Down Syndrome at the Intersection of Women's Health and Disability Rights

Last summer, HB 135 in Ohio was on track to become law, but has spent most of this year's legislative session in committee. The law would "prohibit a person from performing, inducing, or attempting to perform or induce an abortion on a pregnant woman who is seeking the abortion because of a test result indicating Down syndrome." Last month, Indiana passed a similar bill into law, complete with specific reference to Down syndrome. These anti-abortion bills try to pass as anti-eugenics bills. They aren't. They are thinly-veiled tools to control women's reproductive rights, especially the rights of women with Down syndrome and other genetic conditions.

Down syndrome is a particularly interesting choice for laws focused on a particular health condition and reproductive rights. Most men who have Down syndrome are infertile, while most women with the condition are able to reproduce, with a 50 percent chance that the child will have Downs (regardless of maternal age). That is a much higher rate than occurs in the general population, even among older mothers.

To be clear, Ohio's HB 135 and Indiana's HB 1337 use sympathy and pity toward a minority group as a tool to garnish rights from a large swath of the general population: ALL women. However, these regulations victimize people who live with Down syndrome even more than people who don't. Medical practitioners face felony charges under HB 135, which may drive them to treat patients with Down syndrome differently. They could find reason to provide less information, fewer tests, or even deny prenatal care entirely.

Women with Down syndrome and other genetic conditions suffer as a result of these regulations. Families planning for a future with a prenatal diagnosis suffer as well.

Hallie Levine speaks to the difference between finding a path with a child born with Down syndrome, as opposed to being forced into it. This is a huge distinction. Love cannot be legislated. Some mothers will choose to bear children who have a prenatal diagnosis of any number of conditions, and those families will find their way with assistance from numerous disability advocates. In essence, the choice is what makes the future brighter for these families.

David M. Perry wrote about HB 135 and discussed the need for more educational and employment opportunities, and less stigmatization of the words "Down syndrome." A law which singles out Down syndrome does exactly the opposite. It shames parents for seeking information, and garnishes rights from families for receiving what could be devastating news for many (especially poor) families. It makes the diagnosis scarier than it should be, and once again takes rights away from women and puts it in the hands of a mostly male legislative body. As Kellie Copeland of Naral Pro-Choice Ohio put to the New York Times, "For us, it comes down to who makes the decision and who's going to have to live with it. Not knowing the family and the circumstances, the legislature can't possibly take into account all the factors involved."

Ironically, one of the proponents of HB 135, Rachel Mullen, speaks to the shame of abortion in the same New York Times article. "They told me that I should get an abortion fast, so no one would know I was pregnant and I wouldn't have the stigma of abortion..." It is time lawmakers recognize that these laws not only harm women and disabled individuals, but may well rush women into making an uninformed choice, rather than speaking frankly and comfortably with the doctors they trust. Unenforceable laws such as HB 135 do little more than perpetuate and increase the very stigma Mullen recognizes. Clearly, everyone would benefit from less stigma -- all parents considering having a child, all women considering having an abortion, and all people living with Down syndrome and other genetic conditions.