Biden's tragic misjudgment: Disabled lives matter

Mary Szoch is Director of the Center for Human Dignity at Family Research Council. Dr. Jennifer Bauwens is Director of the Center for Family Studies at Family Research Council. This article was co-written with Dr. Michael New, assistant professor at The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business and a senior associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. This article appeared in The Hill on March 12, 2024.

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Biden recognized a woman who procured an abortion after receiving a diagnosis of a serious fetal anomaly.

In recent years, many have used the potential future suffering of babies with disabilities to justify aborting them. Biden’s remarks were another example of this tragic error in judgement. But discrimination against people with disabilities in the womb is nothing new. 

Ten years after the Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion on demand, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended prenatal testing for women over 35 years old. By 2007, this recommendation extended to all women. As testing has increased, so has the rate at which babies with disabilities are aborted. 

In the U.S., 67 percent of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Globally, numbers are significantly higher, with Denmark, Iceland and the UK aborting at least 90 percent of diagnosed babies with Down syndrome.  

Worldwide, unborn babies parentally diagnosed with Turner syndrome and Klinefelter syndrome are aborted 76 percent and 61 percent of the time, respectively. 

In the U.S., unborn babies prenatally diagnosed with cystic fibrosis whose parents are carriers are killed around 85 percent of the time.  And worldwide, approximately 83 percent of unborn babies prenatally diagnosed with anencephaly and 63 percent of babies with spina bifida are aborted.

Several states have passed laws specifically protecting unborn babies with disabilities because doctors who perform abortions target such babies. But these laws were passed prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and did not immediately go into effect. 

But new abortion-related laws in Indiana, Iowa, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and Utah all contain exceptions specifically allowing babies with fetal abnormalities to be aborted. Exploiting heartbreaking stories of tragic diagnoses, abortion rights activists have demanded these allowances, and pro-life legislators have acquiesced.

As legislators have gained the ability to protect life, the pressure to abort babies with disabilities has become even greater. In our recent study investigating the experiences of 82 women who received a diagnosis of a fetal anomaly, we learned about the adversarial climate women face when engaging with the medical profession.  

Roughly 55 percent of the women in our study reported that when doctors informed them about their child’s diagnosis, the physician’s recommendation was to end the baby’s life. Additionally, 68 percent of those women were offered or told to abort the child more than once, and 57 percent reported that abortion was recommended on several occasions. 

Unfortunately, killing the unborn baby seems to be the medical profession’s preferred practice for children with adverse perinatal diagnoses. This is a problem, first because all life is valuable, and second because not every perinatal diagnosis turns out to be terminal — or even accurate. This was certainly the case in our study, where 14 percent of the children given an adverse perinatal diagnosis did not die despite the reported prognosis.

In the instance where a child’s diagnosis is terminal, there are alternatives to abortion. One is perinatal hospice, which aims to promote the well-being and healing process for the mother while respecting the life and dignity of the child. 

Although each program is unique, in general, perinatal hospices offer practical guidance on navigating pregnancy with a child who has a fetal anomaly. Their services include referrals to life-affirming physicians, birth plans that include alleviating the child’s pain, assisting at birth, helping with funeral planning and, most importantly, providing emotional support services.

There are approximately 278 perinatal hospice programs across the country. But most states have fewer than five, and many states have only one. Despite the good work they do, it appears most physicians are unaware of them. When we asked how respondents found out about their perinatal hospice program, only 27 percent learned about it through their doctor.

This is unfortunate, because 79 percent of the study participants reported high levels of satisfaction with the hospice service and were unable to identify anything from the program that was not helpful in their grieving process. 

Both adverse perinatal diagnosis and the loss of a child can cause tremendous grief. Our findings suggest that perinatal hospices are a source of support for women facing this challenging road.

These initial research findings point to both a need to understand the grief experiences facing women whose child receives such a diagnosis and the need to offer alternative services that affirm a woman’s choice to carry her child.

The lives of those with disabilities, no matter how long or how short, are just as valuable as every other person’s life. Americans must recognize this. A good place to start is with support for perinatal hospice programs.