What Does our Culture Say About Disability and Abortion?
As I was scrolling through Instagram the other day, I noticed a post that struck my attention. It read in bold, stamp-style print, “Disabled Lives Matter.” This rally cry, borrowed from another political movement, struck a deep chord in me. Amidst all the movements for social justice and inequality, so few are speaking up for some of the most ostracized members of society. Disabled lives are among some of the least protected in our nation, and I’ve been deeply troubled to learn that this injustice is taking place before these members of society even leave the womb.
In the U.S., about 3% of babies born per year, nearly 120,000, are born with some type of disability or birth defect. However, statistics show that an astonishing amount of babies prenatally diagnosed with a disability or birth defect are aborted. Looking at Down syndrome alone, 67% of babies diagnosed during prenatal screening are aborted in the US each year. In many states, a child with a non-life threatening disability can be aborted up to the point of birth, and there are often little to no legal specifications indicating which abnormalities are grounds for termination. That means a fully-developed, viable baby can be aborted at nine months due to an extra toe. When I discovered this, it made my stomach twist and turn-it was the same feeling I got when I first learned about the Holocaust in 9th grade American History. So I dug deeper. I wanted to know, “Do abortion laws really discriminate against those with special needs?” What I found was unnerving.
America isn’t the only country whose reproductive legislation discriminates on the basis of ability. Many abortion laws in Europe are even more extreme. Global studies from the U.S. National Institute of Health found that 63% of babies diagnosed with Spina bifida are aborted, and the rates are even higher for babies with Down syndrome. In fact, in Iceland, the vast majority of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome virtually 100 percent are aborted each year, leading Iceland to be dubbed “The country where Down syndrome is disappearing” (CBS News). To make matters worse, the specifications on which defects or disabilities legally justify abortion are becoming increasingly convoluted. In the UK, for example, a public health organization reported the following: “When there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped there is no legal limit as to when abortion can take place" [emphasis added]. This means a fully developed, viable baby with Down syndrome could be legally aborted at 40 weeks. This type of legal ambiguity has also led numerous babies to be aborted for minor defects. The Telegraph reports that “54 babies with clubbed feet, 37 with cleft palates or lips, and 26 with extra or webbed fingers or toes were aborted in south-west England between 2002 and 2005.” These cases are shocking to say the least. Perhaps some of you reading have even suffered one of these minor imperfections. Sadly, however, the laws that support these cases reflect the moral climate of our society, where if something’s not perfect, we dispose of it. We treat unborn humans like inanimate items purchased at a store-- to be returned and exchanged for something better.“ Is this the kind of society we want to live in?”
Each termination of a child with a disability gives way to the extermination of an entire community of unique people. As Right to Life of Michigan correctly points out , “Newborn children with disabilities are the least protected members of society. Masked under the cloak of compassion, innocent human beings are being killed without their consent because their lives are proclaimed not worth living.” So I ask you to consider, who has the right to deem any person as less worthy of life? I write this article, not to hatefully argue against “the other side” or slander anyone’s beliefs. Rather, my aim is to share with you what is taking place in our world and offer a new perspective-one that I have gained from my time with some extraordinary kids. Kids that would have been considered less worthy of protection in the womb. They have taught me how to see beyond a disability and appreciate every life as uniquely beautiful and worthy of respect. I earnestly hope that by the time you’re done reading this, you will too.
Have you ever gotten to know someone with a special need? Has anyone with a disability ever touched your life in a notable way? If your answer to these questions are no, you were like me before I became a paraprofessional in special education. It was then that I got to know some exceptional kids, who have forever changed my perspective on disabilities. During the last two years I’ve spent in the field, I have worked one-on-one with children with ASD(Autism spectrum disorders), Down syndrome, Cerebral palsy, severe brain defects, and various intellectual disabilities. Day by day, moment by moment, these children have shown me that their worth extends far deeper than a diagnosis.
One of these instances is particularly etched in my memory. It was a sunny Friday morning and my first week working in special ed. Our school was holding a spirited outdoor assembly. Beside me, on one side, sat a stalky 5-year-old boy with Down syndrome. We’ll call him Rico. Next to him, on the opposite side, sat the lead teacher I worked under. It soon became apparent that Rico showed no interest in watching the assembly, and instead found much more delight in playing with my radio and pretending to shout orders. At one point in the assembly, Rico looked up at me with a bubbly grin, took my hand in his, and squeaked my name, “Liiiiiiiinsi.” At the same time, he took the hand of the teacher on his left, said her name in the same animated fashion, and guided our hands together until they touched. He then let out a shamelessly joyful laugh with the widest smile I’d ever seen. We both couldn’t help but immediately laugh along with him. It was in this moment of contagious joy that I first felt like I belonged.
You see, Rico has a unique gift. He brings people together with uninhibited love and effortless joy. Rico, along with all the children in my classroom, have taught me how to overcome my insecurities and be authentically myself. If I wrote every lesson these children have taught me, I’d likely develop carpal tunnel before I’d finish writing. But suffice to say, my life is immeasurably better with these children in it, and the world is brighter because of the sunshine they bring.
Abilities Outshine Disabilities
My experience with the children in my class has taught me firsthand that disability does not justify abortion. And although I believe every life is innately valuable, regardless of personal demographics or level of development, I would like to shed light on the unique benefits of having neurological, chromosomal, and intellectual diversity in society.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 13% of all students in public schools in the U.S. receive special education services. In figures, that’s 6.3 million students that have been given a diagnosis. Discussing the unique benefits of each disability is beyond the scope of this article, so let’s just focus on two: Down syndrome and autism. On one end of the pool, you have children with Down syndrome, whose intellect is slower to develop, but who often thrive in relationships and are exceptionally gifted in the art of love and acceptance. On the other end you have children on the autism spectrum, socially impeded, but often uniquely gifted in areas that require special focus. With a little patience and an open heart, anyone can see that their abilities far outshine their disabilities.
Let’s begin our discussion with Down syndrome, since this disability is being disproportionately targeted for abortion around the globe. Consider the powerful words that a man with Down Syndrome shares on this subject. Actor, special olympian, and personal hero of mine, Frank Stephens, had this to say to congress:
“First, we are a medical gift to society, a blueprint for medical research into cancer, Alzheimers, and immune system disorders. Second, we are an unusually powerful source of happiness: a Harvard-based study has discovered that people with Down Syndrome, as well as their parents and siblings, are happier than society at large. Surely happiness is worth something? Finally, we are the canary in the eugenics coal mine. We are giving the world a chance to think about the ethics of choosing which humans get a chance at life. So we are helping defeat cancer and Alzheimers and we make the world a happier place. Is there really no place for us in the world?”
A world without Down syndrome would be a world robbed of so much of its joy, patience, and open-mindedness. In an age where depression rates are skyrocketing and our country is deeply divided, our society needs more of what these individuals have to offer.
Next, consider autism. Although ASD cannot be prenatally identified at this time, researchers are currently working on technology that could do so. A reporter for BBC points out that if this technology were a reality, it would inevitably lead to many of these pregnancies being terminated. This would be a great loss to the world, especially considering that autistic minds have brought us some of history’s most revolutionizing discoveries and inventions. In fact, behavioral experts at Cambridge and Oxford claim that Albert Einstein, Sir Issac Newton, and Michael Angelo all showed compelling signs of autism. Renowned author, Ellen Notbohm describes her experience with having autism by stating;
“I work to view my autism as a different ability rather than a disability. Look past what you may see as limitations and see the gifts autism has given me. It may be true that I’m not good at eye contact or conversation, but have you noticed that I don’t lie, cheat at games, tattle on my classmates or pass judgment on other people? Also true that I probably won’t be the next Michael Jordan. But with my attention to fine detail and capacity for extraordinary focus, I might be the next Einstein. Or Mozart. Or Van Gogh.”
As Notbohm unapologetically points out, neurodiversity is a gift to the world. Through remarkable minds like hers, we have learned that autism offers a unique neurological lens that allows individuals to focus in on, examine, and discover things unseen by other perspectives. If we were to abort every atypically developing child, we would lose many beautiful and genetically diverse minds.
Can We Choose Who is Worthy of Life?
Although I could fill a book with all the priceless gifts that disabled individuals offer society, I would like to go a step further and whole-heartedly propose that their value transcends beyond what they have to offer society.
As explained above, the children in my class have taught me first hand that every life is innately valuable. I attribute worth to their lives for the same reason I attribute value to anyone, at any age, with any level of development, and living in any environment-because a human’s worth is not based on age, level of development, or environment. The value of every human life is found in the intrinsic and God-endowed nature of simply being human. The Bible tells us that life is a gift of God, which He breathed into us; and because we were created in His image, our value is innate. (Genesis 2:7) This is where I find my definition of human value. It is how I know that no child in my class is an iota less worthy of love, care, and human dignity than a normally developing child two classrooms down.
Intelligence, appearance, and normalcy do not equal value. In addition to the biblical argument to support this point, there are philosophical reasons to uphold the equal value of individuals with disabilities as well. In fact, to deny the innate human value of disabled lives is to descend down an ethical slippery slope and land in a realm of moral uncertainty. If you place restrictions on human value, what is there to keep others from discriminating against you? To demonstrate this point, consider the words of Abraham Lincoln regarding whites supposed “intellectual superiority” as a justification for slavery:
“You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own.”
By Lincoln’s logic, any time you attempt to rank human value on specific qualities, like intellect, you open the door for discrimination of all kinds. Therefore, if an unborn baby is less valuable because of a disability, does that also mean that a person living with a disability is less valuable that someone without a disability? Is a blind person less valuable than a seeing person? Is a person in a wheelchair less valuable that a person who walks? Imagine if society took a quality of yours, a quality you were born with, and decided you were less valuable because of it. Imagine, for instance, that we lived in a society where babies that would be left-handed, could now be aborted at any point in pregnancy, simply because of this one quality. Anyone who is left-handed would naturally feel degraded and personally attacked by this type of society. Tragically, this is a harsh reality for individuals in the special needs community. Can we justify ranking human value?
No other place, apart from the womb, is it acceptable to devalue a life based on level of development or ability. Why is it okay to discriminate inside the womb, and not outside? This goes to show that, intellect or ability does not equal human value. Therefore, justifying abortion on these grounds is simply discrimination.
Where Do We Go from Here?
If you’ve gotten this far, you may be wondering how you can effect change in this area. The good news is, the answer isn’t midnight rants on social media or sarcastic bumper stickers. Positive change happens when we change the stereotype, one relationship at a time. We need to welcome relationships with individuals who are different from us. If you have the opportunity to get to know someone with special needs, take it. And when you do, remember to treat disabled individuals just like you would any other human beings. If we as a society view the special needs community as equals and treat them this way, our reproductive laws will reflect this. We need to reach out, support, and accept special needs families and expectant mothers. Many pregnancy care clinics provide resources for mothers expecting a child with special needs, and we can support these organizations. By embracing and supporting the special needs community, we will construct a new cultural landscape where disabled lives are valued and celebrated both outside and inside the womb.