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August 29, 2007

Abortion "Eugenics" Debate Gathers Steam

As I was reminded during my travels, the abortion debate is by no means confined to America's borders. I saw anti-choice posters featuring fetuses on the street in downtown Vienna. But that's old-school anti-abortion activism; one newer strategy, in both the U.S. and abroad, is to portray the procedure as a form of "eugenics," whipping up moral panic over the fact that due to advances in prenatal genetic testing, up to 90 percent of expectant parents who receive a definitive prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are now choosing to terminate their pregnancies. Now, as Agence France Presse reports (via Kaiser Daily Women's Health Policy Report), Italy is awash in controversy over a botched June abortion in which the wrong twin fetus -- the one without Down syndrome -- was aborted. The pregnant woman chose to abort her second fetus when she learned of the mistake, and reported her doctors to the police. The Vatican's newspaper called the woman's original choice to abort "illegitimate." And an Italian senator wrote an op-ed declaring, "What happened in this hospital was not a medical abortion but an abortion done for the purposes of eugenics."

The intersection of reproductive justice and disability rights is one of the thorniest in medical ethics, and pregnant women are feeling the pressure on all sides. It shouldn't be presumed, for example, that women of color, poor women, or single parents will be more interested in terminating Down syndrome pregnancies because of fewer resources to care for a disabled child. In fact, in the American Latino community, more parents choose to continue such pregnancies.

But families who do decide to abort -- and who often go into genetic testing knowing they will terminate an affected pregnancy -- should not be pressured to meet with parents raising children with Down syndrome. Such programs are gaining popularity in the Down syndrome community, since parents of kids with the condition are understandably concerned that fewer people with Down syndrome means fewer resources devoted to helping people with the disease. It is this anxiety within the disability rights community that anti-choicers are poised to exploit, even as disability advocates reach out to the pro-choice community in an attempt to increase understanding. If you're interested in learning more about that dialogue, check out this piece of mine from In These Times.

Of course, it's long been an anti-choice tactic to create an acceptability hierarchy of women's reasons for choosing abortion. Remember South Dakota state representative Bill Napoli saying that the only moral abortion would be for a religious teenage virgin who'd been brutally raped and sodomized? The problem, of course, is that most people live in a world not of moral absolutes, but of gray areas, and want their laws to reflect that. That's why South Dakota voters rejected their no-exceptions abortion ban last year. So in a time of increased worry over the uses of genetic medicine, we should be on the lookout for attempts to smear women's choices with the label "eugenics." It's simple common sense that not every family can, at any given point in their lives, accept the burden of raising a severely disabled child, just as not every family can accept the burden of raising any child.

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Comments

I think that your characterization of this debate is patronizing. Disability activists have very legitimate concerns about this problem, we are not being "exploited" by abortion opponents when we voice those concerns. I think that this characterization of this debate as the fodder of those with whom you disagree is a typical mechanism used by abortion activists to avoid having on honest debate on this subject.

I think that your characterization of this debate is patronizing. Disability activists have very legitimate concerns about this problem, we are not being "exploited" by abortion opponents when we voice those concerns. I think that this characterization of this debate as the fodder of those with whom you disagree is a typical mechanism used by abortion activists to avoid having on honest debate on this subject.

I think that your characterization of this debate is patronizing. Disability activists have very legitimate concerns about this problem, we are not being "exploited" by abortion opponents when we voice those concerns. I think that this characterization of this debate as the fodder of those with whom you disagree is a typical mechanism used by abortion activists to avoid having on honest debate on this subject.

I have no idea how my previous comment got posted 3 times, but anyway, you also
mis-characterize offers from Down Syndrome parents and organizations to meet with parents who learn that their fetus has down syndrome. None of those entities have suggested that parents be "forced" to do this, and implying that they have is dishonest.

I have no idea how my previous comment got posted 3 times, but anyway, you also
mis-characterize offers from Down Syndrome parents and organizations to meet with parents who learn that their fetus has down syndrome. None of those entities have suggested that parents be "forced" to do this, and implying that they have is dishonest.

About your comment about the Hispanic-American Community continuing pregnancies even in the face of a Down Syndrome diagnosis. (As a side note, I can't speak for the rest of us, but I personally view the term "latino" or "latina" as derogatory). The reason that there is a high rate of continuation of the pregnancy there even after such a diagnosis is that roughly 75% of Hispanics on average (and up to 95% in some areas such as Spain or in South-American countries) are Catholic. And as you ought to know, Catholics are traditional pro-life supporters.

My other comment is this: You pretty blatantly classified Hispanic-Americans as either poor, short on resources, or single-parent families. Whether or not this is statistically true, I'd warn you to watch how you phrase something before you say it.

Good article all the same though. Gracias.

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