During law school I had the opportunity to take many courses related to health law, including a class on disability law, as well as a class that discussed emerging medical technologies. Though these classes were taught by different professors, and focused on different issues, in each class the theme of discrimination was present. At some point in each respective class, the topic of discrimination based on the prenatal diagnosis of a disability was discussed. The professors were addressing the struggle that exists between trying to simultaneously uphold anti-discrimination policies, while also supporting a woman’s legal right to choose an abortion. They recognized the staggering statistics that represent the number of children aborted upon a diagnoses of Down Syndrome as discriminatory towards people with this particular developmental disability, but were trepidatious about promoting policies that could diminish a woman’s legal right to an abortion. My former professors are intelligent, thoughtful and engaged individuals who recognized the discrimination, but were not willing to promote policies that would prohibit it.
As a pro-life woman, I was relieved that this recognition of discrimination against pre-born people with disabilities was being recognized as a problem, but also frustrated that policies promoting this type of discrimination were not being encouraged in the academic setting (at least in my law school experience). The perceived need for a right to abortion is so strong, and so engrained in our culture, that blatant discrimination is tolerated in order to uphold abortion rights. According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, 61-93% of children diagnosed prenatally to have Down Syndrome are aborted. Unfortunately, we often see disabilities as a problem, rather than a difference, and abortion is presented as a way to avoid the “problem.”
As a society, our attitude and actions towards people with disabilities needs to change. We need to treat each person, not as problem, but as fully human in action and in law. To date, only one state, North Dakota, has instituted an anti-discrimination law prohibiting abortion based on the diagnosis of Down Syndrome, although Ohio recently proposed legislation that would have the same effect, as well, should it become law (see here). Laws such as these are an important step in protecting people with disabilities, that will hopefully also impact societal perceptions. I believe if we are truly seeking to stop discrimination against people with disabilities and eliminate stigmatizations about them, it must start in the womb.