Are Pro-Lifers Hypocrites When it Comes to Down Syndrome?

It hits me like a sucker punch every time. This week the blow came on page 30 of the Atlantic, where a sidebar with numbers in large bold font told a story:

Percentage of American adults who describe themselves as pro-life: 50

Percentage of American adults who think second-trimester abortion should be illegal: 64

Percentage of American women who abort after a prenatal Down-syndrome diagnosis (typically in the second trimester), according to a review of hospital-based studies: 85.

A quick reading of these statistics (which, because it is presented as a sidebar and without comment, seems to be what the editors at the Atlantic are after) implies two things–one, that the vast majority of babies with Down syndrome are aborted, and two, that many of the people choosing those abortions are hypocritical. I’ve written before about how the statistics surrounding Down syndrome, prenatal testing, and abortion are complicated, and how that final number of 85% is more nuanced than most people think. (In brief, it may be that 50% of all Down syndrome pregnancies result in live births of babies with Down syndrome.) But today I want to point out that these numbers might not be as incongruous as they seem.

In the online version of the Atlantic, the data above has been given a title: Do We Change Our Minds On Abortion When It Affects Us Directly? Again, the stats are designed to provide a clear and direct answer: yes. But let’s look a little more closely.

85% of women with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose abortion. But what if there are many pro-life women, and therefore many women who think second-trimester abortion should be illegal, who do not receive prenatal testing because they do not want the option of abortion? In some cases, they might shy away from the small but real risk that comes with amniocentesis and corionic villa sampling. In other cases, they might decline even non-invasive blood tests because they do not feel a diagnosis would be a helpful aid to their prenatal care. The presentation of this data is flawed because it assumes a closed sample set. It assumes that every woman chooses prenatal testing, including invasive prenatal testing. But only 2-3% of women have amnios.

To my knowledge, statistics don’t exist to tell us how many “pro-life” women pursue prenatal testing, and they don’t tell us what these particular women chose. But let’s be clear on one thing– women have the option of saying no to prenatal diagnosis. Again, as I’ve written before, women can care for their babies responsibly while nevertheless forgoing prenatal testing. Furthermore, women who do not have a prenatal diagnosis do not necessarily give birth to babies with Down syndrome out of ignorance of the possibility.

For a long time, I wished I had pursued prenatal testing “all the way” with Penny so that I could have told her that I knew ahead of time and I chose her anyway. In retrospect, however, I realized that I had chosen her in my initial decision to decline the amnio. “We wouldn’t consider abortion,” I told my doctor after initial prenatal screening results indicated a higher-than-expected chance that I would have a baby with Down syndrome. Implicit in my words were the choice we made to receive whatever child was given to us. Countless other women approach pregnancy with the same attitude.

It grieves me to see the statistics surrounding Down syndrome, prenatal testing, and abortion. I hope that we can educate women and physicians and provide social supports for families of children with Down syndrome so that more and more women with a prenatal diagnosis will feel empowered to choose life for their children. But it angers me to see statistics manipulated in a way that implies that nearly everyone–pro-life or not–will choose abortion when Down syndrome is placed on the table. It’s just not true.

(And please note that plenty of pro-choice women also choose to forgo prenatal testing, as Rachel Adams has written for Salon today in Didn’t You Get Tested.)