(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

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… Read more »

John Kilner
John Kilner

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

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… Read more »

Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain

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… Read more »