In an article for the website Global Comment, the British feminist writer Phillipa Willitts this week opposed the new law in the US state of Ohio that bans abortion where a foetus has been diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. The law, recently signed by Republican governor John Kasich, imposes penalties (potentially a fine, a prison sentence and the loss of their medical licence) only on the doctor who administers the abortion, and nothing on the woman “other than not being allowed control over their own body”. North Dakota and Indiana have passed similar legislation, the latter having been struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge and the former redundant because the only clinic in the state that performs abortions does not do so after 16 weeks. Willitts claims that the law was campaigned for chiefly by pro-life groups rather than by disability rights groups, and that the people behind it do not care for disabled people other than by forcing their mothers to carry them to term. This is, I believe, inaccurate.
In many parts of the developed world, disabled foetuses are an exception to the usual time limits on abortion and the UK is no exception: the usual limit is 24 weeks but the limit is waived in the case of undefined “serious handicap”. The lack of any definition to this term means that abortion has been allowed where the ‘handicap’ consists of a cleft palate, something that could be rectified surgically early on in the child’s life. There has been litigation on this subject but there is no legislative move to change it, perhaps because parliament is dominated by people who are not disabled and who perfectly understand the desire of other parents not to be the parents of disabled children — the same sort of people who could make excuses for a mother who smothered her three young disabled children to death in London in 2014. (In Ohio, the time limit is 20 weeks.)
The difference between abortion on the grounds of the baby having Down’s syndrome and any other early abortion is that the baby with Down’s syndrome was wanted up until the point where the impairment was discovered. The argument that no woman should be expected to go through pregnancy and birth for a child she does not want does not, therefore, apply, and nor does the aside “other than not being allowed control over their own body”; at the point where the doctor is punished, the woman has already been allowed this control and the pregnancy and birth are not a punishment but something the woman would have had some clue about when she conceived the child. While it’s true that some women in this situation will be poor or be disabled themselves, a large number will be in stable relationships and ready to start a family — just as long as the child is normal, and this is why there is a greater moral objection to it than to allowing early abortions of simply unwanted foetuses. If you simply do not want to carry a child or cannot for health reasons, it does not matter whether the child has Down’s syndrome or not, but there never has been any guarantee of a ‘normal’ or perfect child.
As for the claim that “conservatives do not care for disabled children once they’re born”, a standard trope of pro-abortionists: I have come across a few incidences where it was the Right rather than the (liberal) Left which defended the life or liberty of a disabled person other than an unborn child; the cases of Terri Schiavo (the brain-damaged woman whose husband was trying to turn off her life support and ultimately succeeded) and Justina Pelletier (a young girl with a mitochondrial disease who was held in a psychiatric unit in Boston for a year and a half because the doctors there disputed her diagnosis and decided her impairment was psychosomatic). It is often people with right-wing, anti-state and anti-liberal opinions who defend children with ME and other chronic illnesses from doctors who deem their conditions to be psychological and social workers influenced by them who take them from their families. This is often as much a matter of distrust of the state, professionals or intellectuals as support for their rights of disabled people, and in the US especially, these people generally support tax and budget cuts that detract from disabled people’s services. But when their very life or liberty is at stake, pro-lifers are often more than ready to support them.
A section of Willitts’s article is given to answering concerns about Down’s syndrome being “eradicated” through abortion; in some countries in Europe, the rate of abortion is such that almost no babies are born with the condition. Recently there was a video circulated on social media in which a man with Down’s syndrome was told on Dutch national TV that he cost the taxpayer an extra €48,000 per year. Unlike the United States, much of Europe has strong public health and welfare systems and despite all the talk of Christian heritage and values, much of the population has no religious impediment to aborting disabled children: they are seen as a burden, and abortion becomes a quite rational way of reducing that burden. It is not to relieve wombs but wallets: the mother can always go and conceive another child who, it is presumed, will be of greater benefit to her and to society — a worthwhile investment. Willitts hints at this herself when she says “that they will have to bring them up for another 18 years; not an easy thing to do with an unwanted child”; bringing up any child is expensive and these were initially wanted pregnancies.
Any time the issue of tightening up the law on abortion in cases of disability arises, feminists will always object on the grounds that a “woman’s choice” outweighs the issue that these abortions are motivated by disablism — the same is true when gender-selective abortion comes up, despite the fact that this can have dire consequences if large numbers of girls are being aborted, as is known to happen in India, although the same is not thought to take place here, even among communities of Indian origin. Some of them seem to see any extra restriction as a “slippery slope” towards banning abortion altogether, which perhaps has some validity in the US context where conservatives are seeking to get an anti-abortion law to the Supreme Court again to overturn Roe v Wade, but none anywhere else, and there is every chance that a law which outlaws later-than-normal abortions in cases of minor foetal abnormality (i.e. makes them subject to the same rules as other abortions) might pass the Supreme Court but a total abortion ban might not.
Willitts rightly says that the world we live in is ‘disablist’ and that “the thought of introducing a child into it that will face that disablism throughout its life can feel cruel”. But there are many groups of oppressed people in our society and only disabled children can be snuffed out before they are born even though they are all no more or less difficult to gestate and give birth to as one with Down’s syndrome. The difference is that raising a disabled child takes more commitment and expense and is more likely to require the parent(s) to fight for their child’s rights and well-being. I agree that there are better places to start in making the world — and the USA in particular, at the present time — a less disablist place but this is still progress. It does not outlaw abortions for unwanted pregnancies, only where a wanted pregnancy becomes unwanted because a foetus is not perfect (if anything, other impairments which are still liveable-with should be included), and does not penalise women.
I’m in the UK and the law in Ohio is unlikely to be copied here. The test for Down’s syndrome also tests for two other, much more severe, trisomies (Edwards and Patau’s syndromes, or Trisomy 18 and 13 respectively) and is done between the 10th and 14th week of pregnancy, so the term limit both here and in Ohio would not affect this; it’s an early abortion by most definitions. I am more interested in seeing the term limits more strictly applied where disability could not really be called serious, such that no child is ever aborted again at seven months’ gestation for something as trivial as a cleft palate. But I also believe that Down’s syndrome should not be a reason for a wanted pregnancy to be aborted.
Image source: Wikimedia, contributed by Bestbudbrian. Licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike licence, v3.0 unported.
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