Magazine article The American Prospect

The Pro-Life Paradox: Why Are Anti-Abortion Legislators Cutting Essential Funds for Special-Needs Children?

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Pro-Life Paradox: Why Are Anti-Abortion Legislators Cutting Essential Funds for Special-Needs Children?

Article excerpt

On April 12, Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill making Arizona the eighth state in the union to ban abortions beyond 20 weeks. Like most other laws of its kind, House Bill 2036 had been camouflaged as a measure against suffering, predicated on the notion that a fetus at 20 weeks can feel pain. Every woman who's ever been pregnant, however, knows what the law really means: Twenty weeks marks a crucial point in a pregnancy, when fetal abnormalities can be detected, often for the first time. Many women confronted with a grim prenatal diagnosis choose to have an abortion. Now, in Arizona, they can't.

As the latest maneuver to undermine the protections of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion until at least 24 weeks, the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child" model has been gaining popularity. Nebraska was the first state to pass such a law in 2010; Idaho, Iowa, Alabama, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Kansas followed, as did Georgia in March (though lawmakers there agreed to allow abortion if the fetus has "a congenital or chromosomal anomaly that is incompatible with life"). Legislators in West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Mississippi are considering similar laws. Representative Trent Franks of Arizona has even authored one for the District of Columbia.

No scientific evidence exists to support the idea that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. (Or in Arizona's case, 18 weeks, as the law uniquely starts counting from the first day of a woman's last menstrual period, which is typically two weeks before fertilization.) The part of the brain that registers such a sensation doesn't develop until much later. That fact didn't move Virginia state senators who were attempting to pass their own ban last January. But the testimony of a 42-year-old mother, Tara Schleifer, did influence one legislator. Sobbing at the podium, Schleifer told of how she agonized over ending a pregnancy at 21 weeks after learning that the fetus she carried would have required multiple open-heart surgeries and feeding through a tube. Senator Harry Blevins, a Republican, said that he could never imagine having to face such a decision himself, and cast the single deciding vote against the bill.

Such is the difficulty of enacting these laws: No one can predict all the reasons a woman might need or want to end her pregnancy at five months. The post-20-week abortion ban might preserve some healthy pregnancies, but it also forces women to deliver babies who will live for a few brief moments of extreme suffering--or to continue hopeless pregnancies that threaten their future fertility or even their life.

There is another important consequence. More babies will be brought into the world with chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome, which occurs when a third copy of the 21st chromosome turns up in the DNA. People with Down syndrome have varying degrees of intellectual and developmental disabilities; some also require surgeries early in life to repair defective hearts. On the other hand, many a Down syndrome child has been brought into the world with love and gratitude and transformed his or her family's life for the better. But the birth of a child with any disability entails a certain societal responsibility. Even the healthiest of Down syndrome children will need special education, medical care, and social support. Depending on the child and the severity of his or her affliction, that education and care can run as high as $50,000 just in the baby's first year.

It would be logical to expect, then, that these new restrictions on abortion would be accompanied by increased public services for women and children--especially for children with developmental disabilities. The laws should also lead to stronger support for physically, intellectually, and developmentally disabled teenagers and adults--which is, after all, what the healthier and luckier of these babies grow up to be. …

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