Opinion

Protect children with Down syndrome. The right to life does not rely on chromosomes.

down-syndrome

Ohio’s HB135 proposes a ban on abortions based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. While pro-life and Down syndrome advocates have applauded the bill, others have been outraged at what they call another attack on a woman’s right to “choose.” Two women both wrote about their perspectives on the bill, both of whom have intensely personal connections with Down syndrome.

Rachel Mullen wrote about how she was told that her preborn child likely had Down syndrome. Like most women facing a prenatal diagnosis, she was referred to a maternal-fetal medicine specialist. Also like so many women, she was promptly pressured to have an abortion.

I was sent to a high-risk obstetrician seemingly immediately. The first thing I said to this doctor was that I would never abort my child, and I didn’t want her to even suggest this. She either found this to be a challenge she wanted to win or she just didn’t care about what I said.

The doctor had nothing positive to say about my child. In strong-armed fashion, she told me if I really loved my child I would have an abortion, because it was a caring decision that put the child first. She actually said, “You would be doing your baby a favor to have an abortion.”

I can’t imagine anyone with an ounce of a conscience believing that ripping a child to bits would be considered a favor. But she was trying to strip my child of humanity without concern for her ethical integrity.

I was also hammered with incorrect facts about children with Down Syndrome. The one that sticks out in my mind years later is that most children with Down Syndrome don’t live to see their first birthday. This is a complete lie, as the life expectancy for people with Down Syndrome is 60 years.

This is not unusual, sadly. Most women with a prenatal diagnosis receive inaccurate information, and feel that they were given the diagnosis in an overwhelmingly negative manner. Mullen’s baby was born without Down syndrome, but she steadfastly refused to kill her child just because there was an extra chromosome present. When Mullen underwent more testing to confirm the diagnosis and found out that the baby had the typical number of chromosomes, the treatment she received from her doctors changed. Before, the baby was a fetus who needed to be killed right away; now, her child was back to being called a baby. Once the doctor knew that Mullen’s child was “normal,” the preborn baby was worthy of basic human dignity and worth, again.

This, Mullen explains, is why such a bill is necessary. Preborn babies with Down syndrome face overwhelming discrimination, and that discrimination is present for one reason only: to eliminate an entire group of people, purely because they happen to possess an extra chromosome.

Meanwhile, another mother had the complete opposite view. Hallie Levine is the mother of a little girl who has Down syndrome named Johanna. She identifies herself as “pro-choice” first, and the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, second. And if she had known that her daughter had Down syndrome, she says she would have aborted her. She was scared throughout her pregnancy that her daughter had Down syndrome, but her doctor talked her out of having an amniocentesis —unwittingly saving Johanna’s life.

It turns out my fears were warranted: My daughter arrived a month early, with a shock of dark hair, a huge, lusty cry — and a diagnosis of Down syndrome. An hour after she was born, a team of specialists were in the delivery room informing me Johanna had an intestinal obstruction that would require immediate surgery, as well as a suspected heart defect. I just stared at them in absolute shock, thinking, “I never signed up for this.”

The problem with this attitude is that, as parents, we are never guaranteed anything. We might give birth to a seemingly healthy child, only to later discover that he has autism; or, that healthy child might get into a car accident one day and become disabled; or, they might have a learning disability— and on it goes. It is something that parents should be prepared for. We aren’t promised healthy, perfect children. We are only promised children, whose lives have intrinsic worth and value, regardless of whether they are born with a disability.

Legislation like Ohio’s, which strips a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy because of Down syndrome, is the ultimate form of condescension to mothers. It sends the message that we’re hyper-emotional during pregnancy, that we can’t think clearly, and that the decision to have an abortion stems from misguided ignorance and fears and selfishness – rather than a genuine concern for the well-being of our unborn child. Over the years, since I’ve written candidly about my post partum depression, I’ve been contacted by many women faced with the heartbreaking decision of whether or not to continue their pregnancy. After talking to some of them for hours, I have to say: I’m so grateful I did not have to make that choice.

This is where Levine gets it shockingly wrong. This legislation has absolutely nothing to do with condescension towards mothers, or thinking that women are hyper-emotional. It’s about stopping the deadly discrimination towards preborn children with Down syndrome.

Despite the fact that Levine has a child with Down syndrome herself, she still repeats one of the most ignorant and offensive tropes so often leveled towards mothers grappling with what to do after receiving a prenatal diagnosis: that abortion is for the well-being of the preborn child. A child could potentially be better off dead than alive with Down syndrome, because apparently Down syndrome is a fate literally worse than death. The fact is, there is nothing merciful about aborting a baby because they have Down syndrome. It’s not because the parent is truly thinking about what’s best for the baby; they’re thinking about what they think is best for them. It is an inherently selfish act to snuff out the life of a preborn baby just because they have an extra chromosome, because life might be a little less convenient, and because that child might demand a little more work than they otherwise expected. It’s not loving, kind, or merciful to kill someone because you don’t feel like putting in the effort to raise them.

As a country, we are usually outraged at the thought of a person being discriminated against due to disability. Why, then, should we accept such discrimination when it happens in the womb? Levine claims that this bill attacks women, but to the contrary — it would put an end to doctors like the one Mullen encountered, who would have been committing a felony if this bill was the law at the time.

It is the doctors, and not the women struggling with one of the most difficult decisions of their lives, that will be held accountable. Ultimately, it is important to remember that this is not actually an issue of abortion, women’s rights, or being pro-life. It’s about discrimination, and ending the epidemic of discrimination that thousands upon thousands of preborn children with Down syndrome face every day— and sadly, pay for it with their lives.

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