Despite the fear and anxiety that many parents of disabled children initially have, published research shows that—with the proper support—they routinely end up satisfied with their lives and optimistic about their children’s chances for future happiness. Moreover, the lives of adults with impairments are hardly devoid of joy. One of us is able-bodied; the other was disabled by a spinal-cord injury. Because public facilities now have ramps and elevators, we are regularly able to eat out together, frequent local watering holes, and travel to a big city. The same goes for most of our wheelchair-using friends.
The political rhetoric around abortion tells a different story. Unwittingly, abortion-rights opponents are reinforcing the dangerous idea that disabilities are an unbearable burden and, in the absence of government coercion, might be snuffed out altogether.
In recent years, legislators in a number of states have debated or enacted measures that prohibit selective abortions on the basis of fetal sex, race, or disability. Some measures specifically forbid abortions prompted by the discovery that a fetus has Down syndrome. In a lengthy opinion in a case involving Indiana’s ban on selective abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that, when Down syndrome is diagnosed prenatally in the United States, the pregnancy is usually terminated. Thomas claimed that abortion is being used to “achieve eugenic purposes.”
As it happens, Thomas was concurring with the Supreme Court’s decision not to rule on the Indiana law, thereby leaving intact a lower court’s ruling striking it down. But the issue will surely be back. Meanwhile, in supporting laws like the one in Indiana, a bevy of conservative pundits have echoed Thomas’s concerns and his language.
For many people, including us, the thought of aborting a fetus because of an impairment is a troubling one. But legalized abortion is not the problem to be solved. Beyond undermining women’s autonomy unfairly, bans on selective abortion also worsen the stigma against people with disabilities—while doing nothing to address the practical issues they and their families face.
Rather, what needs to be challenged is the notion that a physical or developmental disability is a tragedy. To reassure parents that they can, in fact, raise children with significant impairments, American society must to do more to emphasize that disability is a normal part of human diversity—and must provide more cultural, social, and emotional support for the families that experience it.
Unfortunately, popular depictions of disabled people in literature, film, and elsewhere make this difficult. Figures such as Shakespeare’s villainous Richard III or the rebarbative Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life have long signaled that living with an impairment must be miserable. But those who actually engage with disabled people—rather than avoiding them on the street or cordoning off their children for fear of seeming rude—will begin to create a far more complex picture.
Interacting with impaired individuals—and reading their work—will also impress upon able-bodied people that disability can offer the kinds of benefits we now attribute to other marginalized identities. An increasing number of employers are realizing the advantages of hiring individuals on the autism spectrum, for instance.
Disabilities vary widely in their severity, of course. Yet while there is no denying that certain fetal anomalies result in quick and devastating loss of life, many of the impaired bodies at the center of this most recent abortion debate are shrouded in other misconceptions. Contrary to popular perception, myriad individuals with Down syndrome live normal life spans, read, play sports, and enjoy relatively independent, happy lives. Studies have also debunked the assumption that they derail their parents’ marriages or the lives of their siblings, many of whom report that they’ve learned to be more caring and tolerant as a result of growing up with someone who’s disabled.
Even so, these families still need a broader embrace.
Let’s start by realizing that disability and reproductive rights can be mutually informative. For a woman to have a genuine choice about whether to carry a pregnancy to term, her access to safe and legal abortion must be coupled with the freedom to continue her pregnancy without fear of ruining her career, finances, or health. In our society, the physical and emotional costs of raising a disabled child far exceed those of bringing up able-bodied children. That should be as central a concern to advocates of reproductive rights as restricted access to birth control and abortion.
In some cases, existing policies can help close this disparity. The embattled Affordable Care Act, for example, prohibits various forms of discrimination by insurance companies and—at least in certain states—has allowed more families of disabled children to enroll in Medicaid. (The Donald Trump administration’s proposal to cut spending on Medicaid is already hurting disabled people.)
We also need new policies that better support the more than 16.8 million individuals who take care of disabled children in the United States. Female caregivers—few are male—are 2.5 times more likely than noncaregivers to live in poverty, and 23 percent of people who have cared for a family member for five years or more report poor health.
This wouldn’t necessarily be the case if the United States did more to educate employers about the needs of their employees with disabled kids, insisted that child-care professionals become more adept at interacting with these kids, and offered more resources for caregivers, including the ability for them to take time off. To that end, friends and local community members could educate themselves and volunteer their time to offer respite care for the impaired children in their lives, or at least make sure their families aren’t shunned. The empirical evidence is clear: The more social support that parents of children with disabilities receive, the easier it is for them to cope.
A world where disabled fetuses are brought to term is one in which mothers do not bear complete responsibility for the care of their children, and where disability itself is destigmatized. Ensuring that disabled individuals, and their families, have the assistance they need will do far more to protect disabled lives than any selective abortion ban ever could.