s telling parents, ‘This is a hard journey, but we’ll help you.’ It’s really about accompanying parents on a difficult but very joyful journey of letting them experience the gift of their child.”
O’Callaghan invites anyone interested in supporting this ministry, particularly in a mentoring role, to contact Mary Glowaski, director of Special Ministries for the diocese, at 260-399-1458.
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