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Stop Using Down Syndrome as Anti-Choice Propaganda

Right-wing activists hope that photos of kids with Down syndrome will keep Ireland from legalizing abortion.
Anti-abortion activists demonstrate outside the the Supreme Court in central London on October 24th, 2017, where a case on the abortion regime in Northern Ireland was being heard. Abortion in Northern Ireland is illegal in all cases except when the life of the mother is in danger.

Anti-abortion activists demonstrate outside the the Supreme Court in central London on October 24th, 2017, where a case on the abortion regime in Northern Ireland was being heard. Abortion in Northern Ireland is illegal in all cases except when the life of the mother is in danger.

Since the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution was signed in 1983, granting equal legal rights to fetuses and pregnant women, it has functioned as a total ban on legal abortion. Next May, Ireland will hold a referendum over whether to repeal the amendment, and current polling suggests that pro-repeal will carry the day. The Irish people will also vote on whether to endorse a new law legalizing abortion within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, which Parliament would then pass following a successful referendum. Just getting a vote officially set has taken years of work by numerous campaigners, organizations, and politicians. Now, as the date for the vote looms on the calendar, the anti-abortion movement in Ireland has fixated on a new symbol for its campaign against reproductive rights: cute kids with Down syndrome.

Over the past few weeks, two anti-repeal groups have launched new campaigns and produced posters featuring images of children with Down syndrome. The ads play on a combination of legitimately disturbing data about abortion rates following a prenatal diagnosis and the relatively positive feelings that voters hold about people with Down syndrome themselves. What's disingenuous is the way the campaigns suggest that the current total ban on abortion is all that's keeping Ireland from eradicating Down syndrome. That's not true on the facts, but the campaigns demonstrate the perceived iconographic power of using disabled children as symbols for anti-choice political campaigns. Meanwhile, the whole conversation about Down syndrome in both Ireland and the United States too often gets stuck on prenatal issues, a fixation that does little to change the status quo for anyone living with disabilities, now or in the future.

DOWN SYNDROME AND THE STORIES WE TELL: My non-verbal son's reactions to stories and films tell me he's competent in ways he can't yet express—and I can't yet fully understand.

Adorable pictures of kids are a standard part of anti-choice propaganda. The messaging around Down syndrome and Ireland's Eighth Amendment, though, offers something a little more pointed. The groups trying to prevent the repeal of the Eighth Amendment are arguing that the constitutional ban is all that's been keeping Irish kids with Down syndrome alive. The group's banner shows an eight-year-old boy with Down syndrome under the words, "In Britain, 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted, don't let that happen here." Another group, "Love Both," is making a similar argument on a flyer with a picture that features a young girl with Down syndrome, also citing the 90 percent number.

The 90 percent number is misleading because it only counts people who choose to be screened. In Holland, according to Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole, only 35 percent of pregnant people choose the screening. Still, the termination rates following a prenatal diagnosis are definitely evidence of widespread ableism, and we need to talk about that. I don't think bans on abortions following such diagnoses help things, but rather intensify silence and stigma. I've argued for Pacific Standard that the pathway to a more inclusive future, one in which expectant parents don't react to the words "Down syndrome" with so much fear, requires more conversation plus less criminalization of abortion. We're also going to have to present potential parents with a better story about what happens after birth, if we want them to choose life. That's a hard case to make in the U.S. in this year when attacks on disability services and health care have spread across the nation. In Ireland, the local political specifics vary, but the broader issue of locating the debates on Down syndrome firmly in the prenatal means that we're just not talking about what happens after birth.

Writing in the Irish online publication The Journal, Darach Ó Séaghdha, the father of a toddler with Down syndrome, takes issue with the "Love Both" flyer. He's tired of seeing faces of children with Down syndrome in anti-abortion propaganda and almost nowhere else. "She's more likely to see a girl like her in such propaganda than she is to see a girl like her in a TV show or even working in a shop," he writes. Meanwhile, he’d like to see these groups put similar efforts into expanding postnatal services. Abortion politics, he argues, has nothing to do with "the availability of speech and language services, the right to marry or take a driving test, the provision of jobs and housing for adults with disabilities, or the hiring of enough special-needs assistants in schools."

An ad by the Irish anti-choice group Love Both.

An ad by the Irish anti-choice group Love Both.

Fiona Whelan, an Irish academic living in England and planning (she tells me over email) to travel back to vote in the referendum, is worried about the impact these campaigns will have on people with Down syndrome and related conditions and their families. On Twitter, Whelan writes: "I am worried about the emotional trauma that this will cause for families of children with disabilities ... families such as mine." She argues that people with disabilities should, of course, be part of the abortion debate because all people have the right to an opinion and choice. Making toddlers into literal poster children, though, is not promoting more inclusive debate. Like Ó Séaghdha, Whelan would like to see a lot more discussion about postnatal issues. She notes that everyone should be able to afford to have a child with a disability and not to worry whether that child will have access to help, support, education, and all the opportunities that so many others take for granted. But Ireland has a long way to go, as does the U.S.

Irish women are already having abortions, either illicitly or by leaving the country. As O'Toole notes in his column, the British abortion system is the de facto Irish abortion system. When abortion is criminalized, all it does is stop safe, legal, local access.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., sources at reproductive rights organizations tell me on background that Idaho and Pennsylvania will be the next states to launch bills banning abortions if the doctor is aware that the pregnant person is seeking one owing to a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. These are bills that functionally criminalize speech between the pregnant person and their doctor (so will likely be found unconstitutional by most courts, although there's never a sure bet). The Utah House just passed a similar bill this week. As the poster children get carried through the streets of Dublin, Philly, and Boise, real children's needs remain unmet and the difficult conversations get lost as the right-wing passes laws criminalizing speech.