Abortion Bans Are About Controlling Women, Not Protecting Babies

by Meredith Bland
Originally Published: 
Image via Scott Olsen/Getty Images

Law prevents physicians from performing abortions on fetuses that have or may have Down syndrome

Women in the United States…for the moment, at least…have the right to choose whether or not they want to carry a pregnancy to term. But on December 22nd, the state of Ohio passed a law that bans abortions in cases where the fetus “has or may have” Down syndrome.

Last month, Governor John Kasich signed into law House Bill 214, which is scheduled to go into effect in late March. The new law “prohibit[s] a person from performing, inducing, or attempting to perform or induce an abortion on a pregnant woman who is seeking the abortion because an unborn child has or may have Down Syndrome.”

The bill is being heralded by anti-choice activists as a victory against discrimination, not abortion. Said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life: “Ohio is and will continue to be a state that sees the lives of people with Down syndrome as lives worth living, thanks to this legislation.” Right. Because Ohio stands for people with developmental disabilities — unless they need healthcare, in which case they’ll receive inadequate and inferior services. Ohio: We Provide Great Birth-Care For People With Developmental Disabilities, But After That Please Wash Your Hands And Get A Flu Shot.

Some supporters even have the gall to refer to the bill as the “Down Syndrome Non-Discrimination Act,” which is both disingenuous and offensive. I don’t doubt that some of those people truly believe that they are honoring people with developmental disabilities with this law, but I would bet that for the majority of them this is a way to push anti-choice legislation under the guise of disability rights. As Emily Chestnut, the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome told CNN, “I think they are using Down syndrome as a face to restrict women from having abortions.”

It’s worth noting that this bill only has consequences for doctors, and not for the pregnant women involved. And those consequences are harsh: any physician who violates the law is guilty of a “felony of the fourth degree” and may be barred from practicing medicine in the state of Ohio. They can also be held liable for: “…compensatory and exemplary damages and reasonable attorney’s fees to any person, or the representative of the estate of any person, who sustains injury, death, or loss to person or property as the result of the performance or inducement or the attempted performance or inducement of the abortion.” The pregnant woman, however, will not be criminally liable.

This provision is an attempt to make it look like the law respects women’s rights, and is undoubtedly a reaction to the uproar that ensued after the president said during his campaign that women who have abortions should be punished. But let’s not forget that the purpose of the bill is to take away women’s choices — that provision only guarantees that fewer doctors will want to be involved in testing for Down syndrome or even discussing the possibility that a woman’s fetus might test positive for it. And that means a lot more women are going to be delivering babies with Down syndrome without having adequate information or support ahead of time.

In the Down syndrome community, opinions on the bill are split. Some agree with Chestnut and say that children with Down syndrome are being used as pawns in the abortion debate. Others, like mom Kelly Kuhns, who testified in support of the bill, believe that these kind of abortions are wrong because, as Kuhns said about her son, “He’s still a baby. He’s still worthy of a life just like everybody else.”

I don’t think anyone, regardless of which side they’re on, would argue that people with Down syndrome aren’t “worthy of a life.” The issue here is whether or not women should be forced to continue with a pregnancy that they don’t want. Period. How those women feel about having a child with Down syndrome is their business. Their reasons may be based on bias, or they may be based on economic and relationship barriers, but either way, it’s no one else’s right to take the choice away from them.

What supporters of the law are purposefully getting confused is that there is a difference between discriminating against people living with a disability, and women choosing to end their pregnancies. As with any anti-choice argument, they want people to believe that women choose to have abortions like they choose what shoes they’re going to wear that day — that it’s an easy choice with no consequences and is made based on convenience. This is simply not the case and demonstrates a lack of respect for women and the decisions they make. There are a lot of people out there who think that we need to police women’s choices because if we’re allowed to make decisions all willy-nilly we could do something they don’t like. This isn’t about Down syndrome just like abortion has never been about babies — it’s about exerting control over women and ensuring that we continue to do what we’re best for: breeding.

Every person who is born with any kind of disability (and I am one of them) deserves to live as happy and productive a life as possible. But every woman also has the right to decide whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term. And forcing a woman to give birth to a child with Down syndrome just so she can prove that she has no bias against them seems like an incredibly poor reason to bring a baby with special needs into the world.

Instead, we should be making sure that women have all the information and resources they need to make this kind of decision. In a statement about the bill, Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, put it this way: “When a woman receives a diagnosis of Down syndrome during her pregnancy, the last thing she needs is Governor Kasich barging in to tell her what’s best for her family…This law does nothing to support families taking care of loved ones with Down syndrome. Instead, it exploits them as part of a larger anti-choice strategy to systematically make all abortion care illegal.”

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