In an exclusive interview, actress Patricia Heaton talks about family and life, defending people with disabilities and keeping the faith in Hollywood
“People with a specific disability are being targeted,” Patricia Heaton, the actress known for “Everybody Loves Raymond” and currently in her ninth season on the primetime family series, “The Middle,” said in an interview about Down syndrome and abortion.
During the summer, Heaton found herself in the position of fact checker when a CBS News tweet declared, “Iceland is on pace to virtually eliminate Down syndrome through abortion.” She responded: “Iceland isn’t actually eliminating Down syndrome. They’re just killing everybody that has it. Big difference.”
In an interview, Heaton talks about Down syndrome, abortion and OneLife LA, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ annual community celebration of human life and dignity. Heaton has played a lead role in OneLife LA since it was established by Archbishop José H. Gomez in 2015 and she will again be among the headliners at this year’s event, to be held Jan. 20 in downtown Los Angeles.
"I was raised Catholic, and you’re raised to believe that you will be held accountable for not only what you did, but what you didn’t do. … We ask forgiveness for not just the things we do, but the things we don’t do, and that includes speaking up for people."
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What was it about that CBS News tweet that really got you motivated to talk about Down syndrome?
Patricia Heaton: The first thing was the headline was incorrect. Factually. They are not eliminating Down syndrome — you would have to have some kind of genetic maneuver in order to eliminate Down syndrome. What they are doing is eliminating people who happen to have Down syndrome. It’s a very different prospect. So that’s what bothered me. We have to start telling the truth about what is happening, and not try to use semantics to deceive or sugarcoat what’s happening.
Lopez: Do you find people simply surprised to know basic facts about Down syndrome and abortion?
Heaton: People are surprised when I express to them the percentage of terminations that happen around the world when parents are informed of a Down syndrome diagnosis. People are surprised by the high percentage of those who choose to abort.
But this has been going on for a very long time. Many years ago, I read an article in The New York Times about how the testing was getting more accurate and earlier to detect people with Down syndrome, and the reporter said how this was good news for parents. … At the very least, this is insensitive to talk about it as good news for anyone who has Down syndrome, or has children with Down syndrome — that you would celebrate being able to destroy someone earlier in their term of development. … I think that that just shines a light on the entire issue. Because… the more advanced any kind of testing becomes, the more people could be targeted with other issues, or what people perceive as issues. That’s part of the problem here. People with Down syndrome don’t really feel like they have issues.
Along with standing up for the right of disabled people to be born, we have to focus also on support for families who have family members with disabilities. … We need to have more programs, whether they’re funded by state or federal programs, or whether it’s charitable programs or the community does it — however it happens — to integrate people with disabilities into the community, and to make sure that families get the support they need, because it is more difficult for some families, depending on the level of disability and the intensity of the disability.
I know as a mother of four healthy boys with no apparent disabilities, that it’s very hard to raise your kids. Hard in the sense that it takes a lot of energy, and there’s a lot of balls to keep in the air. … So if you add the disability onto that, it’s even more so. And so we need to, if we are going to be champions of people with be champions of the support systems that need to be around them and their families.
So for instance, I discovered through a friend an organization called Exceptional Minds, here in Los Angeles … and they train young people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome to do computer cleanup, so that they can work in the entertainment industry or just in graphics, and, they work in animation and cleanup, and doing title credits and things like that.
And it helps integrate these young people into the community, helps them make a living, become independent. … These are the kind of creative projects that we as a community need to come together and support for those families. And that group, Exceptional Minds, was … founded by a mother of a son with autism. So, you know, often it comes from the families themselves. They understand what’s needed, and they also can see what their child’s abilities are. And we need to support those folks.
There’s another organization I support, called Reece’s Rainbow, which helps raise money to adopt kids with Down syndrome and other disabilities from foreign countries. Many of these kids are languishing in orphanages, and there are families here in the United States who are willing to adopt those kids, but they don’t have the finances to do that. So Reece’s Rainbow identifies adoptable children with disabilities, and then raises money for them and then matches them, or helps parents, adopting parents find them and put them together.
Another … offshoot of that … recently … created by the founder of Reece’s Rainbow, is called A Mother’s Rest, and this is just as important. Andrea Roberts has created this space and these retreats for parents, men and women, of children with disabilities so that the parents can have maybe three days away to just have some peace and time to themselves and to share experiences with other parents and to rest and relax and get rejuvenated and nourished so that they can go back and, you know, be the best they can be for their family.
There are a lot of parts to supporting people with disabilities and their families. Not only to support them from the beginning, meaning, let them be born, but then let them be born into a world where they are welcomed and supported. …
Lopez: Every year in January we mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision. In Washington, D.C., it’s a protest and yet it is a celebration of life. In Los Angeles now with OneLifeLA, it’s even more of a celebration, it seems. Is that an odd contrast? That there’s such joy, too, on such a somber anniversary? How do you think about this anniversary every year?
Heaton: I’ve never thought of it as the anniversary of Roe v. Wade; I’ve always just thought of it as a celebration of life, and hope, and such a coming together of such diverse people.
I love the groups that have come into existence. … I just love all the various people who have come to understand that this affects us all, and threatens us all, especially minorities, and especially people with disabilities. These are some of the very people that pro-choicers often in their other work defend, but in this instance, there’s a strange commitment to insisting on the right to destroy people, especially people who are, you know, often marginalized.
So I love the fact that so many of these diverse groups can all get together and support each other, and, I think that’s also the other important thing … to look around and see how much support there is from all kinds of people … everybody has a stake in this. I hardly even associate it with Roe v. Wade at all.
Lopez: Was there a moment in your career where you decided, alright, I’ve got to do this? I have to use my voice on pro-life issues?
Heaton: Oh, I think just the fact that I was raised Catholic, and you’re raised to believe that you will be held accountable for not only what you did, but what you didn’t do … we say that at Mass every time. We ask forgiveness for not just the things we do, but the things we don’t do, and that includes speaking up for people. So I think that has just been sort of the driving force … knowing that if you have knowledge and you don’t say anything, you’re going to be held accountable for that.
And I think on a spiritual level, God withheld any true success until … my personal life was more settled. My marriage and my family were already the most important things in my life. … Because my career was not the most important thing to me, I was more easily able to express myself when it was appropriate.
I think that one of the greatest witnesses you can have is you show up to work on time, you know your lines, you’re kind, you’re thoughtful, you treat people well around you, above you and below you, and you use your gifts and your resources to help others. That speaks volumes. And then, if a conversation comes up, and you are asked your opinion about it, you have the space and the respect of people that they might be open to hearing your views.
The other thing I’m very sensitive about is that I’m sure there’s many women around me, some I know about, but others that I wouldn’t know about, who have gone through the experience of having an abortion, and you always have to be conscious of the person who might be listening to you, who might have gone through that. You need to have a certain awareness.
I try to express myself when it makes sense and where it might help somebody. I think part of the problem with social media today is that it’s a lot of people venting and spewing, which makes maybe them feel better for a second, but it doesn’t add any positive aspects to the national conversation — and I’m talking about any topic. …
I want to try to put something into the world, including with my work, that gives something positive to people, and leaves something positive behind in the culture. And there is room in those spaces to talk about life and about the value of every human life and how we should respond to … what we’re seeing in our culture.
Lopez: There was a scene in “The Middle” right before Christmas where two of the children have a conversation about going to church on Christmas. Does it make you smile that you work on a show where such things are welcome? It’s obviously not a given everywhere in Hollywood.
Heaton: My two longest-running shows have been extremely well-written family shows … with an ease about the fact that people go to church, and talk about faith. There’s just an ease about it — it’s not a message, they’re not message episodes, it’s just part of life, and people talk about faith, and people deal with struggles and sickness and death. … It’s wonderful that our writers and our producers have that relationship with faith, that they feel comfortable enough. … The character of Rev. Tim Tom is just fantastic. And it’s a wonderful way of sort of having fun and in the end, saying that it’s important. And I think that’s really appreciated by so many of our fans.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and a contributor to Angelus.
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