Down syndrome abortions: can liberals and conservatives find common ground?
Prompted by a series of undercover videos, this past weekend saw the largest protest against Planned Parenthood in history, with tens of thousands turning out in over 300 U.S. cities. Sadly, most reporting on the videos continues to use the traditional right/left, life/choice binaries. If you are a conservative you most likely support defunding Planned Parenthood, and if a liberal you most likely do not.
But, interestingly, this binary thinking is not how most Americans actually approach abortion. Record numbers of people (especially if they are young) think of themselves as politically independent—freeing them up to support certain values of both parties. 63 percent of Republicans, for instance, want abortion to be legal. 21 million Democrats identify as pro-life. 73 percent of Americans overall want abortion banned after 12 weeks. Though our hyper-polarized politics makes it difficult to see, there is much common ground to be had.
Enter our emerging national conversation about abortion as a response to Down syndrome. This was already a lingering issue in a few states, but a front page New York Times story on a proposed Ohio law banning such abortions, along with a commentary from their editorial board, has pushed the issue to the fore of our national conversation. At first glance, especially if one’s only frame of reference are these pieces from the Times, this looks to be another polarized “right vs. left” battle in the abortion wars. But upon closer inspection, especially in light of the numbers cited above, a very different picture emerges.
First of all, consider that the editors at the Times are not using progressive principles in making their argument. Indeed, if we replaced “abortion” with “guns” the editorial could have been written by the N.R.A. Their view is that nothing—absolutely nothing—should limit “the private choice” to kill prenatal children with Down syndrome. This “anti-choice” law would not be effective in curbing what supporters say they want to limit, and would be needless “government intrusion” into “private decisions.”
This is a libertarian argument that would make Rand Paul blush. But what if, instead of through a libertarian lens, we looked at it through a progressive one, examining the ways in which American consumerism instrumentalizes the vulnerable?
People with Down syndrome are actually happier than those who are “normal,” so it is clear abortion in these cases isn’t done for the benefit of the child. Rather it is because the child doesn’t meet the quality standard the parent(s) hoped for. This consumerist mentality is built right into the very word we use for these practices more generally: re-production. The dignity of children with Down syndrome is so inconvenient for our consumerist culture that fetuses diagnosed prenatally are killed via abortion a shocking 85 percent of the time.
Another group traditionally on the left—disability rights activists—are sharply critical of this practice. Indeed, even if one does not think of the prenatal child as a person with rights, plenty of progressives are deeply uncomfortable with abortions which kill future disabled people. Why? Because of the message it sends about the value of such people in our culture. When the abortion rate of Down syndrome children is 85 percent that message is, well, unmistakable. They are simply not welcome. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that this practice is a paradigmatic example of what Pope Francis calls “the throwaway culture.”
One challenge for Democratic lawmakers is that their hands have been tied by various pro-choice lobbying groups who share the extremist views of the Times editorial board. Emily’s List, for instance, is simply a powerhouse of political might in Congress—not least because of their cash. CNN recently reported that they made a record off-year haul of 10.5 million dollars in the first half 2015. These funds are carefully distributed to party leadership and key members with the expectation that they will never vote for any abortion restrictions of any kind. This kind of power—a kind of power which, again, mirrors that of the N.R.A.—makes it very difficult for any Democrat to vote for even moderate legislation. At least if they want to keep their seat.
Both pieces in the Times also raise questions about enforceability. Since women aren’t required to give reasons for why they have an abortion, and because often such reasons are mixed and complex, it isn’t clear how the law could be enforced. This is where the law’s opponents are on their strongest ground. Far too often, abortion opponents move from moral claim to public policy without thinking about the additional layer of complexity such a move entails. But even granting this concern, the debate we have over this kind of law could still do two very important things.
First, it could address something that has been a very serious problem for some time: how physicians and health care teams interact with pregnant women and families. Too often, health care providers—not least because they are some of the most privileged people in our culture—use biased and ableist language in describing the life of a person with Down syndrome. They will sometimes even recommend abortion in such cases. This kind of law would obviously make those practices illegal.
Second, we need to remember that the law is a cultural teacher. Simply its being on the books and having physicians explain the legal situation to patients sends a social message that these disabled lives are valued by our community. Our current law and practice sends the opposite message. As we’ve seen with other kinds of laws protecting vulnerable populations, their passage has been the first step in a cultural shift in attitude and practice. So would it be with this law.
The lazy, binary, polarized abortion politics of the last forty years have made it nearly impossible for coherence and nuance to prevail in our abortion discourse. But even Americans who identify as pro-choice can get behind limiting the right in certain cases. It is high time we move beyond our simplistic approach to this complex issue and work to find those areas in which a plurality of Americans have agreement. Discouraging abortion as a response to Down syndrome could be, in fact, just such an area of agreement for those who otherwise think very differently about abortion.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University and a board member of Democrats for Life. Author of several books, his most recent is Beyond the Abortion Wars: a Way Forward for a new Generation. He tweets @nohiddenmagenta.