Ohio’s Symbolic Ban on Abortion for Down Syndrome Sends the Right Message

(Inara Prusakova/Getty)

I have resisted weighing in on the Ohio bill to ban abortion in cases where a baby has been diagnosed with Down syndrome, because the topic is at once terribly personal and terrifically exhausting: personal because I have a nine-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, exhausting because it seems I have spent the past nine years arguing the simple point that a diagnosis of Down syndrome should not be a death sentence.

The Ohio bill, like similar proposals in Indiana, Missouri, and South Dakota, targets abortionists, not mothers, making it a fourth-degree felony to perform an abortion if the provider knows a woman seeks one “solely because of a test result indicating Down syndrome.” It is, at best, a symbolic gesture — abortion for any reason is legal in the United States. A woman seeking an abortion following a positive test for Down syndrome need only tell her doctor a different story, about this being a particularly inconvenient time for her to have a new baby, and — presto change-o — problem solved.

Still, the symbolism is not meaningless. Symbolic laws often have value. Statutes prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability may at times be unenforceable — it’s not always possible to prove when such discrimination occurs — but they make a powerful statement about the principles that a society holds dear. Insomuch as the law is the highest expression of our values, we should not pooh-pooh the idea of a law outlawing the Down-syndrome death penalty.

Then again, there are some for whom slavish defense of the right to an abortion is the paramount political symbol. For them, the Ohio bill is beyond the pale. For them, guys like me are “forced birthers,” intent on punishing women by insisting they raise a costly and imperfect child when all they want to do is shake the proverbial Etch A Sketch and try again.

It is often said that the two sides of the abortion debate speak past each other, that they don’t even use the same language. If you ever doubted this, the summer of 2015 should have straightened you out. On the right, the undercover Planned Parenthood videos have awakened the pro-life passions of a Republican party chastened by successful Democratic rhetoric about a “war on women.” On the left, the Planned Parenthood videos have barely registered as a thing worth noticing — in fact, the presumption that the videos were either faked or “deceptively edited” has become gospel.

Among the MSNBC/New York Times crowd, it is the Ohio bill that has roused ire. Particularly indignant has been a peculiar subset of the progressive population: the fiercely pro-abortion parents of children with Down syndrome.

In recent weeks, several high-profile mainstream media outlets have given a platform to these activists. Last week, Yahoo!’s website Parenting ran a column by Hallie Levine titled “If I Knew My Daughter Had Down Syndrome, I Would Have Aborted Her—All Women Should Have That Right.” (Can you imagine Yahoo! publishing a Parenting column titled “If I Knew My Daughter Would Become a Drug Addict, I Would Have Aborted Her” or “If I Knew My Daughter Would Fail to Reach her Full Potential, I Would Have Aborted Her?” Not too likely, is it?)

Ohio’s probably unenforceable symbolic law sends precisely the right message: Down syndrome should not be a death sentence.

Levine says the Ohio bill sends the wrong message “that the decision to have an abortion stems from misguided ignorance and fears and selfishness — rather than a genuine concern for the well-being of our unborn child.” I have written previously about the claim that killing a child can be an act of love. The moral depravity of such a view should be self-evident. Don’t you wonder what will happen when Ms. Levine’s daughter grows up and reads that her mother would have erased her existence had she only known this one thing — a thing that, by the way, most parents of children with Down syndrome will tell you doesn’t define a child’s existence or limit her possibilities in life? I do.

Anyway, Levine is dead wrong. Ohio’s probably unenforceable symbolic law sends precisely the right message: Down syndrome should not be a death sentence.

This week, the New York Times jumped into the debate, publishing an op-ed by Mark Lawrence Schrad, a Villanova University political scientist and the pro-choice father of a little girl with Down syndrome. His claim? The Ohio law would lead to mass social chaos in the form of “increased stresses on the family, bankruptcies and an influx of children with disabilities into orphanages and foster care.” There is a barely detectable element of classism in Schrad’s argument. A sophisticated and relatively well-off college professor can handle raising such a child, you see, but it’s unfair to impose such a burden on the lower classes, already so riven by “stresses on the family” and unlikely to be able to handle raising a deformed baby. Let’s just avoid this unpleasantness, shall we, and bow at the convenient and politically superior altar of choice.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for these parents, so blinded by their faith in the religion of abortion that they fail to see the weird ethical corner they have painted themselves into. “The life of my child has value,” they seem to be saying, “but I can understand why you’d want to kill yours.”

What could inspire such a twisted take on parenting? Simple. To the liberal-progressive-Democratic Left, nothing matters more than abortion.


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