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.)

The Best Book About Writing Ever (and other great reads)
Politics, Down Syndrome, and What I’m Reading
My Questions About the Ethics of Embryo Selection
I Don’t Love Valentine’s Day, and That’s Okay
About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. I think the most important thing that we can do in all of these conversations around testing, disability, Down syndrome, abortion, etc. is to continue to challenge the cultural narratives and assumptions that dominate such conversations, reveal their flaws, and uncover the stories they DON’T tell. Thanks for this contribution to this important effort.

  2. Thank you, Amy Julia. And, to Ellen’s point, I’ve left a comment on the Atlantic cite linking to your post and asking for the graphic to be taken down.

  3. Thank, Mark and Ellen, for helping to tell the broader story of prenatal testing in an accurate way, and for your support as I try to do the same.

  4. “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?”

    Ding! Ding! Ding!

    We have a winner!


    The fact is that those who crunch the numbers like the CDC know very well based on the number of Downs babies born and the ages of their mothers, what fraction are being aborted, and it isn’t 85%. However, that doesn’t fit with what some people want to say about Downs babies, women and abortion. So, rather than dig up the real numbers from solid sources like the CDC, they go for the fraction of a fraction who are over 35 and get tested and get a Downs diagnosis.

  5. Why is it hard to understand that some women know about Down syndrome and what’s possible for their child, and still choose abortion because they just don’t want to have a child with Down syndrome, for whatever reason?

  6. I’m so glad that you are writing and showing people that a diagnosis of a disability doesn’t mean that you should just abort. Too many people, even those generally against abortion, seem to think that this is the only thing to do!

  7. This is not actually accurtae. For example, the national screening programme in the UK is mostly being used for the birth prevention of babies with Down syndrome, rather than birth preparation or life affirming care, see

    There won’t be much, if any, headway on this while advocates continue to support disability selective abortion under the guise of “reproductive choice”. We need to recognise that our own community is contributing to the problem, by either supporting “choice” or misrepresenting the actual intent of screening, which is birth prevention.

  8. To be clear though, abortion for a disability is a “reproductive choice” that you morally support as a Christian disability advocate Ellen. A position that undermines the Down syndrome community.

  9. Because people would adopt that child. So, the mother is choosing death for her child even though she would not have to care for him.

  10. That’s one of the old arguments against abortion and isn’t a reason a woman should go through pregnancy and birth if she doesn’t want to, for a child she doesn’t want. Her body, her choice.

  11. Okay, then the father shouldn’t have to pay child support if he doesn’t want to. His money. His choice.

  12. 80% of down syndrome pregnancies are miscarried before the mother even knows she’s pregnant (before 3 weeks GA). Of the remaining 20%, another 1 out of ten will miscarry before the second trimester ends. Of the remaining 9 out of 10, approximately 40% will be stillborn regardless of elected abortion. Of the DS babies that make it to term and are born, approximately 1 out of 10 will die within the first several days of life.

    If 85% of mothers abort after finding out about the DS diagnosis, they had a 40% chance of loosing the baby anyway. I think the hopes that only 50% are actually aborted is a bit misleading. I can imagine that 85% of the remaining 60%( which is almost 50%) are aborted is accurate. That is to say that after the mother gets the diagnosis from Amnio or CV and the fetus is still alive, 48% are aborted(85% x 60%). The subtle detail is the fetus had to survive the time between the time of Amnio/CVS and when the results get reported to the mother (about 2 weeks).

  13. DSDad, I’m confused. How would we know that 80% of DS pregnancies are miscarried if the women didn’t even know they were pregnant? Regardless, the 50% number comes when comparing expected DS livebirths to actual DS livebirths. Data provided here:

  14. B Lar (sans nicotine) says:

    There will be a river of babies flowing into the houses of shiny welcoming foster parents, the rich 1% of the world can pay for the babies which the 99% can’t afford, and we shall all say “YAY! WE ARE A VERY MORAL PEOPLE!”

    And back in the real world, expecting someone else to take the responsibility for something you don’t want to do is a total asshole move. Try making a non-sarcastic response which you actually believe next time.

  15. amanduh says:

    It really is annoying how statistics are presented so irresponsibly and- I’ll admit I may have too low an opinion of the average person- it seems that the average, as in the majority of, reader isn’t going to put any thought into it beyond: bunch of hypocrites!!

    I am pro-choice AND I chose not to have any testing because I was going to have my son regardless. I’m not represented in this number. You’re not represented in this number. 2% of women are represented in this statistic? I…I just don’t know what can be done about irresponsible journalism… People should have the integrity to opt not to publish lies and misleading garbage, but should is worthless.

  16. @ Amy

    I’m happy that you chose to keep your daughter.

    Any data is just as reliable as the person taking it and what their own perception is on the subject at hand.

    Data is just as credible as where it’s taken and under what circumstances.

    If you ask anybody in McDonald’s what they think about calories and obesity they will say that there is no such think that connects both of this together. But I think you maybe right on this issue and that’s what scares me most.

    We have three children and we never had any of this test done.

  17. stanz2reason says:

    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?

    Yes, what if . I feel you have a legitimate beef objecting the the subtle qualification of ‘…of women who’ve gotten the screening’, but I feel the suggestion that a large enough percentage of women who do not get screening (and some of those might still have abortions anyway) might sufficiently offset the discrepancy between the 85% number & the 50% who claim to be prolife enough to dismiss claims of hypocrisy is premature. I can’t speak to the percentage of women in the US who get some sort of pre-natal diagnosis (doesn’t have to be invasive like an amnio), but if I had to guess it’d be fairly high. I’m curious what that number actually is and wasn’t able to find it with a quick search, maybe someone else will be more lucky. Still, a suggestive question isn’t quite an argument from ignorance, but it’s close.

    Getting pre-natal testing doesn’t automatically follow that you’ll have an abortion afterwards. If you’re set on not having one regardless, the information obtained from the screening can still be helpful, especially if the child has a disability. If you find out around week 18 or so that you are carrying a child with Down Syndrome, you then have another 4-5 months to prepare and learn what to expect, rather than having to educate yourself after the child is born. This also holds for any other defect such testing can screen for, including those that could potentially be treated in utero. As a side note, it doesn’t speak very highly of ones convictions that they can all be thrown away with a simple ultrasound.

    The hypocrisy of the pro-life movement is more evident among those who discourage a proper sexual education and who make efforts to limit access to birth control for reasons that conflict with their internal moral compass. Both of these lead to more instances of abortion, not less.

  18. Tiresiess says:

    I understand intellectually how some women decide to abort babies with Down syndrome. But as person with a disability, I do not support devaluing other people with disabilities.

  19. Elizabeth says:

    Great read, Amy. I read the most inspiring post today about this very thing: Dear Mom with a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis:

  20. I chose to undergo no prenatal testing because, like you, I wanted whatever child i was carrying. I knew two families with down syndrome children-these children were both loved and wanted. Thank you for your timely and thought=provoking essays. God bless Penelope.

  21. peachygrl says:

    The thing here for me…is that each of these women have a choice. A choice to be tested, a choice in preparing for a Down’s birth, or to NOT prepare for a Down’s birth. One of my co-workers has a Down’s child. She has done everything for this child and it has just nearly bankrupted her. This was her first child, she is married and they poured all their resources into this child because the girl also had another serious birth defect requiring surgery after surgery and expensive meds yadda, yadda. She went 17 years without another child because they decided not to risk another Down’s child. Then her birth control pill didn’t work. She was pregnant again. She was agonized. She was crying, she was a mess. They could not afford another Down’s child. So she received chorionic villi testing (which can be done earlier in the pregnancy than amniocentesis). It was negative. Now….she told me she was agonizing over what she would have done if her test returned positive. She never told me, and I never asked, what her decision would have been. She had a choice, it was her choice, not my choice, not anyone else’s choice and only this woman, her family and her physicians could help her to make that choice based on her circumstances and situation. At what point does the unborn child’s “rights” trump those of her mother, her sister, and her father? Let’s be clear. An unborn child has no LEGAL rights. If they did, they would be counted on the census, they would be entitled to food, housing and healthcare. Why does this child’s “rights” trump everyone else’s ?

  22. peachygrl says:

    It’s great to live in a society that allows you that CHOICE.