home Commentary, Feminism, Human Rights, North America, Politics, Society As a disabled woman, I oppose Ohio’s Down Syndrome abortion law. This is why.

As a disabled woman, I oppose Ohio’s Down Syndrome abortion law. This is why.

The Governor of Ohio, John Kasich, has signed legislation that bans doctors from carrying out abortions if the foetus has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. The Republican Governor has formalised the legislation, which would cause a doctor to lose their medical licence and be guilty of a fourth-degree felony if they carried out a termination where the foetus showed indications of the genetic difference. They could face a fine or even a prison sentence.

The person seeking the abortion would not be penalised by the law, other than not being allowed control over their own body.

Tellingly, this legislation was campaigned for by a so-called “right to life” group, i.e. a campaign group dedicated to forcing pregnant people to give birth rather than allowing them to choose a termination if they need one.

The President of Ohio Right to Life said, “Now that the Down Syndrome Non-Discrimination Act is law, unborn babies prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are given a shot at life.

He continued, “Ohio is and will continue to be a state that sees the lives of people with Down syndrome as lives worth living, thanks to this legislation”.

In the past, North Dakota and Indiana passed similar laws, the latter of which has been torn down by a federal judge who disputed the state’s right to limit abortion on the grounds of the reason a person is seeking the procedure. The former law has not been blocked but has never arisen, according to the only abortion clinic in the state, which does not perform abortions later than 16 weeks into a pregnancy.

Opposition to the law

Kellie Copeland, from NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said that the new law “exploits [families taking care of people with Down Syndrome] as part of a larger anti-choice strategy to systematically make all abortion care illegal.”

She went on: “This law shames women and will have a chilling effect on the conversations between doctors and patients because of the criminal penalties that doctors will face”.

The ACLU has slammed the legislation as “blatantly unconstitutional” and will be taking steps to challenge it in the courts.

A “non-discrimination” act

The fact that law-makers named this legislation the Down Syndrome Non-Discrimination Act is a misleading move that makes it sound like it is about disability rights rather than controlling women and other pregnant people. The reasons a person gives for seeking an abortion are not about discriminating against the foetus but are, instead, about the wellbeing, desires and future of the person carrying the pregnancy.

That person, the one whose body the pregnancy is taking place in, is the only person who should judge whether or not the cells in their uterus become a baby human or not. It is they who will have to carry them for 40 weeks and go through a long and agonising process to get them out.

Not to mention – unless adoption is on the table – that they will have to bring them up for another 18 years; not an easy thing to do with an unwanted child.

That is hardly a glowing and desirable outcome for any party in the proceedings.

Is Down Syndrome being eradicated?

There are concerns among some disability rights campaigners that advanced testing for Down Syndrome is essentially “eliminating” people with the condition. In Iceland, virtually all pregnancies where Down Syndrome is detected are terminated. The USA has an estimated termination rate of 67 percent (1995-2011), in France it’s 77 percent (2015) and in Denmark, 98 percent (2015).

The problem, however, is not with the people seeking terminations, it is with the societal problems that make bringing up a disabled child a very difficult prospect. When healthcare will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars, when you already know that your local schools are not accessible, and when social care is prohibitively expensive or unavailable entirely, the prospect of bringing up a child who may be severely disabled can seem like an impossible task.

And when you know that you live in a severely disablist world, the thought of introducing a child into it that will face that disablism throughout its life can feel cruel.

A personal decision

Nobody undergoes an abortion lightly, despite what right-wing conservatives would have you believe. Once a decision is made, the person who is pregnant needs to be able to seek out and receive the medical treatment they need, whether surgically or medically, without their doctor fearing for their medical licence or even their freedom.

A law such as this one in Ohio will only lead people to avoid carrying out diagnostic testing, causing a lack of preparation for what may be ahead, in order to maintain their right to choose. And it will criminalise doctors who are carrying out an important medical procedure for people who may be in a desperate state.

This law exploits disabled people

What really smarts with this law is the way that forced birth advocates are exploiting disabled people to continue their fight to remove choice from our lives.

They don’t care about looking after the children who are born with Down Syndrome or furthering employment rights for adults with the condition, they just care that, if the chromosomes are arranged in a certain way in the uterus, the person carrying it must carry it to term. That’s as far as their welfare considerations go.

As a disabled person, I want the world to be such that parents who find out that their child will be disabled can feel confident that their needs will be met without outrageous cost and disproportionate outlays of energy. That is how we create a world where foetuses that test positive for Down Syndrome have the same outlook as those that do not.

Imposing a legal blanket ban, on the other hand, is oppressive and tyrannical and serves to control those who, thanks to their biology, will find that it is obligatory to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth to a child they do not want or cannot look after.

Photo: University of Toronto Students for Life/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.

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