Late-term abortions have made news lately as activists attempt to solidify state-level protections for abortion access. Playing on misplaced public sympathy, they generally frame the question around exceptional circumstances like serious birth defects, despite evidence many women commit late-term abortions for the same financial or social reasons as they do first and second-trimester abortions.
By presenting legislation that uses disabled or terminally ill children to expand abortion access, the pro-choice lobby exhibits how disturbing its goals are. Laws about late-term abortion often determine how we care for the most fragile children after they’re born, not just the terminally ill but also those who have a reasonable chance of survival with proper medical treatment.
These laws can also have unintended consequences because they may alter how “health of the mother” criteria are applied: standards can be lowered when a baby is known to have a poor diagnosis because the risk-to-benefit ratio of continuing a pregnancy changes. In addition, “fetal anomalies” can sometimes mean relatively minor complications like a cleft lip or palate.
Abortions for Disability Are No Better than Euthanasia
Often, even pro-life legislators insist on carving out room for post-viability abortions based on anomalies. Many pro-life individuals believe these losses are negligible enough to be acceptable in the larger abortion battle, or that women should be able to kill their unborn children to mitigate suffering.
At the same time, these pro-life activists and legislators speak out against physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. While we don’t always associate the abortions of disabled children with euthanasia, the root purpose is the same. Both reflect what we believe about suffering and end-of-life care for terminally ill or seriously disabled human beings.
Just as assisted suicide laws can harm the vulnerable, abortions based on suspected or confirmed fetal anomalies directly affect every single child diagnosed in the womb — including those whose parents choose not to have an abortion and those who have not received a terminal diagnosis.
In a world where it is becoming more acceptable to end a born person’s life due to disease or infirmity, it has become preferable to end an unborn child’s life for the same reason. In some cases, parents are even judged as abusive or negligent for declining abortion.
Killing the Disabled Unborn Leads to Killing Others
Many physicians pressure women to terminate pregnancies with prenatal diagnoses, although the push for “relieving” children of pain via abortion may have more to do with medical professional’s beliefs about their quality of life than any concrete evidence of suffering. Anecdotal stories abound of parents who have been forced to fight for their disabled children’s rights to appropriate medical care even after birth. Unfortunately, many of these are ignored because proponents of “death with dignity” have painted a picture of suffering children forced to endure an unbearable existence by selfish or ignorant parents.
Our current fervor for genetic testing, prenatal diagnosis, and increasingly relaxed late-term abortion laws doesn’t just affect the unborn. Prenatal diagnosis is a fast track to discrimination against born children with serious birth defects. We have concrete evidence of passive euthanasia here in the United States, like do-not-resuscitate orders assigned without consent, or “slow codes” — instructions to take an unnecessarily long time in treating patients with certain conditions.
In a 2017 letter to the Irish Times during a fierce fight over legalizing abortion in Ireland, American neonatologist Dr. Martin McCaffrey addressed misconceptions about children diagnosed with serious trisomy disorders. He noted survival rates were lower for those receiving prenatal (as opposed to postnatal) diagnoses, due to physicians’ biases against treating children with disabilities.
When a baby is born with a genetic disorder that has not yet been diagnosed, treatment usually commences at birth while genetic testing is performed. This immediate treatment can mean the difference between life and death.
Despite the official stance of the American Medical Association against both euthanasia and medically assisted suicide, academics like Princeton University’s Peter Singer encourage the legality of killing disabled newborns. When these ideas are accepted in the highest places of learning, showcased in ethics discussions, and defended in newspapers, we can soon expect to see calls for ending the lives of disabled children after birth. This is already happening in many nations, such as the Netherlands.
While pain should be a consideration in treatment, we rarely view induced death as a solution for other long-term illnesses. When children receive potentially terminal cancer diagnoses, we don’t respond by withdrawing nutrition, or administering massive amounts of opiates before thoroughly diagnosing the individual child’s needs.
Children With Disabilities Are Capable of Joyful Lives
Stories of thriving children like Abigail Beutler (diagnosed with Bilateral Renal Agenesis), Faith Smith (diagnosed with Trisomy 18), and Natalia (living with partial Trisomy 13) showcase the opportunities for children born with disabilities. Each of these conditions is considered almost always fatal, and they have required extensive medical treatment.
In many places, children like Abigail, Faith, or Natalia might have been left untreated, legally denied treatment despite their parent’s wishes, or euthanized with their parents’ permission. Yet they are enjoying life, receiving and giving love within their families.
Satisfaction levels for individuals with disabilities can be quite high; a majority of people with moderate to serious disabilities in a 1990s study said their quality of life was good or excellent. Sociologist Tom Shakespeare, who was born with a serious congenital birth defect, has explained this “disability paradox” in his own life. Families also report positive experiences in caring for their children with disabilities.
Like all abortions, aborting babies with fetal anomalies robs children of their lives and families of their beloved kin. The legality of such murders reinforces the idea the disabled are expendable, encouraging us to view some humans as “less than” worth saving. These abortions also discourage clinicians from investigating possible new ways to address issues involving disability, as well as palliative pain.
Eventually, these oxymoronic efforts to save humanity through acts of violence will go the way all such efforts go: they’ll be used against the most vulnerable in your own family. Killing the unborn is always an unconscionable act, and “pro-life with exceptions” is nothing short of a pro-abortion position. To entertain such a compromise risks losing sight of the bigger picture: that all humans are morally and legally worthy of protection.
Pro-life means fighting for every life, not just the lives you deem fit to save. It means encouraging practices that will mitigate suffering while sustaining life, rather than pretending killing is a saving grace.
“The ultimate test of a moral society is the world it leaves its children,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer reportedly said. Unborn babies who face complicated medical diagnoses are living human children. Yet we continue to deny them the right to life, based on outdated biases and inappropriate coercive tactics from medical professionals. What does this say about the world we hope to leave our offspring?