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.
Adam Cohen: Clarence Thomas knows nothing of my work
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.
Michael Wear: The abortion debate is no longer about policy
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.