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The human face is diverse, complicated, wonderful and engaging. In one another's faces we see the emotions of life. As we near Sept. 9, 2009, we invite people of all ages to reflect on the value of each God-given life. Our valued cycle of life includes nine months of development in the womb. If we are not cared for in the womb, our cycle of life can be forever changed.
Sept. 9 puts a human face on children, adults and families living with a painful disability that is a 100 percent preventable birth defect. Sept. 9 is International Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Day.
FASD is a medical diagnosis for a permanent condition caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. When mom drinks, the baby drinks. It is an invisible brain disability that affects the central nervous system causing problems with behavior, learning, memory, attention, problem solving, impulsiveness and cause and effect. 80 percent of children with FAS are not raised by their biological families.
Without early diagnosis, appropriate support, interventions and accommodations, secondary disabilities, such as mental illness, disrupted school experience, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, imprisonment, etc., develop over time due to a chronic poor "fit" with their environment. Adults with FAS often become the "least of the least."
An awareness of the danger of alcohol to the fetus is nothing new. In fact, in Judges 13:3-7 an angel came to Samson's mother with this advice; "You shall conceive and bear a son ... take no wine or strong drink ... for the boy is to be consecrated to God from the womb." Ancient history has many references regarding the negative effects of drinking alcohol on offspring. The civilizations of Carthage and Sparta, as well as Buddhism's Five Precepts, Plato and Aristotle all warned of the dangers of alcohol to the fetus.
England's Gin Epidemic in the 1700s led the Royal College of Physicians to proclaim that consumption of liquor during pregnancy caused "weak, feeble and distempered children." For thousands of years there has been awareness that the womb is a fragile and dangerous place for a developing fetus when it is fed a toxic substance like alcohol. A fetus should not have to experience drunkenness and the resulting brain and body damage that will forever follow them through their cycle of life.
Sept. 9 is not about condemning the use of alcohol. It is about, not only the mother, but all of society, taking seriously the need to protect the fetus from lurking dangers that are 100 percent preventable.
When fathers, family and friends look the other way when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, they contribute to irreversible damage to the fetus. This message needs more voices speaking out in congregations, with youth and in our communities. It knows no racial, ethnic, financial or social boundaries. To eliminate the damage, simply take away the substance toxic to the fetus, thus freeing society from the tragic realities of this disability.
Faith communities can play a vital role in supporting women during their nine months of pregnancy. Congregations can support people with FAS and their families with love, care, compassion, understanding and empathy as they live and grow. People with FAS are wonderful, good, lovable people who need love, understanding and acceptance.
When we adopted in the early '70s, FAS was unknown to us. Yet two of our adult children live with FASD. Their birth mothers unknowingly made choices that have devastated their lives and ours. But their disabilities have also enabled them and us to be resources for understanding. Being there for all people is never easy but it is what we are called to do.
Tragically, people with FAS do not have the abilities they would have had without alcohol exposure in the womb. Parents experience loss of hopes, dreams, self-esteem, confidence, financial security, the ability to experience happiness through the accomplishments of their children, and loss of security about the future. They are frequently recipients of blame rather than compassion and understanding.
On this Sept. 9, the ancient words of the angel become advice for us today, "take no wine or strong drink ... " while you carry the fetus for 9 months. "Living and Growing" is a God-given gift that needs us to be supportive and encouraging of abstinence as the fetus develops in the womb. As people of faith let's reach out with compassion and understanding and put a human face on people with FASD and their families.
The Rev. Larry Rorem, a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pastor, and Laura Rorem are trained advocates for persons affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and their families.