A world without Down’s Syndrome?

By Chelsea Pietsch

Sally Phillips is an English actress and comedian. She is perhaps best known for her roles in in the Bridget Jones film series and Miranda. She is also a mum to three, including 12-year-old Olly who loves soccer, ice cream and has Down’s syndrome.

Last year Phillips released a documentary called ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?’ in which she seeks to understand why people in British society think having a child with Down’s Syndrome is so dreadful.

She speaks with a specialist in fetal medicine who suggests that many see children with Down’s syndrome as a “burden” that “lasts for a long time”. In response, Phillips shares that when her son was diagnosed at 10 days old she was “expecting tragedy” but instead “got comedy.”

Phillips’ documentary was prompted by the fact that 90 per cent of mothers whose babies are diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome during prenatal testing choose to terminate. She is concerned that the number of terminations will increase with Britain’s implementation of a new screening test which increases diagnostic accuracy from 85 to 99 per cent.

In Iceland, a place Phillips visits during the documentary, close to 100 per cent of babies diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted.

“Maybe there’ll be someone who watches this programme and decides to have a baby they otherwise wouldn’t have had,” she explains.

That said, Phillips is not one to approach the subject of Down’s syndrome with rose-coloured glasses. “I’m not going to lie, living with Olly does present some challenges”, she says.

She understands why parents may feel “frightened” by a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome, but she has come to see Down’s syndrome as “more than a list of possible health problems.”

The documentary is evidence of this, and is filled with many happy, silly, and light-hearted moments involving her son, Olly, and others from the Down’s Syndrome community.

While Phillips tries to approach the subject of her documentary with an open mind and listening ear, it is of course deeply personal. At times, her mother’s heart can’t be disguised.

This should come as no surprise. After all, her investigations reveal a medical system intent on ensuring that children like her son Olly are never born.

In one tearful moment, she likens her son to a “curious, friendly, gentle dodo” and those who developed prenatal screening for Down’s Syndrome to “explorers who landed on the dodos’ island and bludgeoned them into extinction.”

That said, Phillips is a bit confused about the issue herself. At one point in the documentary, almost despite herself, she affirms that women should have “choice” regarding the outcome of their pregnancy.

She does, however, question that “[i]f we’re heading for a world where we choose more who gets born, we need to think about what it is that we value.”

A World without Down’s Syndrome? is a funny, informative and very human film that will make you laugh, cry and question the morality of our society’s intensive prenatal screening regime.

You can watch the documentary online for free via Vimeo and YouTube