Should Pregnant Women Who Know About Birth Defects Be Allowed to Abort?

New legislation in Indiana aims to outlaw abortions based on gender and fetal disabilities.

The Indiana State Capitol in Indianapolis. (Photo: Cathlyn Melloan/Getty Images)

Feb 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

As it is, it’s no small feat to end an unwanted pregnancy in Indiana.

Parental consent is required for minors, all women must undergo a mandatory 18-hour waiting period, and freestanding clinics are prohibited from performing abortions beyond the first trimester. The state received an F for its limited access to reproductive rights on NARAL Pro-Choice America’s annual report card.

Now conservative lawmakers are looking to create some new roadblocks for a group of women who are known to frequently seek abortions: those who learn from tests that their babies will be severely developmentally disabled.

An Indiana legislative committee advanced a bill to ban the option to have an abortion based on gender preference or discovery of fetal disabilities this week. Next it heads to the state Senate for further consideration. If the bill becomes law, Indiana would become only the second state to prohibit abortions based on fetal abnormalities. North Dakota has a similar law, outlawing both sex-selective and chromosomal anomalies in the same legislation.

The two proposed restrictions in Indiana seem to lump together markedly different concerns. But antiabortion advocates don’t see it that way. “Discrimination is the common theme between the two issues,” Mike Fichter, president and CEO of Indiana Right to Life, told TakePart.

That discrimination he’s referring to is against female babies and the disabled community. The selective abortion of girls is common in India and China, but there is no evidence that sex-selective abortion is a problem in the U.S. Regardless, eight other states have already enacted such sex-selective abortion bans.

But aborting a fetus because of developmental disabilities—the most common being trisomy 21, or Down syndrome—is much more common.

Exact numbers about this decision are definitively tough to come by—it’s not a subject that even pollsters are comfortable with. But researchers have found that a consistent majority of women—up to 90 percent—with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate the pregnancy, according to a 2012 study.

Such a law could interfere with the recommendations of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, whose guidelines are used to dictate doctor-patient relationships. Banning abortion owing to fetal abnormalities would render physicians unable to properly counsel and advise their patients.

“That’s certainly the fear,” Tammy Lieber, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Indiana and Kentucky, told TakePart. “It could have a chilling effect on the doctor-patient relationship if doctors feel like they’re being required to judge why a woman is seeking to terminate a pregnancy or possibly face sanction.”

The decision to terminate a pregnancy after such a diagnosis is a sensitive one, and it often causes disability and antiabortion advocates alike to impress the inherent value of all children. For many parents, the sad reality is that the risks and costs of continuing with such a pregnancy are too high to enter into knowingly. Low birth weight, congenital heart defects, and hearing and sight problems, along with the mental delays associated with Down syndrome, make caring for the child difficult and expensive.

On average, the health care cost for a child with Down syndrome is 12 times higher in the first four years alone than for a child who does not have special needs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The costs continue to rise if the baby is born with a heart problem, which affects about half of children with Down syndrome. Life expectancy is 47 years. Children born with Down syndrome do receive some financial assistance from the Social Services Administration, but the amount is dependent on the family’s income.

It’s worth noting that the high rate of women who elect to abort based on disability doesn’t mean that children with disabilities are being eliminated from society. There’s actually been a 30 percent increase of children born with Down syndrome in recent years, with about 6,000 born annually, according to the CDC. That’s because many women choose not to test for it in the first place. Blood tests or an amniocentesis for genetic disorders are performed at the woman’s discretion.

Despite opposition from the medical community, Fitcher is confident that the legislation will pass: “The only thing abortion supporters have to hang their hats on in opposing this bill is an allegiance to abortion at any stage of pregnancy and for any reason at all.”

In a sense, he’s right. Those who are pro-choice believe a woman has the right to make any decision regarding her body and pregnancy. That includes decisions that doctors support.

“We don’t ask women why they’re seeking an abortion,” said Lieber. “That’s their choice, and we oppose the bill on the grounds that we oppose any ban on abortion within the constitutionally protected time period.”