World Down Syndrome Day: Why I Think Feminists Should Be Worried About Abortion Rights

Yesterday, 3/21, was World Down Syndrome Day, and it felt like time to make a post I’ve been wanting to make for a few days now but haven’t taken the opportunity to write out. If I’d learned about World Down Syndrome Day prior to 11 PM, you’d have seen this post yesterday, but late is better than never.

Before reading any further, read this article. It details the current event inspiring this post.

To sum up the important details, a family was recently awarded a monetary judgment against their physician because errors were made when genetically screening their unborn child. The judgment covers the approximate cost of raising a child with Down Syndrome, which the family says (and jury agreed) they are entitled to because had the test accurately diagnosed their child with the condition, they’d have had an abortion.

I have a large number of problems with this situation, including but not limited to assigning a dollar value to human life, the idea of a jury without medical expertise placing judgment on medical fallibility and/or malpractice, and – because I’m Catholic and own up to that bias – the idea that abortion is acceptable in any but the most extreme situations. However, those are all perspectives that require much lengthier explanations, clarifications, and qualifications regarding policy (for instance, the Catholic belief that opposes abortion also insists upon social justice, including providing health care to women and their unborn children, and too many Catholics seem to conveniently forget that), and they’re not related to the core argument I’m presenting – that feminists (and I do use the term loosely in this post to refer to individuals concerned with opportunity for all rather than a gender-focused construction of the movement) should be unsettled at best by this legal precedent.

The family in this article wanted a child. I consider this pretty much indisputable, since the family’s choice, when they thought the child was healthy, was to have the child. As such, this is not about abortion rights as a whole (whether or not you should be able to have an abortion when you don’t want any child is a different discussion), but about under what circumstances having an abortion should be acceptable.

My concern is not that the couple didn’t *a* child, but that they didn’t want *that* child, and that our legal system supports that distinction. I’ll be perfectly honest about this – I’m taking this personally. I’m married to a lovely woman who happens to have a physical disability, and my brother, sister, and late mother all have the same cancer-causing genetic condition, and I feel like our court system supporting abortion choice based on the child’s medical condition devalues their lives and life experiences. No child is perfect, and choosing to value one group of children over another because of the type of challenges that child or group of children would present and face is, at its core, ableist. It values the lives and potential contributions of those without disabilities higher than those with disabilities. And that’s the best case scenario. We do have a term for practices that discriminate and favor one person or group over another based on genetics – it’s called eugenics. While previous large-scale attempts at eugenics have been state-directed, we now seem to be developing a social construct – backed by the legal system – that making reproductive choices to screen out certain genetic characteristics is acceptable or even desirable at the individual level. So instead of the state selecting “undesirables”, we’re now being given, at least to a small extent, the right to screen out those who would be undesirable in our homes. I find that very troubling – as a Catholic, as a feminist, and as a stakeholder in the future of our country and society.

I’m curious to hear what others think about this, and while I may or may not reply to comments, I will be reading and considering them. Am I missing something, either philosophically or factually? Is my understanding of feminist principles in relation to ableism off-base? Did I misunderstand the court decision? Is there something else entirely that I’m not considering?

Thanks for reading this clear departure from my normal hobby-linked rambling.

-John

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4 Responses to World Down Syndrome Day: Why I Think Feminists Should Be Worried About Abortion Rights

  1. Claire says:

    Hey, John! Interesting entry to read! Just to claim my own biases I am a pro-choice woman and am blessed with a 4-year old nephew and 1-year old cousin both with Down syndrome. You asked what pieces you might be missing – there’s a big dirty secret about genetic testing. If an abnormality is detected in the baby, the majority of doctors paint a really bleak future for the child and often recommend abortion. Children with Down syndrome have so many more opportunities for therapies and treatments that were once available to their institutionalized counterparts born a couple generations ago. The children born today with Down syndrome are already surpassing their older counterparts. Who knows what my nephew and cousin will be capable of as adults! Yet, when a newly pregnant couple learns that their child has Down syndrome, they are aften told worst case scenarios from the 1940’s. No wonder so many choose abortion. What they aren’t told is what an incredible blessing having a child with Down syndrome can be! My family is incredibly blessed, I can assure you! I’m pro-choice, but I would never abort due to Down syndrome.

    • John says:

      Claire,
      Thanks a lot for pointing that out! Working in speech therapy with students who have Down Syndrome, I know there’s a lot of options for them now (especially here in Michigan with institutions being an artifact of the past), but I didn’t know doctors made things look so dire.

      I also appreciate your distinction between being pro-choice and being in favor of aborting due to Down Syndrome. Being mostly pro-life (which, contrary to many “pro-life” people’s perspective, includes respect for life at all stages, including end of life and supporting women’s prenatal and neonatal health), I didn’t feel comfortable drawing that line in the sand even though I felt it was there.

  2. Paul says:

    But that is the point of pro-choice, that society should not put its standards on the individuals within it. If a woman decides to abort her child, the reason does not matter. She has the right to and has the right to any information that would help her make that decision. Once you accept that a woman’s right to choose is fundamental, you can’t pick and choose just reasons.

    Without stating it explicitly, you have made the fundamental argument of the pro-life side. Abortion is not a woman’s rights issue, it is a right to life issue. The issue is when does life have value and who gets to decide that value. I strongly support the rights of people to live unfettered, this is free will, but at some point the state (the collective we) have the right to decide we are going to protect each other. If the subclass of humans who have down’s syndrome deserve protection, than why not the entire subclass that is not yet born? Magic does not occur during passage through the birth canal.

    Once we accept the that any life can be terminated by person prior to a certain point, then this is the natural conclusion.

  3. I believe a woman should have the freedom to decide whether she wants that child. While, emotionally, I would prefer a woman to choose to not abort in most cases, I do not think it is my place to make that decision for her. Given opportunity I might advise – and try to give advice in as unbiased a manner as possible – but the end decision is not something society should pressure her into.
    My issue with the case is actually not with the choice the couple would have made had they known (even if I disagree with that particular choice).
    I am uncomfortable with the court coming to this verdict. It seems that we all want to always know exactly what is coming, what children we will get, and how perfect they will be. It gives me the feeling of people shopping for babies. If things turn out different, they go to court.
    I know that is oversimplifying things, but I do feel that society should be less hung up on having absolute certainty all the time and more open to the unexpected and forgiving to the fallability of those who try to predict outcomes (though, in return, I do think we must be clear to those that ask that we can never give absolute certainty).

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