Abortion and disability

Interesting piece in the Atlantic about how we think about genetic diseases in fetuses and the issue of abortion:

The political rhetoric around abortion tells a different story. Unwittingly, abortion-rights opponents are reinforcing the dangerous idea that disabilities are an unbearable burden and, in the absence of government coercion, might be snuffed out altogether.

In recent years, legislators in a number of states have debated or enacted measures that prohibit selective abortions on the basis of fetal sex, race, or disability. Some measures specifically forbid abortions prompted by the discovery that a fetus has Down syndrome. In a lengthy opinion in a case involving Indiana’s ban on selective abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that, when Down syndrome is diagnosed prenatally in the United States, the pregnancy is usually terminated. Thomas claimed that abortion is being used to “achieve eugenic purposes.”

For many people, including us, the thought of aborting a fetus because of an impairment is a troubling one. But legalized abortion is not the problem to be solved. Beyond undermining women’s autonomy unfairly, bans on selective abortion also worsen the stigma against people with disabilities—while doing nothing to address the practical issues they and their families face.

Rather, what needs to be challenged is the notion that a physical or developmental disability is a tragedy. To reassure parents that they can, in fact, raise children with significant impairments, American society must to do more to emphasize that disability is a normal part of human diversity—and must provide more cultural, social, and emotional support for the families that experience it. [emphases mine]

Unfortunately, popular depictions of disabled people in literature, film, and elsewhere make this difficult. Figures such as Shakespeare’s villainous Richard III or the rebarbative Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life have long signaled that living with an impairment must be miserable. But those who actually engage with disabled people—rather than avoiding them on the street or cordoning off their children for fear of seeming rude—will begin to create a far more complex picture.

Interacting with impaired individuals—and reading their work—will also impress upon able-bodied people that disability can offer the kinds of benefits we now attribute to other marginalized identities. An increasing number of employers are realizing the advantages of hiring individuals on the autism spectrum, for instance.

Disabilities vary widely in their severity, of course. Yet while there is no denying that certain fetal anomalies result in quick and devastating loss of life, many of the impaired bodies at the center of this most recent abortion debate are shrouded in other misconceptions. Contrary to popular perception, myriad individuals with Down syndrome live normal life spans, read, play sports, and enjoy relatively independent, happy lives. Studies have also debunked the assumption that they derail their parents’ marriages or the lives of their siblings, many of whom report that they’ve learned to be more caring and tolerant as a result of growing up with someone who’s disabled.

And yet… Here’s the part where I complain that the authors absurdly elide the difficulty of very many disabilities.  We are so lucky with how well Alex is doing, but part of having a child with substantial cognitive impairment is being around a lot of other kids with significant disabilities.  And, quite often with cognitive impairment comes substantial physical disabilities (extreme difficulty or impossibility of feeding on own, walking, or basic self care).  And you know what, that’s really, really hard.  To ignore all this by saying “Down’s Syndrome ain’t so bad!”  (I’ve been around a lot of Down’s kids– it ain’t!) I actually find kind of insulting.  The authors paint a picture of, well, there’s those really horrible cases of the kids who are super-impaired and have a limited life span versus the “happy” Downs kid.

And, yet, there’s a huge range in between and some of that range is incredibly difficult for parents.  I’m not at all saying parents should automatically abort kids with a variety of genetic diseases, but in downplaying this issues, I think the authors present a fundamentally dishonest argument.  And, yes, we sure as hell should “provide more cultural, social, and emotional support for the families that experience it” but again, the whole “just a normal part of human diversity” take is, I would argue, to a significant degree, to downplay just how severely many individuals are affected.

I don’t have any right or easy answers to this debate, but it is not at all fair to engage in it just by essentially arguing, “but, wait, Downs’ kids are great!”

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