The Quest to Ban Selective Abortion

Two years ago, CBS News published a report praising Iceland for “eradicating Down syndrome births.” The article’s headline promised a to give readers a glimpse “inside the country where Down syndrome is disappearing.”

But, as it turned out, Icelandic doctors hadn’t been pioneering cures for the chromosomal disorder; they’d been overseeing a medical system in which nearly 100 percent of pregnant women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose abortion.

Here in the U.S., the percentage isn’t quite so high — but being better than Iceland isn’t saying much. A 2012 meta-review of 24 studies conducted between 1995 and 2011 found that somewhere between 61 percent and 93 percent of U.S. women choose abortion after a Down-syndrome diagnosis, a range the researchers narrowed to a “weighted mean” of 67 percent.

The obvious intention to eliminate unborn human beings diagnosed (and sometimes misdiagnosed) with Down syndrome has long been a cause of concern for the pro-life movement. In the U.S., it has spurred a number of efforts to protect those individuals legislatively, over and against claims that killing is the “compassionate” choice in such cases.

The latest attempt is a federal bill, the first of its kind, that would forbid abortion providers from performing abortions sought because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome. Republicans in both the House and the Senate have introduced the legislation under the title the “Down Syndrome Discrimination by Abortion Prohibition Act,” which imposes a fine and/or imprisonment of up to five years for violations. It also contains privacy protections for pregnant mothers, forbids coercion used against them, and bars them from prosecution. Though the legislation likely won’t pass anytime soon, public opinion suggests it’s not a hopeless effort.

According to a recent Gallup survey, only a plurality (49 percent) of Americans favors allowing first-trimester abortions when Down syndrome has been detected. More than two-thirds of Americans say this type of selective abortion should be illegal in the last trimester. Even more interesting, women tend to be more pro-life than men on this question: Only 44 percent of women support abortion in the first trimester after a Down-syndrome diagnosis, compared with 56 percent of men.

Within the last several years, five states have attempted to enact legislation similar to the federal bill. The legislation has taken effect in Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Dakota, but Ohio’s has been enjoined, pending a legal challenge from Planned Parenthood. This summer, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider an injunction against Indiana’s bill, which attempted to ban not only Down-syndrome abortion but also selective abortions based on the race or sex of the unborn child.

For supporters of abortion rights, these types of selective abortion present a thorny problem. Those who seek to protect abortion access tend to argue that the choice rests entirely with the pregnant woman, and thus that her reasoning can never be questioned. Advocacy groups that endorse this logic, such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL, would struggle to reject any justification for a given abortion, even if it involved something as heinous as aborting a female child because she isn’t male. In fact, these groups have sued to block bills that forbid sex-selective abortion.

Those who want abortion to be legal in every circumstance risk opening themselves up to charges of inconsistency if they concede that not every choice for abortion is equally laudable. If they admit that perhaps the state ought to police abortions chosen for misogynistic or racist reasons — if they concede that the state has any role at all in abortion regulation — they allow the mind to wander to the question: What makes it okay to choose abortion for another, perhaps more arbitrary reason?

Indeed, every abortion is selective. It selects for killing those unborn children who are considered to have drawn the short stick, for whatever reason. That’s why advocates of unlimited abortion inveigh against legislation that highlights the perversity of killing those deemed “unfit” or those lives deemed not worth living. Abortion is a determination that the powerful can exterminate the weak — for any reason at all.