Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban will not reduce the termination rates of fetuses prenatally diagnosed with the condition.
Neither will it inform sectors of society — including expectant parents, educators and heath care professionals — what it means to have Down syndrome today, something far different than when infants with Down syndrome were overwhelmingly institutionalized, often for life.
Nor will the ban further improve the lives of Ohio’s citizens who have Down syndrome — a goal in deep need of legislative support.
All it will do, by making it a fourth-degree felony for a physician to perform an abortion if they know a woman is seeking it specifically because her fetus may have Down syndrome, is create a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As a result, pregnant women in Ohio are now prevented from having meaningful discourse with their physicians.
So why was this bill proposed and passed in the first place? The answer, I believe, has little to do with protecting people with Down syndrome, like my 8-year-old daughter, Lyra.
The law was challenged in court soon after then-Gov. John Kasich signed it into law in 2017. The District Court granted an injunction, which a three-judge panel on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld, preventing the law from going into effect.
But last month the 6th Circuit’s full panel of judges reversed course and upheld Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban, all but guaranteeing that the case will now go to the Supreme Court.
The 1973 Supreme Court decision in the case Roe v. Wade declared that restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban does seem to cross that threshold of unconstitutionality. And the court’s 9-7 split decision underscores this. Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.
The fact is, Ohio is not alone in passing restrictive abortion laws that don’t meet the constitutional qualifiers set out in Roe v. Wade. In 2018, a similar ban in Indiana was struck down in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. But other so-called “reason” bans, or prohibitions for abortions if sought for a fetus’ gender, race or medical diagnosis have been enacted in over a dozen states in the past few years.
However, these laws do nothing to reduce discrimination or increase opportunities for women, people of color or those with disabilities. And it is not coincidental that these bans are being pursued simultaneously in a number of states.
The true motivation behind these bans is the hope that one of them will not only make it to the Supreme Court, but will give the newly majority-conservative justices an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. And this strategy may well succeed.
But overturning the decision that legalized abortion won’t reduce abortion rates. In fact, they may just as likely increase.
According to a 2020 Guttmacher Institute report, “In countries that restrict abortion, the percentage of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion has increased during the past 30 years, from 36% in 1990–1994 to 50% in 2015–2019.”
Furthermore, in countries with legal access to abortion, such as the United States, abortion rates have continually declined since legalization. Why is that?
Simply put, while a functioning democracy rests on four pillars, women’s rights are like a pedestal table. When women cannot control their reproduction, they are significantly less likely to be able to control their education, their careers or their finances. In essence, their full humanity is denied when reproductive rights are restricted.
Yes, when women are legally and socially treated more equally with men, statistically they have fewer children. And the children they have lead healthier lives with greater access to education and opportunities, which enriches an entire society.
For example, Bangladesh, which Henry Kissinger called “a basket case” country 50 years ago, is now stable, both economically and in terms of the health of its citizens. This is because for the past 30 years the Bangladeshi government has worked to empower women and support education for all children, including girls.
Advocates for restricting legal abortions also sometimes rely on an implied falsehood: the notion that supporters of reproductive rights want women to have abortions. Nobody looks at her daughter, sister, friend and says, “Gee, I can’t wait until she has her first abortion.”
The truth is there are many, many productive discussions that reproductive rights advocates are eager to have that absolutely can lead to a continued reduction of abortion rates.
The most obvious place to start is with this question: Why do women feel they have no choice but to terminate pregnancies?
Rather than infantilizing women by criminalizing abortion, let’s solve the problems that lead to abortions. Chief among them is access to contraception.
If unwanted pregnancy rates decline, so do abortions.
Take a look at Colorado which, between 2009-2017, used grant funding to provide IUD birth control to teens at health clinics, some in high schools. The abortion rate in that population subsequently dropped by 60%.
Then, in 2017, Colorado made it legal to obtain birth control pills directly at pharmacies without a visiting a doctor. And, again, abortion rates declined further.
Women do consider how they will raise a child with a disability when deciding to proceed with a pregnancy. What if, instead of outlawing abortions for children with Down syndrome (or other diagnoses, because it won’t be long before more become prenatally identifiable), we made Ohio the best state for all children to grow up in regardless of ability, race, gender or sexual orientation?
When Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban was first enacted, I wrote columns expressing my opposition to it in this paper and NBCNews.com. Immediately I became the subject of several articles written in far-right websites. For a movement that identifies itself with the word “life,” many of its adherents resort to hate speech and death threats with remarkable alacrity.
But here I am once again calling Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban what it is: feigned sympathy for people like my daughter, deployed to take away her reproductive rights along with those of all Ohio women.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 2, 2021.