What leads people to choose abortion due to disability?

A recent op-ed in Newsweek explored a mother’s emotional roller coaster after a friend told her that had she been in her position, she would have aborted her child. Liz Brown discussed the aftermath of hearing that some people think it’s better for her son — who is severely autistic and nonverbal — to have been killed rather than born.

Brown was having coffee with a friend when they began to discuss IVF and pregnancy. “[S]he said she couldn’t bear the thought of raising a disabled child and that she would have an abortion if she found out her fetus had any severe disabilities,” Brown wrote. “I tried to keep quiet and failed. ‘What about Johnny?’ I blurted, ‘Would you abort him?’ The metal café table wobbled and creaked as she picked up her cup of decaf and said, ‘Maybe’. It came out of her mouth so fast and casual we both knew what she meant was, ‘Yes’.”

Currently, there is no prenatal test for autism — but that may soon change, leading to fears that autistic children will be the next to be targeted in eugenic abortions.

Though the conversation hurt, Brown said it also helped her to shift her focus to one of gratitude. What if she had been able to choose an abortion?

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“The idea that given the choice, I might not have chosen my little boy broke my heart. Anger and sadness still take their turns with me some days, but I’ve turned a corner and grown up a lot in the months since that conversation,” she said. “I can focus more clearly on Johnny’s hugs, giggles, and his love of spinning and eating cookies—usually at the same time. Last year he learned to jump. He is learning to use a picture board to tell me which movie he wants to watch. Every small success is so precious to me.”

But why is it that so many people find the idea of disability so terrifying?

Disability, coercion, and abortion

Parents who receive a prenatal diagnosis of a disability often face immediate pressure to undergo an abortion. Doctors have been caught giving outdated, inaccurate information about disabilities, which one survey found was a direct attempt to pressure parents into abortion.

A campaign from the Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network revealed how cruelly the news of a prenatal disability is delivered; doctors told parents their child was an “it” or a “vegetable,” and would be better off dead. Heather Bradley, a member of the Board of Directors and former president of DSDN, spoke to a maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) specialist from Wisconsin at an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists District meeting in Wisconsin.

“[H]e said that delivering a Down syndrome diagnosis was like giving someone a ‘crap sandwich,’” she wrote on Facebook. “When a new or expectant parent is just told the news their baby has Down syndrome and the first words are ‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘When should I schedule the termination?’, what is that physician saying about their CHILD? It most definitely tells them that their child IS a ‘crap sandwich.’”

This isn’t just an issue with Down syndrome, either; one woman, whose daughter had been diagnosed with spina bifida, was urged at every single appointment to have an abortion. Women have even been urged to have abortions simply for being a carrier for cystic fibrosis — without even knowing for certain their child had the condition.

How ableism colors the debate

In 2012, Dr. Phil featured a woman named Annette Corriveau who wanted to kill her children because they both have disabilities. Both are nonverbal and are fed through feeding tubes — so Corriveau claimed there is no point in letting them live. She feels that their lives consist of nothing but “suffering,” even though she admitted that she has no clue what their quality of life is like.

And that is the problem. Judging someone’s quality of life is an entirely subjective matter; Corriveau cannot know what brings her children joy, if they find happiness and comfort in various activities or situations. Yet people regularly assume that to live with a disability means to live a life filled with suffering — as if a disability prevents someone from having a fulfilling, happy life.

Society accepts death as an alternative to life with disability. Parents who violently murder their children with disabilities often get a slap on the wrist, because the world sees their plight — raising their child — as a tragedy. In the United Kingdom, people with disabilities are told they should have been aborted, and regularly face horrific bullying and abuse.

One woman, a wheelchair user, was protesting the ableist film “Me Before You,” and asked as a joke for people to give her money to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide. The joke stopped being funny when she received tons of donations. “There were people who said if they were in a wheelchair, they would also want to die,” she said. “And nobody said: ‘Why do you want to die?’ Nobody said: ‘Are you okay?’ It was such an awful moment for our group of people and it was the thing that solidified for me that we actually can’t safely put in place in this country assisted suicide legislation.”

A life worth living

The reality is that every life matters. A person’s life is no less valuable because of a disability; one’s worth is not based on how successful they can be, or how many fun things they can check off their bucket list. Even the most severely disabled person is a human being with intrinsic value and worth — and yet, that simple reality has been completely ignored. Instead, a person’s worth is seen by how much potential they appear to have, if they are perceived to be capable of accomplishing something great.

Because the lives of persons with disabilities are so devalued, it’s much easier for people to encourage abortion and assisted suicide for those people. Yet no one should be deprived of their most basic right — the right to life — solely because another person deems it as unworthy. Every life is important. Every life matters. And every person, disabled or not, deserves the chance to live.

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