Down Syndrome and Abortion

On a vacation at a ranch we met a family that included Harry, a three-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. He couldn’t yet speak words, and expressed himself via loud exclamations that sometimes ascended into a strange and unfamiliar kind of cackling laugh. The first time I heard it in the dining room, not seeing the source of the noise, I was startled and thought, What is that?

It wasn’t long before exasperation was replaced by affection.  The boy was so sweet, so thoroughly delighted and delightful and full of love, it was easy to fall for him. “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” I took to saying to him as he raced about, laughing.

I thought about Harry today when I read the story about proposed legislation in Ohio that would outlaw abortions done on Down Syndrome fetuses. It is very easy for me to agree that ridding the world of its Harrys --  up to 90% of diagnosed Down Syndrome pregnancies in the U.S. are terminated -- is an ugly and misguided project, on multiple levels. Even pro-choice advocates express grave doubts about abortions done to de-select certain kinds of babies. (The article points out that a number of states have already outlawed abortion for gender selection.) As pre-natal genetic diagnosis grows ever more effective, this theme is sure to grow ever larger, and the eugenic shadow it casts that much darker.

Yet while personally anti-abortion, I’m hardly an absolutist (no overriding problem with rape and endangered-mother exceptions), and I recognize the complexities of living in a pluralistic country which has decided to accept legal abortion in most cases. Moreover, I tend to look pragmatically – and warily -- at the likely pitfalls that would result from attempting to return to across-the-board pre-Roe v. Wade prohibitions.

So it’s not surprising, I guess, that I see some problems with the Ohio legislation. First, how to enforce laws that depend on ascertaining motive? All a woman would have to do is attest to some other plausible motive. Will we give lie detector tests? Even proponents of these laws admit that there has been, and is likely to be, no enforcement. And absent enforcement, one assumes that the law has other purposes, giving weight to abortion advocates’ suspicion that such laws are tactically designed, as the article says, to divide and conquer – “[driving] a wedge between supporters of disability rights and backers of abortion rights.”

Maybe that’s a good thing, if -- as one abortion defender complains -- “by focusing on the diagnosis of a fetal condition, [such a law] edges toward recognizing the fetus as a person.” The merits of such a recognition will surely be the dividing line for voters on this issue. I confess to some ambivalence.

And yet... there’s Give ‘em Hell Harry, and his crazy, lovable, life-affirming laughter.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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