Friday February 09, 2018

As terminations rise, will Gerber's Down syndrome 'spokesbaby' change attitudes?

Lucas Warren of Dalton, Ga., won over executives at Gerber baby food who have made him their "spokesbaby" this year. Lucas is Gerber's first spokesbaby with Down syndrome in the company's 91-year history.

Lucas Warren of Dalton, Ga., won over executives at Gerber baby food who have made him their "spokesbaby" this year. Lucas is Gerber's first spokesbaby with Down syndrome in the company's 91-year history. (Courtesy Warren family/Gerber/Associated Press)

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For the first time ever, the Gerber baby is a grinning child with Down syndrome.

And since the company's announcement earlier this week, one-year-old Lucas Warren's smile has been seen the world over.

He's not the only one with a smile on his face.

Many in the Down syndrome community are beaming at the prospect of greater visibility and hopefully acceptance.

"I think this is great," said Karyn MacMahon Bradfield, whose daughter Nicole has Down syndrome. "What's really important for the community is acceptance, recognition and supporting people with special needs. This brings attention to [them]."

There are others, however, who are doubtful that this picture-perfect moment will translate into more concrete change.

"Although the Gerber baby is super cute, I am very skeptical that it is a particularly significant moment in the long journey to acceptance for people of Down syndrome," said David Perry, whose 11-year-old son, Nico, has Down syndrome.

'We've seen this before — cute picture and cute kid, but what are the next steps?' - David Perry

Perry referenced similar advertising campaigns that Target and Nordstrom put out in 2012.

Like MacMahon Bradfield, Perry believes that representation of all kinds is important, but he believes that while these images were widely celebrated, they are not revolutionary.

"We've seen this before — cute picture and cute kid, but what are the next steps?" asked Perry. "What's Gerber going to do next?"

"What I'd like to see from Gerber is more than just this cute child," Perry told The Current's guest host David Cochrane. "I'd like to hear them say: 'We are going to be employing thousands of people with Down syndrome and pay them full wages.'"

Genetic testing with no support

This ad campaign also comes at a time when genetic testing is becoming more sophisticated

Advanced genetic screenings is allowing parents to find out if their fetus has genetic abnormalities, including the markers for Down syndrome.

Vardit Ravitsky is a professor of bioethics at the University of Montreal. She said that this increased accessibility, early in a pregnancy, has made it more difficult for both parents and physicians, as it's often something neither is ready to navigate.

'Studies have shown that clinicians, when it comes to Down syndrome, really focus on the health complications.' - Vardit Ravitsky

Ravitsky leads the Canadian research project Pegasus, which looks at the ethical and social implications of new technologies that screen for conditions such as Down syndrome.

She said that in screenings, parents face an abundance of information, but sometimes it's not always the full information.

"Studies have shown that clinicians, when it comes to Down syndrome, really focus on the health complications," said Ravitsky.

"They're not usually well equipped to give the full picture to tell people about the happy parts — the quality of life and the fact that families with a child with Down syndrome are super happy."

Through Pegasus, Ravitsky has observed doctors being overly keen to screen and not doing a good job helping parents apply their own values and choices when deciding whether to terminate.

After a clear diagnosis of Down syndrome, Ravitsky says that 80-90 per cent of people terminate.

Ravitsky wants parents to have more access to information and resources than what clinicians currently offer, so that they can make a free and informed choice of what it's like to live with a child with Down syndrome.

"My main message is that testing must be a decision that's completely informed, supported and free. Free choice means if your choose to reject testing, you won't be criticized, you won't be judged," said Ravitsky.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Rosa Kim and Alison Masemann.