Someone is Missing From the Debate on Ohio’s Bill to Ban Down Syndrome Abortions –

Yesterday, The New York Times reported Ohio legislators are soon expected to pass a bill that would “make it illegal for a doctor to perform an abortion if a woman is terminating her pregnancy to avoid having a baby with Down syndrome.”  North Dakota passed a similar law in 2013.

I do not support this kind of legislation –even though our son has Down syndrome. I am pro-choice which means I support whatever reasons a woman chooses for having an abortion.

I do however want more people like my son in the world which bucks the prevalent trend to want fewer people like him.

Am I comfortable with the fact that 60 – 90% of women chose to abort a fetus found to have Down syndrome? No, I’m not. In fact, It angers me. That anger however is not directed at the woman having the abortion. It is at our medical community in its supreme ignorance insisting on relaying antiquated information about Down syndrome to women at what is likely the most vulnerable time in their life.

I place blame as well on our insistence that disability be seen as a profound disadvantage in a society that places an inordinate emphasis on normal. The greatest disability our son faces is what people think of him not his Down syndrome.

The New York Times interviewed two primary sources for coverage of this legislation: Right to life groups and pro-choice organizations. Both responded proforma meaning as expected.

My alliance is obviously with the pro-choice contingent but I was disappointed with their advocates making no mention of people with Down syndrome. They only spoke about ‘Down syndrome’ as a potential cause for concern for expectant mothers.

Would they lose anything in this “battle” by acknowledging they are poised to serve the health care needs of women with Down syndrome –particularly since these women are often recipients of sub-standard medical care and over-represented victims of sexual violence? What harm would it be for pro-choice organizations to acknowledge women with Down syndrome matter to them? Do they realize that women with Down syndrome read newspapers? And – that they may be drawn to topics related to themselves?

There were two contingents suspiciously absent on the debate in the article. The Times reported “the national and local Down syndrome associations have not taken a position on the bill”. How is that possible? If a contentious piece of legislation was being voted on that addressed the constituents of any other advocacy organization I am convinced some kind of statement would be made.

Even a statement that turns the debate on its head: We’re Still Pro Down Syndrome! That must part of their mission somewhere. Can’t you be that and still be pro-choice?

Are the Down syndrome organizations following some code of conduct when it comes to this sort of legislation and the people they advocate for? It reads like: Ignore the people with Down syndrome in all of this, that would not be very uncomfortable for us. When in reality it would read as common decency and what pays their bills.

What about an offensive tact by all interested parties? How about addressing the human rights of people with Down syndrome as well as the rights of women seeking safe, legal means to abortion as parallel concerns without solely responding to legislative tactics? Meaning not wait for a “battle call” but offering an alternative conversation on a long-standing basis.

I expect more from my allies—of which I consider the Down syndrome and pro-choice organizations. This debate doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where we have to play by prescribed roles.

The  second group completely absent from The Times article were — actual people with Down syndrome. No one who has Down syndrome was interviewed. I find it hard to believe The Times couldn’t find anyone with Down syndrome to weigh in on an issue central to their lives. I understand that it’s harder to find them but certainly a few investigative hours could have been spent finding– one. Or is it that they didn’t even think about it?

To leave people with Down syndrome out of this conversation – however anyone of us stands on the issue– is promoting the worse kind of patronizing thought. I have no idea how my son will think about abortion but I will be willing to listen and accept whatever he has to say.

Part of re-framing this debate into a conversation that is inclusive is to include people with Down syndrome. Let’s not act as if they are already gone.

19 thoughts on “Someone is Missing From the Debate on Ohio’s Bill to Ban Down Syndrome Abortions –

  1. This is the inevitable quandry of being pro choice. It exalts female autonomy above all other considerations, including female well-being, but especially above the autonomy or civil rights of those whom abortion affects the most: the unborn child. I respect your thoughts and applaud them on this issue, it’s a huge step towards mutual cooperation on legislation that works, but ultimately the inherent consequences of the artificially omnipotent “choice” must be reckoned with. Women have choices every day with how they treat their bodies. If they treat their sexual reproductive capabilities flippantly and inadvertently create a human life, then they must reasonably deal with the consequences. Abortion is an attempt to avoid consequences while compounding them instead. You can’t support the right to kill the innocent then feign anger when it happens.

    • I’m not sure that I’d refer to a baby as a “consequence”. Language is important, and that makes them sound like a punishment which doesn’t align with your position. The reason I’m choosing to respond to your post is because it seems rooted in absolutism which is exactly what I believe Kari is trying to highlight as problematic…especially when it speaks over those who are directly affected. There are people with Down syndrome who are also pro-choice, not because they’re self loathing, but because they understand better than most what the impact of having autonomy stripped means. Do you truly believe all women who choose to abort are “flippant with their sexuality”? What of the many who are raped? What of the ones who have other medical conditions and were being careful, but found themselves in the very unfortunate position of having to choose? What of those who are told their baby is already dead inside them? Should they be put through the trauma of waiting for their body to deliver the dead child on its own? As a woman, I am very much anti-abortion, yet as a human, I am pro-choice because I am aware that I am fortunate not to have had to make that choice. I am also aware that I lack deity status and I am not entitled to an explanation from anyone else about WHY they felt that choice had to be made. I don’t believe the decision is anything less than agonizing for most women. What I do believe is that we have to start revering the children who are alive, and we have to start treating mothers with the respect and honor they deserve instead of treating all of them like burdens to the system. When we see motherhood as the gift it truly is, and when we see disability as a member of the collective norm, we will certainly see more women choosing to join club motherhood. The argument itself is far more dangerous to our collective respect for humanity than access to legal and safe abortions will ever be.

      P.S. Kari, I love it.

      • Thank you, Kari and Alice both, for articulating more clearly than I have been able in the past a view missing from and very much needed in this conversation.

      • Two points, incidents of rape are obviously not flippant behavior, so I see that as an exception. Sorry if that destroys your “absolutism” red herring.

        Second, if you perceive a consequence as a punishment only, then you are presenting another logical fallacy which fails to rebut my points, a tiresome tactic, but one I’m accustomed to in this debate to exalt the self (ironic that you don’t consider yourself deity but promote a unilateral choice which obliterates another’s existence to be the pinical of morality, which is what you’re doing by saying essentially “it’s bad to kill a baby, but denying abortion is worse”.)

      • Another exception is when the health or life of the mother is at risk, but these are the rare exception. And when the fetus is already dead, that’s by definition not an abortion.

    • If “Abortion is an attempt to avoid consequences while compounding them instead.” why then would there be an exception for choice when the mother’s life or health is at risk. That would simply be avoiding the consequences of that particular pregnancy.

      • By the way, and if MEN happen to treat their sexual reproductive capabilities flippantly and inadvertently and create a human life, should then women still reasonably deal with the consequences? It’s surprising how may people seem to be convinced that women get pregnant by themselves.

  2. How many people with Down syndrome have you discussed this issue with then? I’ve discussed it with quite a few. I’m yet to meet any who think they deserve to be targeted for prenatal selection. It seems odd for some parents to be OK with targeting our kids for prenatal selection. What is your ethical argument in support of Down syndrome selective abortions in otherwise wanted pregnancies?

    • Mike,

      I am not a person with Down Syndrome, but I am a person with a uterus and with another genetic (in fact, hereditary) condition.

      I am pro-choice. I am pro-choice because I do not accept that cells become beings worthy of moral consideration at the moment of conception (nor do I think there is any reasonable basis upon which to draw that conclusion); the people who are carrying them, however, absolutely are. As a part of that, they have a right to bodily autonomy and consequently a right to abort, in the same way that they would have a right to deny anyone access to their bodies. (Furthermore, given that women with disabilities are at increased risk of sexual assault and other abuses, affirming such a fundamental right to autonomy is especially important for safeguarding them).

      At the same time, I am concerned with the high rate of abortions among fetuses with genetic abnormalities. I think it represents the cultural devaluation of people with disabilities that leads to the rampant inequalities that we experience. To draw a parallel, aborting on the basis of a female sex designation represents the devaluation of women, and it is that devaluation that leads to us experiencing rampant gender inequality. I do not think these are defensible moral or rational reasons to abort, and I think the implications for our culture are deeply problematic.

      However, because I find abortion morally defensible as a general act, I do not need to interrogate particular intentions to argue that a woman’s right to abortion should be protected. Abortion is morally defensible because women have a right to bodily autonomy and a bundle of cells are not morally entitled to the same; not because their reasons for choosing the procedure are particularly virtuous.

      That being said, I do also think that the underlying cultural forces need to be addressed; that does not happen by banning abortion because abortion is the symptom, not the cause. Rather, those changes comes through transforming our culture from one that prioritizes market productivity, independence and cost efficiency to one that values variance, interdependency and care. It involved educating people about disability and amplifying the voices of people with disabilities who believe our lives are worth living. Once you do that, you will find that people in this country are less likely to see disability as a reason to abort, in the same way that most do not see sex designation as a reason to make the same choice.

      • You don’t think selective abortions for Down syndrome is moral, but abortion is morally defensible, so you support a right to a selective abortion for Down syndrome. OK, got that.

    • “OK” is the extent of your response?

      I do not think that it is moral to legally deny a woman an abortion (to deny her bodily autonomy); so, yes, I think abortion with any intention should be legal.

      Simply because something is immoral does not mean it should be illegal. I think, for example, that cheating on one’s spouse is immoral. I do not think, however, that we should make it illegal to do so.

  3. The refusal (or inability perhaps) to consider a nuanced response that takes the sometimes contradictory complexities of this issue and insistence on reducing it to a dismissive, meaningless sentence is what keeps this conversation from moving forward. But at least I now understand the new American term, mansplaining, better.

    • It’s at the stage where folks need to ask people with Down syndrome what they think about their lives and being targeted for abortion. The thing is, though, the pro-choice people may need to hear and respect the views of those with Down syndrome who say that their lives have worth, and no, they don’t support prenatal selection for being who they are. You see, that’s the rub. That’s why they are excluded from the discussion. Well, you probably wouldn’t like being targeted for abortion for being a woman, so would you defend it?

      • There is a difference between defending something and not wishing to make it illegal. As a woman with a genetic disability, I affirm that my life has value and do not wish to be selectively aborted. I also think, however, that women have a right to bodily autonomy and, consequently, abortion. As a woman, I do not want the ability to control my body taken from me. I also think we have a moral imperative to change how our culture thinks about disability.

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