Anti-choice activists have found what they think is a winning wedge issue: Down syndrome and other “sympathetic” disabilities. The latest attack was in Ohio, where, in late December, GOP Governor John Kasich signed a bill that bans abortions after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Ten states have either passed similar bills or have presented them before legislatures. The function, and I suspect the goal, of these laws is not to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome or even to stop abortions based on prenatal diagnoses. Instead, the anti-choice movement is trying to use the public’s positive feelings about cute kids with Down syndrome, like my son, to undermine reproductive rights.
In response to these threats to reproductive freedom, I’ve had to start saying something new and difficult: If individuals want to terminate an otherwise wanted pregnancy due to a prenatal diagnosis, I support their decision.
I’ve spent many years now asserting the need to reorder how we ascribe value to diverse human lives. My son might not participate in the capitalist economy, live independently, or speak (he might also do all of these things!), but his value as a human is intrinsic. I’d like others to see it that way too. Selective abortion, as I’ve written for The Nation, reveals our attitudes about disability and other forms of difference. Still, it’s time to affirmatively support the right to eugenic abortion, even as we fight the need for it. The struggle for disability rights begins with the affirmation that no one gets to tell anyone else what to do with their body. That includes abortion.
Some background is necessary here. Down syndrome is only one of the conditions for which we can test, but it is perhaps the condition around which contemporary opinion is most divided. It’s not a fatal condition (unlike Tay-Sachs, for example), but most people would characterize the disability as significant, though widely varied. With community and educational supports, people with Down syndrome live happy, inclusive, meaningful lives, and there’s data showing that having a sibling or child with Down syndrome strengthens overall familial bonds. At the same time, screening technologies are becoming more accurate and can be used earlier in a pregnancy.
Enter the anti-choice activists and their politics of division and destruction. They can exploit people with Down syndrome (often stereotyped as angelic) to push back reproductive rights. Republicans in North Dakota, Indiana, Louisiana, and now Ohio have successfully shepherded bills banning abortions if the pregnant individual is seeking to terminate due to a prenatal diagnosis. And more of these prohibitions are coming. According to a database of anti-choice laws maintained by the nonprofit publication Rewire, multiple other states are bringing forward bills intended to ban abortion following a prenatal diagnosis of either any genetic anomaly or, as in Ohio, just Down syndrome. Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst for Rewire, told me that anti-choice activists are trying to take “social-justice frameworks and rubrics and then shove their anti-choice framework into that.” She said there’s a similar history of citing feminism as a reason to ban abortion. Now it’s disability rights, which, she said, is not a priority for the bills’ proponents: “Once the child is born, and someone is taking care of a kid with Down syndrome, where are the conservatives? Nowhere to be found.”