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Why Did A Federal Court Stop Missouri from Protecting Children with Down Syndrome?

By Denise Harle posted on:
November 22, 2019

In 2017, Icelandic geneticist Kari Stefansson boasted to CBS News that his country had “eradicated” Down syndrome. But doctors in Iceland hadn’t found a cure for the condition caused by an extra chromosome.

Instead, in the small European nation, close to 100% of pregnant women who learned through prenatal testing that their child had Down syndrome chose to abort that child. This isn’t curing a disability. It’s eliminating people with a disability.

True medicine uses scientific discoveries to help people with disabilities improve their health and quality of life. So, when doctors call killing innocent children with a certain disability the “end” of that disability, we know something has gone seriously wrong.

While Iceland certainly provides the starkest example of how abortion threatens unborn children with Down syndrome, it is not alone. In France, the rate of women who abort their Down syndrome children after pre-natal testing is 77 percent, and in Denmark it’s 98 percent.

It’s Happening in the United States

But before you think this is only a problem in Europe, the rate of American women who abort their child after finding that the baby has Down syndrome is also rising. Since prenatal screenings for Down syndrome were introduced, scientists estimate that the U.S. population of those with Down syndrome decreased by 30 percent. And it’s not because we’ve discovered a cure.

Compared to Iceland, fewer women in the United States decide to get prenatal testing. But that may be changing. Many parents have experienced medical professionals pressuring them to abort their unborn child simply because the baby is likely to have Down syndrome. It doesn’t matter that most children with the chromosomal abnormality are able to attend their local schools, graduate from high school, and eventually find fulfilling work in their communities.

The stigma against people with Down syndrome is costing lives.

So, the state of Missouri decided to do something about it. Missouri legislators passed a law that prohibits women and doctors from seeking to abort a child solely because that child has Down syndrome.

States Have the Authority to Protect Their Most Vulnerable Citizens

States like Missouri have a clear interest in protecting the most vulnerable under their jurisdiction. But a federal district court didn’t see it that way. The court stopped enforcement of Missouri’s law, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

In Casey, the Supreme Court ruled that government officials may not place an “undue burden” on a woman’s “right” to abort her child before viability.

While there is a lot wrong with Roe and Casey, the federal court’s interpretation of Casey in this case is misguided all on its own. The court ruled that Missouri didn’t have enough of an interest sufficient to “burden” a woman’s access to abortion, since prenatal testing for Down syndrome (not available at the time Casey was decided) is now performed several weeks before viability. But isn’t preventing invidious – lethal – discrimination against people based on their disability a valid and even compelling interest the government may protect?

As Justice Clarence Thomas recently wrote in a concurring opinion, Casey “did not decide whether the Constitution requires States to allow eugenic abortions.” What is “eugenics?” It’s a method of population control that eliminates people with disfavored characteristics—most notably certain races or genetic traits. And it sounds much like what is happening in Iceland.

Here in the United States, our Constitution protects the rights of every individual—no matter what age, race, sex, or disability.

That is why Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision and allow the state of Missouri to protect the lives of unborn children with Down syndrome.

In Iceland, there are very few people left with Down syndrome.

One of them is Thordis Ingadottir’s 7-year-old daughter, Agusta. Ingadottir is concerned about her daughter who will grow up in a country where there is almost no one like her. Her dream is for Agusta to be fully integrated into her community. "Isn't that the basic needs [sic] of life?” she asked. “What kind of society do you want to live in?"

Denise Harle

Denise Harle

Senior Counsel

Denise Harle serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where she is a member of the Center for Life.

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