Every four years, athletes from around the world gather to represent their country and strive for greatness in the summer Olympics. Many of us are eagerly anticipating the return of superb American athletes, such as Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, and Gabby Douglas; however, the excitement for the games has been tinged with concern by many athletes and tourists regarding the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, and many other South and Central American countries. Zika virus has been particularly concerning for female athletes due to potential neonatal effects, most notably microcephaly. Advocates in Central and South America are using the outbreak to push for decriminalization and legalization of abortion in countries where abortion is highly restricted or may result in incarceration for homicide. As the situation continues to be sensationalized, it is important that we have a clear understanding of the effect of infection on women and in utero children before we delve into the societal/cultural significance.
On the other side of the issue, Pope Francis conceded that contraception may be acceptable to prevent pregnancy with the risk of Zika virus, but firmly stood opposed to abortion. Brazil Without Abortion, the country’s predominant pro-life lobby, recently called a proposal that would give women with Zika virus access to abortions a “Nazi philosophy”. The president of the lobby stated “It is a prejudice against a disabled person.” Hitting at the root of the issue, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, a disability rights activist, stated, “Somehow, what got written into the idea of reproductive choice and freedom is the assumption no woman is prepared or would want to parent a child with a disability.”
In April 2015, a study was published by de Graaf, Buckley, and Skotko in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, which estimated a 30% reduction in the down syndrome population due to elective abortion after prenatal testing. In 2012, Natoli, et al., reported that the average rate of abortion in babies who tested positive for down syndrome in utero among Americans was 67%. Other studies conducted in Europe, where there are registries for children with disabilities, have indicated even higher rates of elective abortions for children with down syndrome, cleft palates, and spinal bifida. Somewhere along the way our culture has decided that children with disability are undesirable and a burden on society. People see these children as “unhealthy” because they are different, and as such, they are being selectively aborted.
Understandably, women experience a sense of fear and despair when they receive news that their child may be disabled. They question whether their child’s life will be miserable, and wonder if it may be merciful to prevent their child’s suffering. For many women, financial instability is a significant factor as well. Unfortunately, poverty and abortion rates seem to be directly proportional to each other in many countries. The burden of a child who will never be independent and support themselves leads many women to terminate the pregnancy out of fear and financial stress.
It is our responsibility to come along side these women and support them however we can, to show them that there are other options. Children with disabilities can be a challenge, but they are beautiful people who can enjoy life just as much, if not more, than we do. In a report published in 2011, 97% of parents of children with down syndrome were proud of who their children were, 96% of their siblings reported having affection for them, and 99% of down syndrome children reported being happy with their life. How can these children, who bring so much joy, be considered undesirable? Yet, they continue to be discriminated against because they are different. Until we educate people on the facts about disabled children, and the joy they bring to many families, they will continue to be fed the lie of our culture and these precious children will continue to be systematically eliminated from the world.