Why Amy Coney Barrett Keeps Saying Her Family Has A Favorite Child
The Supreme Court nominee’s son with Down syndrome is the beloved child in her family and while research says that’s not uncommon, she’s sending a message about her views on abortion
Hearing for judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to fill Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat on the Supreme Court, began Monday, and among the many things she said in her remarks is that her youngest of seven children Benjamin, who has Down syndrome, is the favorite child.
“Benjamin has Down syndrome and he is the unanimous favorite of the family,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee, basically repeating what she said at the Rose Garden ceremony in late September — “the most revealing fact about Benjamin, our youngest, is that his brothers and sisters unreservedly identity him as their favorite sibling.” Which repeated what she said in 2017 when she was approved for her seat on the federal appeals court.; while acknowledging that having a child with Down syndrome “presents unique challenges for all of us,” she added, “But I think all you need to know about Benjamin’s place in the family is summed up by the fact that the other children unreservedly identify him as their favorite sibling.”
There are many things that deeply, deeply concern me about Barrett, but I was struck by her message — of the seven children she and her husband, Jesse have, including two they adopted from Haiti, their special needs child is the most beloved.
Why would he be the favorite child? Is it because of who he is as boy or is it because of what defines him —he’s the one with Down syndrome? Why would a parent or family even have a favorite child? And why does she keep mentioning it?
While having a child with special needs may create problems for some parents, others “flourish when meeting the challenges of their children with special needs. Caring for these children affirms their sense of competence, and, as a reward, these children grow up as favorite children,” writes Ellen Weber Libby, author of The Favored Child. “Children with special needs can give the lives of their parents focus and meaning.”
OK, many parents feel good about it. But a child with special needs impacts the entire family. Do Barrett’s six other kids experience the same sense of “focus and meaning”? Do they like that there’s a favored sibling or are they resentful of all the time and attention a child with special needs demands?
Actually, it’s all rather positive.
According to one study, children who have a sibling with Down syndrome overwhelmingly love them and are proud of them. Many see themselves as being better people because their experience living with a special needs sibling and believe they’ve gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for human difference. Some feel sorry for their sibling, and a few are embarrassed or feel burdened by them. But the majority believe they would always be involved with their sibling, although the study notes that could be a feeling “of welcomed or resigned commitment.”
Parents of special needs children like like ADHD or autism often end up divorcing, but generally not parents of Down syndrome children, most likely because of the “Down syndrome advantage.” Down syndrome kids are somewhat easier to raise than typical kids, studies show. But since three-quarters of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome terminate the pregnancy, parents who decide to raise a Down syndrome child after a diagnosis — as the Barretts did — know what they’ve signed up for.
Having a favored child may be OK if the child has Down syndrome, but in general, it’s not a great thing even it’s a common one. There are a lot of mothers who favor one child over the other, Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University, says.
“Most mothers have very distinct preferences. There’s one to whom they feel most emotionally close, one with whom they have the most conflict. Parental favoritism is a fundamental part of the family landscape throughout life.”
And that means anyone else who has felt the sting of a parent’s criticism while watching that same parent dote over a sibling will likely have complicated feelings throughout their lives, whether they were the “favorite” child or not.
We may not all suffer the fate of Cleopatra’s siblings — as her father’s favorite child, Cleopatra was responsible for the death of at least two of them, perhaps a third — but the emotional pain of not being the favored child can come close.
That clearly doesn’t seem to be Benjamin’s fate.
But insisting that he’s the favorite child appears to be a message that all of us should pay attention to, especially if we care about upholding Roe v. Wade. While the majority of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome have an abortion, as I note above, she did not (not unsurprising given her faith). And that child, now 8, is the family’s favorite child, as she repeatedly states — a message that seems to say, look at what you will miss by terminating the birth of a baby with Down syndrome! Look at what your children will miss!
Take that belief and put it on the Supreme Court and it just may lead to more harm — to women — than every mother throughout history who had a favored child and Cleopatra together caused.