(anti)Discrimination Starts in the Womb

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.

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Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain
5 years ago

It seems that the obvious place to start is to determine when life begins. Unfortunately, this was specifically not done by the Court in the abortion debate. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Opinion:

“[W]e need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins, when those trained in the respective fields of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary at this point in the development of man’s knowledge is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

Absent this answer, we fail to understand who or what we are talking about. Honestly, this was not a mystery in 1973, and it certainly is not in 2015.

John Kilner
John Kilner
5 years ago

Thank you for speaking up on behalf of the youngest human beings in our midst who have Down Syndrome. They are human and they are beings, and their humanity is unfolding over time, as it continues to do for the rest of us. People are so much more than their particular abilities.

Steve Phillips
5 years ago

The issue is not actually when human life begins in spite of what Justice Blackmun said. A human embryo is clearly alive and is human. Each individual human life begins at conception. That is biologically clear. The issue is whether a human embryo or fetus has the same moral status as other human beings. Saying it is wrong to discriminate against those with disabilities depends on the idea that all human beings belong to a category of beings who we should treat as we would want to be treated. If membership in that category of beings is determined by an individuals capabilities then those with disabilities as well as a human embryo or fetus can be defined as being outside of those who have full moral status and can be disposed of. The only way to protect those with disabilities is to understand that every member of our species, no matter what his or her abilities may be, is included in those who should be treated as we would want to be treated.

Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain
5 years ago

My previous comment was an attempt to be pithy and resulted in my being unclear. I completely agree with Courtney Thiele that we should seek to stop any form of discrimination against human beings with disabilities at any point in their lives. But it is specifically because it is vitally important that we must do so prenatally. My medical practice specialty of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation involves the care of those with both congenital and acquired severe neuromusculoskelatal diseases, and the ongoing disabilities that those entail. While some of my patients are discriminated against, they are not at risk (at least presently) to be murdered because of their disability. Give the same congenital or acquired disease to an embryo or fetus and our society permits their murder via abortion. This is the identical situation to human beings with Down Syndrome as Courtney has outlined. Absent abortion, one can discriminate but it will not result in murder.

My reason for castigating Justice Blackmun at any opportunity is that his obfuscation at to when life begins was pivotal to the Court ruling in favor of abortion in 1973. The argument then was that whatever the embryo or fetus was, its life had not begun. Abortion cannot end what really has not begun. Subsequent to the ruling, those pro-abortion have had to intellectually concede that a life begins at conception but argued that life was no different from, say, a tadpole until some far later time of human development. In other words, abortion is not ending a “human” life. As such, the continued road to abortion hell remains paved with human abilities and attributes. Sadly, presently some pro-abortionists are conceding that the fetus is both fully human and fully alive but it is OK to murder him/her anyway (see Sarah Sawicki’s April 11th blog entry). Perhaps this is the real reason we must use the concept of discrimination as an argument against the concept of murder.

I close by recommending Dr. Kilner’s recent book “Dignity and Destiny” where he has changed (and is changing) my understanding of the Image of God from a collection of human or God-like attributes to one of connection to my Father/Lord/Holy Spirit. I believe that connection is our only claim for equal human dignity.