People with disabilities face enormous and tragic discrimination that violates their most basic right to life. The coronavirus pandemic has brought these many additional threats to light. Evidence that individuals with Down syndrome are at a significantly higher risk of death from COVID-19 has sparked heated controversy over societal obligations to protect the most vulnerable. This year, World Down Syndrome Day, celebrated on March 21, provides the opportunity to raise awareness of one of the greatest and largely invisible human rights violations of our time: abortion due to a disability.
In many parts of the world, a diagnosis of Down syndrome is an effective death sentence. Mothers who carry babies with this and other chromosomal diseases are under immense pressure to abort, resulting in dramatically fewer people being born with Down syndrome each year. For example, the UK, which has babies with disabilities such as Down syndrome, cleft lip and clubfoot aborted to birth, has reported a 42 percent increase in abortions due to Down syndrome over the past decade.
As improved antenatal screening technologies contribute to what is euphemistically referred to as the “eradication” of Down syndrome, the protection of people with disabilities in the womb has increased with an increase. As recently as this week, a bill in Northern Ireland went through the second phase on the road to banning late abortions of babies with disabilities – possibly the start of an international trend to protect the lives of people with disabilities. The United States, with Arizona, Florida, and South Dakota, is at the forefront of this movement when it comes to banning the law, joining the ranks of eight other states that already ban abortion due to disability.
While some argue that abortion due to a disability is a woman’s right, the discriminatory emphasis on aborting babies with Down syndrome and other genetic diseases has an incredibly tragic impact. It is not difficult to imagine how one might conclude from this practice that it is preferable to never live rather than live in these conditions. It needs to be made clear that under international law, an abortion due to Down syndrome and related diagnoses is an obvious violation of the human rights of people with disabilities.
Although abortion based on a prenatal diagnosis of disability is often motivated by a natural and entirely relatable concern about caring for a disabled child, it fundamentally undermines the same and inalienable rights that everyone has. And discrimination in the womb inevitably continues further discrimination in the world.
The United Nations building can be seen in Manhattan on the first official day of the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations on September 22, 2020 in New York City.
Spencer Platt / Getty
Real equality can only be achieved when the right to life of people with disabilities is respected.
As the United States grapples with state laws protecting babies with Down syndrome and other demonstrable disabilities, opponents of such laws claim they are just another inadequate restriction on “sexual and reproductive health care” that affects people’s personal choices interferes with health care. “” However, the merits of the arguments in favor of full “reproductive freedom” must be weighed against the highly discriminatory results for people with disabilities.
Prenatal discrimination in no way corresponds to authentic freedom for women; But on the contrary. There is evidence that social and family pressures often force women to abort babies with genetic disorders – an alarming reality that reveals a deep-seated cultural rejection of people with disabilities. What these women and families really need is access to support and resources. After all, what does it say about the value our society attaches to people with disabilities when we are unable to legally require equal treatment for the most vulnerable in the womb and to care for them after they are born?
The United Nations has been celebrating World Down Syndrome Day since 2006 – this year with a focus on improving connectivity for people living with the disease. In addition to laudable attempts to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities, it is time that the international community turned its attention to stopping the mass human rights tragedy of prenatal disability discrimination that leads to death more Down syndrome babies prenatally tested as being born.
Leading lawyers for people with Down syndrome at the Jerome LeJeune Foundation presented this conversation to the UN Human Rights Council last week. In an event titled “Down Syndrome: Let’s Talk More … and Better”, the advocacy group brought together a broad coalition of ambassadors and other representatives of government and civil society from all regions of the world to address the issue of discrimination based on of disability before and after childbirth. This event raises great hopes that governments will be able to reassign themselves to their obligations under international law in order to guarantee the human rights of all persons. Emphasis will be placed on eliminating discriminatory practices and away from hideous efforts to eradicate people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.
Elyssa Koren is the United Nations Advocacy Director in New York City for ADF International. Elyssa can be found on Twitter: @Elyssa_ADFIntl.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
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