At L’Arche, every life has value. Photo by Michael Swan.

At L’Arche, no gift is too hard to bear

  • September 7, 2014

Today’s L’Arche finds itself challenged at both ends of life. 

On the one hand, L’Arche communities find themselves increasingly addressing issues of old age as core members live longer. On the other hand, many are beginning to notice the absence of young people with Down’s and other conditions as medical technology gives families the option of aborting at the first sign of trouble. 

When L’Arche started, a Down’s person over the age of 30 was rare. Congenital heart and thyroid problems along with other health issues almost guaranteed an early death. Today Down’s people who get proper medical attention live into their 50s and 60s. And there is no reason other intellectually disabled people can’t live into their 70s or 80s. 

“When we welcome people, we welcome them for life,” said L’Arche Canada spokesman John O’Donnell from Nova Scotia. “Our goal is to welcome people and help them to develop into the kind of people God intended for them to be. If that means living in community until you die, we’re there for them.” 

Just as L’Arche has pioneered a model of community for the rest of us, they are also pioneering in issues of aging. It’s not a matter of medical science and superior management at L’Arche, but of including and valuing the elders of the community. 

O’Donnell insists these values matter outside the walls of L’Arche. These small communities have something to say to our political power brokers, our economic elite, our media and our institutions — indeed L’Arche speaks to our entire culture. 

“We’re running the risk of losing sight of what it means to be a human being,” said O’Donnell. “The simple, reductionist decision making that goes on, that places value on some life and marginalizes or wants to eliminate other life, other human beings, to us it’s a really serious matter — one that we’re trying to counter as much as we can, and as much by proposing as opposing.” 

A standard test can tell a pregnant woman whether or not her baby is Down’s. If the child will be born with Down’s the mother is offered the option to abort. The idea that raising a Down’s child is a burden too hard to bear, a curse upon a family, is embedded in the very proposition that the mother should consider abortion. 

L’Arche has been welcoming Down’s adults as a gift, a blessing and a way of being human for 50 years, while for nearly a generation medical technology has been brought to bear on eliminating this kind of human being. 

“It’s a real serious thing,” said O’Donnell. “We are heading into a time when it’s quite possible, at least in the Western world, that people with Down’s syndrome will disappear from society… You talk to so many people and the life and the joy and the gift of persons with Down’s syndrome is immeasurable. And yet there is this other current that says ‘No, there’s an imperfection there.’ We become slave to technology. We trudge on and on until somehow it realizes its goal, which doesn’t take into account the human.” 

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