North Dakota's Ban Is a Bad Way to Stop Selective Abortion

Culture as a whole needs to change to be more supportive of children with chromosomal conditions.
James MacPherson

The governor of North Dakota signed into law three bills related to restricting abortion services last week. These laws include a prohibition on "selective abortion." Women in North Dakota, therefore, can no longer choose abortion based upon a prenatal diagnosis of anything from Down syndrome (the most common chromosomal condition, which now comes with a life expectancy of 60) to anencephaly, in which a fetus' cerebral cortex does not develop and an early death is certain. Some disability advocates have hailed the bill as a step towards a more just and open society. Mark Leach, a lawyer and father of a child with Down syndrome, writes, "public policy starts with the statement that discrimination is prohibited and then states enact policies to create a society where discrimination is no longer a barrier." Leach also backs legislative action that provides information and support for women with prenatal diagnoses, as recent laws in Kentucky and Massachusetts have done.

Other parents of children with Down syndrome have expressed concern over the North Dakota law. Alison Piepmeier, director of women's and gender studies at the College of Charleston, wrote in an essay for Motherlode this week:

If North Dakota really does want it to be "a great day for babies in North Dakota" and wants to prove that "a civil society does not discriminate against people ... for their sex or for disability," it should make the state a welcoming place for people with disabilities. The state could take the cash reserves it has put aside for legal challenges to its laws and use those funds to train public schools to be meaningfully inclusive (as all the best research shows is the way to go). It could provide easily accessible medical care and early intervention. The state could develop independent -- but supported -- housing for adults with intellectual disabilities so that there are not waiting lists years long.

Piepmeier's essay has received nearly 400 comments that offer further arguments both in support of her position and in support of selective abortion based upon prenatal diagnoses. On both sides, however, the governing question circles back to the abilities of individuals with Down syndrome and other genetic conditions. Piepmeier's daughter, at age four, reads and sings and chats with her mom. Other readers offer stories of older people with Down syndrome who can't bathe themselves. Both examples are intended to argue for and against the merits of having people with Down syndrome in our families and communities based upon their individual abilities.

As the mother of a child with Down syndrome, it is tempting to join this conversation by touting my daughter's merits. At age seven, Penny is included in her first grade classroom, with the support of a special education teacher. Penny's most recent report card demonstrates both her abilities--she reads and writes ahead of her grade level--and her challenges--she will need summer school to help with her math skills and her impulsivity. Penny's experience is not the same as every child with Down syndrome, and yet plenty of other parents could write similar sentences to try to demonstrate their child's value based upon the things they can do, the assumptions that their lives overturn.

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