Robert Klitzman on Ohio Proposal to Ban Down Syndrome Abortions

In a Huffington Post panel, Master of Science in Bioethics program director Dr. Robert Klitzman examined the ethical implications surrounding abortion of a fetus with disabilities. Alongside author Ian Millhiser and reporter Chrissie Thompson, Dr. Klitzman discussed a recently proposed Ohio bill that would make it illegal for doctors to perform an abortion that is requested because the fetus is diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

“The issue is that these are politically contested areas,” he said. “Disability rights activists say that people with disabilities can live a full and healthy life, and who are we to say that’s not a life worth living? But the problem is that there is a large percentage of people with Down Syndrome for whom it is life-threatening.”

“I would argue that if a woman says ‘I don’t have the resources to look after a severely disabled child,’ then the woman has a right to choose, and it is not in the best interests of the child to be brought into the world.”

Referring to Roe v. Wade, he mentioned that “the law is based on a woman’s right to choose. The case that anti-abortion activists are trying to make is that to abort a fetus with Down Syndrome is to discriminate against that child. I think that’s the ethical justification they are seeking.” To counter this argument, Dr. Klitzman said that “a child with disabilities has additional needs: it’s clearly not in the child’s best interests to be brought into this world if the family doesn’t have the resources to take care of the child and doesn’t want the child.”

Highlighting how politicians “who have been most vocal in their opposition to abortion have also tended to be very much against the kind of support for social services that poor families need to get by, let alone to get by when they have people with disabilities in their family,” he pointed out that “over 40% of women in Ohio who want an abortion are African-American, often with limited resources: to restrict their right to abortion is very bad at a number of levels.”

Answering a question on genetics and on how this approach might become problematic if people decide to abort children because of their gender or hair color, Dr. Klitzman argued that “in my mind there is a clear distinction between a medically severe disease versus socially desirable characteristics. If there is a child who’s going to die in the first year of life, it would be hard to say ‘No, you have to bring that child into the world.’ [Whereas] if someone said ‘I want a child with blond hair and blue eyes, and I don’t want a child who’s gay,’ these are simply socially desirable characteristics: I think those are very different kinds of things.”

See the full discussion on Ohio’s proposed bill to ban abortions for fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome.