Friday 500 -Almonds in October

vincent_van_gogh_-_almond_blossomAlmond Blossoms, Vincent Van Gogh

Rather a lot of us, it seems, have been born a chromosome short. In its place perhaps, an extra measure of arrogance. A superiority complex, some extra sense of entitlement and judgement. At least, that’s how I’m feeling about the society I live in, having watched ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?’ on Wednesday evening. It’s currently available here for a month if you’re allowed to watch BBC iPlayer. This programme really got my friends talking; it made many of them cry. I commend it strongly to you.

Sally Phillips, known widely for comic roles in the Bridget Jones films and sit-com Miranda has three sons, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome. She has an easy humour and a natural sensitivity in approaching the subject of the new tests being introduced to identify DS babies at earlier stages of pregnancy. She interviewed people across the spectrum: those who designed the new tests, a mother who had terminated a pregnancy, a blogger campaigning for better sensitivity from NHS staff with parents, doctors in Iceland and America, an advice centre, Karen Gaffney (famous for her swimming accomplishments and TED talk) and others. Sally and her team really did their homework and made sure to put their case over as wisely as possible. They were not out to cause offence or to judge people, making it clear that terminations are a mother’s choice and that DS comes with many ups and downs.

What became apparent, which so many of us already suspected, was that there really is an obvious bias in our society and among many health professionals (and those giving advice to people with genuine questions) against promoting live births for DS babies. That Down’s Syndrome is in some way undesirable and ‘too difficult’.

You see, although the Guardian and others misunderstood Sally Phillips, it is not the tests themselves that are the real problem, and this is the point she wanted to make; it is what we as a society feel about ‘imperfect’ babies and the decisions we make as a society about this. If more screening means more information, the evidence shows it will also lead to more terminations.

What breaks my heart is that society needs these people too. We’d be far poorer without them. See Oliver Hellowell’s photographs here, for example, or DS artists’ work here.


I did not have the blessing of bringing any babies with Down’s Syndrome into the world, although my lovely friend Julie has, and she has started a support group for families in Suffolk. It’s people like Julie and Sally, seeing the picture better, who need to be heard loud and clear.

And it’s people like Olly, Jasmine, Tim Harris, Tommy Jessop, Madeline Stuart and so many others who remind us that we may not judge by the number of chromosomes we have. It was never our choice.

“I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.”
― Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

One thought on “Friday 500 -Almonds in October

  1. Thank you for this. In my work before retirement I got to know a number of Downs children, only one of whom could have been called ‘difficult’ in an unpleasant way, others had their problems as did their parents. One completed her college course. Another with his father’s encouragement always welcomed any other Downs children in the clinic and made them feel at home. Concerning termination there must be a balance to be found between the problems to be faced and the parents’ ability to cope, but what parent is ever confident of that?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.