Five myths in the abortion and Down syndrome debate

The New York Times continues their campaign against even the most moderate and popular policies that protect the lives of prenatal children. In the last several days they have run three very critical pieces about Ohio’s proposed law protecting babies with Down syndrome, with the most recent one released today. (The original story is here, and here is the editorial that followed it.) The latest piece, by a professor of political science at Villanova University, operates upon five assumptions or myths, which need to be called out as such. Here they are:

1. We know when babies in utero have Down syndrome.

Advertisement

Given that we kill 85 percent of babies via abortion thought to have Down’s, you might think that we are confident that these children do, in fact, have the condition. But there are many, many mistakes made with prenatal diagnosis, with NBC News reporting “positive results can be wrong 50 percent or more of the time.” Down syndrome is no exception. As I’ve been writing on this issue more and more of late, I’ve received numerous e-mails from parents who have told me story after story of being given a diagnosis, along with implicit pressure to abort, with the end result being a birth of a child who didn’t have Down syndrome. Ironically, the author of today’s piece in the Times was given a false diagnosis of Down’s for his child.

2. People with Down syndrome lead painful, burdensome lives and are better off not being born.

This is objectively false given that people with Down’s are actually happier than people who are normal. They are also quite independent, needing very little additional care. Here, for instance, are several people with Down syndrome saying precisely this in a video titled “Dear Future Mom.” We should be honest as a culture about the fact that these children are killed at such a high rate—not because they are a burden on themselves—but because having a child with Down’s doesn’t meet our expectations. This is a classic example of the throwaway culture that Pope Francis is calling us to reject.

3. Americans support abortion in the case of Down syndrome.

Without citing evidence, the author of the Times piece says that Americans are “significantly less critical” of abortion in the case of “mental and physical impairment.” It is unclear which polling is being referenced here, but the claim is deeply problematic since it fails to distinguish different kinds of impairment. Someone will think differently, obviously, about an abortion in a case in which the child will never have consciousness (as in the case of anencephaly) versus a case in which the child will lead a happier life than those who are “normal” (as in the case of Down syndrome). So, at least without more data, we have to say that the claim Americans support killing babies in utero because they have Down’s is a myth. Anecdotally, I’ve never met a pro-choice person who isn’t horrified that the abortion rate for Down syndrome children is 85 percent, especially when they learn that they lead happy and full lives.

4. Attempts to restrict abortion come from pro-life conservatives who wish to override a woman’s right to choose.

This appears to be a misunderstanding wrought of the culture wars. As I emphasized in my previous piece in America

21 million Democrats identify as pro-life and 73 percent of Americans overall want abortion banned after 12 weeks. Furthermore, over 60 percent of Republicans want abortion to remain legal in some form, and nearly 70 percent of pro-lifers want abortion legal in cases of sexual violence and when the mother’s life is threated. Though it doesn’t get a lot of play in our polarized, binary-obsessed public sphere, many liberals want abortion restrictions and many conservatives want legal abortion. The lazy political story that the Times continues to tell us is false. And it is particularly false in the case of restricting abortion in the case of Down syndrome, a fight that is led by progressive disability activists. Unfortunately the Democratic party is unwilling to challenge the “abortion on demand without apology” dogma of NARAL and Planned Parenthood, so disability activists are forced to work with conservatives on this issue. But a more natural home would be the party that claims to use the government to protect the voiceless and vulnerable.

5. Pro-lifers who want to restrict abortion in the case of Down syndrome are also trying to slash government programs like Medicaid that help people with disabilities.

To repeat: “pro-lifers” are a diverse group and can’t be boxed in politically. Jon Kasich—the pro-life conservative governor of Ohio who will likely sign this bill into law (he has apparently signed every other piece of pro-life legislation)—expanded that state’s support of Medicaid. Many, many pro-lifers agree that we should continue to expand our resources for the disabled—especially those with profound disabilities. But, let us remind ourselves that people with Down’s very rarely fall into this category. Here, for instance, is the story of a friend I wrote about in a piece I did a few weeks ago for The Washington Post. It is an important story to keep in mind as we think about our abortion practices and the lives of people with Down syndrome:

My parents were told [my sister] might never read, yet she does (currently the “Hunger Games” series). My parents were told she might never talk and she does talk (favorite topic: Taylor Swift). My parents were told—in effect—to lower their expectations. They never did and she has excelled. Veronica holds a job working 10-12 hours a week in a local outpatient clinic. She volunteers at a daycare center. She is extremely active in several local clubs and organizations. She was on the swim team in high school. She rides horses. She is a vocal advocate for disabilities awareness. Veronica has a busier social schedule than I do. She even dates a nice young man—much to her older brothers’ chagrin.

Description: https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif

 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Gallagher
2 years 3 months ago
Nice article but I think we need to be clear on point 1. If the "diagnosis" of trisomy 21 is by cell-free DNA or first trimester screen it is not definitively accurate. But if there was a CVS or amniocentesis done it is 99.999% accurate. It is misleading to say that it is 50%. So, our counseling should be aimed not at doubting the diagnosis but at conveying some of the other truths in this article.
Crystal Watson
2 years 3 months ago
I think your assertion that people who are pro-choice are also those who are trying to slash Medicaid is completely false. It's mostly Democrats who are pro-choice and they are the ones who defend Medicaid. I speak from experience as someone who is pro-choice, a Democrat, a person with a disability, and someone who uses Medicaid herself.
Tim Reidy
2 years 3 months ago

Cristal, this isn't the argument Prof. Camosy is making. He is saying that many pro-lifers support the expansion of Medicaid.

Crystal Watson
2 years 3 months ago
I think what he is trying to do, both in this post and the previous one, is to link those who are pro-choice with those who are hostile to disabled people. I believe that's a false conflation.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
Am I imagining things or is Charles Camosy glossing over the fact that the author of the article he is hyper critical of is a pro choice person who with his wife chose to bring to term a fetus with the likelihood of down syndrome against his doctor's advice. He made the choice and is advocating for the right for all to have that choice. Camosy might be right that Republicans support medicaid. But is his apparently deceptive article he gives the author no credit. Please relieve me of my delusion
Bill Collier
2 years 3 months ago
Call me jaded, but I have to wonder if the NYT thought it had scored a dunk with a pro-choice article written by a Villanova professor.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
Bill, Unfortunately, you like Camosy did not read the article by the professor. Here is a telling part of it, hopefully , to get you to read the whole piece. "Importantly, the conventional social dynamics around abortion are completely reversed. Among the families of people with disabilities, you’ll find ardent pro-choice advocates (like my wife and me) who choose not to abort. And with a vast majority of diagnoses ending in abortion, you’re likely to find many strident pro-life conservatives opting for abortion in the face of such challenges. This doesn’t mean these people are hypocrites. Rather, it shows how tricky the issue is. In a typical pregnancy, women who choose to have an abortion are often saddled with shame and social stigma, even from friends, relatives and the broader public. Meanwhile, despite recent strides, there remains significant stigma associated with being the parent of a child with special needs." This is the debate that Camosy states that he is for. Yet when he gets it he disavows it. This does not sit well.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 3 months ago
Bill - I think you are being presumptuous assuming the article was not read. I read the whole thing. I found the piece you quote as very self-serving. Exactly how does Mark Schrad know what pro-life people will do? He provides no evidence. He just assumes that pro-choice people are better than prolifers, like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 who, "standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." It is a good that Mark and his wife chose not to have their daughter killed, but we live in odd times when such an act is considered an act of charity rather than an act of common justice. Mark and his wife still do not seem to mind if 90% of Down Syndrome children are killed by others, as long as the absolute right to kill the unborn is preserved. Perhaps, they might ask their daughter when she grows up if she thinks society should stand up for the right to life of other people with Down Syndrome?
Renate Lindeman
2 years 3 months ago
It is the SCREENING that places women for a difficult, if not impossible, choice. It is the screening that reduces women to incubators of societal preferred descendants. Voices that claim our unborn children need to be tested before it is decided they are worthy to be born. It is the CHOICE that should NOT be a CHOICE. Because if this choice wasn't a choice, everybody would be fighting for inclusion, equal rights and support for children who are different and their mothers (families). I am a feminist, and a mother of three and I detest the fact that women and pro-choicers are fighting for the right of selective abortion and allow industry and governments routinely into our wombs under the false pretence of women's rights. Genetic screening to enable selection is in fact the latest tool in women's suppression.
Renate Lindeman
2 years 3 months ago
It is the SCREENING that places women for a difficult, if not impossible, choice. It is the screening that reduces women to incubators of societal preferred descendants. Voices that claim our unborn children need to be tested before it is decided they are worthy to be born. It is the CHOICE that should NOT be a CHOICE. Because if this choice wasn't a choice, everybody would be fighting for inclusion, equal rights and support for children who are different and their mothers (families). I am a feminist, and a mother of three and I detest the fact that women and pro-choicers are fighting for the right of selective abortion and allow industry and governments routinely into our wombs under the false pretence of women's rights. In fact, genetic screening to enable selection is the latest tool in the ancient practice of women's suppression. I wish pro-choicers would realize their noble fight (for selection) to set women free in fact increases pressure to bare the perfect child and shifts funding from support to 'prevention'. Their fight hurts women's rights.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A reflection for the third Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 16, 2017
Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017
Why not tax individuals for what they take out of society instead of what they contribute?
Paul D. McNelis, S.J.December 15, 2017
Pope Francis will renew the mandate of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for another three years, informed sources told America this week.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 15, 2017