Abortions Based on Down Syndrome

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Greg is aligned with this reader’s point that laws against sex-selective abortion are “pretty much unenforceable”:

I agree that the natural response to making these abortions illegal is for parents to lie (and I seriously doubt that it’s predominantly women making these decisions; male coercion is seriously underappreciated). If you are determined to abort your child, the truth is no obstacle.

The larger point is to stigmatize this decision legally in the hope of shaping culture in a more positive direction for valuing human life regardless of how it looks. Same as incremental restrictions on smoking, soda consumption, opioid use, etc.

Another reader, William, shifts the discussion to disability:

Sex-selective abortion may not be common in the United States, but disability-selective abortion, which is also mentioned in Emma's article, sure is.  

Usually people justify abortion on the grounds of “genetic defects” by saying that the baby would have a horrible life anyway, but let’s talk about Down syndrome. Over 90% of babies with that condition in this country are never given a chance at life. People with Down syndrome are not vegetables. Their average life expectancy is 60 years. By all accounts they bring love and joy into the lives of those around them. Some are even able to hold down jobs and apartments.

I support keeping abortion legal at least early in development, and I also don’t mean to downplay the hardships of parents raising children with Down syndrome, which is a lifelong and arduous task. But a 90% abortion rate, even though it’s not literal eugenics (which would imply an organized effort rather than a set of individual decisions), is functionally equivalent. Pointing that out is not “getting into the weeds” [as Terri put it].

Another reader adds:

Taking care of children with genetic abnormalities is incredibly expensive (we’re talking on the order of millions of, typically, tax-payer funded medical services over a life time), incredibly difficult on the parents, incredibly difficult on the marriage, and the child’s quality of life is sub-par at best. So, while I would say we probably should prohibit abortion based on sex, lest we end up with a world full of males, abortion based on virtually any other reason is more than acceptable. It is the woman’s choice whether she has a child, not anyone else’s.

Have you ever had to confront that choice—to abort or keep a fetus with Down Syndrome? If you’d like to share your experience, in an anonymous space, please let us know.