I hate to do it, but I have to mess with Texas.
Hailed as a victory by many in the pro-life movement, the so-called “sonogram law,” passed recently by the Texas Legislature and now awaiting Governor Rick Perry’s signature, requires women seeking an abortion in the Lone Star State to view a sonogram image and listen to a description of the “dimensions of the embryo or fetus, the presence of cardiac activity, and the presence of external members and internal organs.” I am the father of three small children and a seasoned veteran of the ultrasound routine. Those grainy images can be a powerful reminder of the essential humanity of the rapidly developing “embryo or fetus” displayed on the screen.
Unfortunately, however, the Texas law reinforces what I consider a morally repellent notion—that pregnant women carrying a fetus with a diagnosed genetic condition are victims. The law does this by exempting minors, rape victims, and those whose fetuses have an “irreversible medical condition or abnormality” from the counseling it requires.
Few would disagree that a woman who has been raped is a victim. There is a well-rehearsed—if controversial—argument that such women shouldn’t be subjected to a description of little baby fingers and little baby toes. The rationale for exempting minors is less clear to me, but it would be far too easy to get carried away by a discussion of parental notification and consent laws, and I don’t want to lose sight of the exemption that is most troubling: the exemption for an “abnormal” fetus.
So much of the abortion debate proceeds from the assumption that abortion-seeking women are motivated primarily by the impact they think that a baby will have on their lives. But what if a large number of women were seeking abortions not because the timing wasn’t right, or because they didn’t think they could afford it, or because of a relationship problem with the baby’s father, but because the child itself wasn’t right?
It is estimated that 90 percent of pregnancies diagnosed with Down syndrome end in abortion. What is the material difference between a woman in Texas who aborts her baby because it has Down syndrome and a woman in India who aborts her baby because it's a girl? Both are acting out of a desire to make life as easy as possible and escape being “victimized” by an undesirable baby. Yet the Texas woman is thought to be exercising her rights, and the Indian woman is thought by many to be committing what some have called “gendercide.”
My daughter has Down syndrome, a genetic abnormality caused by the presence of a third copy, instead of the normal two, of the 21st chromosome. Down syndrome is one of the most common genetic abnormalities that are present at birth. It is, in the cold parlance of the Texas law, irreversible. According to the March of Dimes, the other most common genetic birth defects are heart defects, cleft lip, cleft palate, and spina bifida. All of these, to a greater or lesser degree, are treatable conditions. Some congenital heart defects can be fatal, but most can be ameliorated through surgery or medication. In the case of spina bifida, scientists are awaiting the results of a clinical trial to assess the safety of a prenatal surgical technique to repair an affected fetus’s exposed spinal cord.
So while many of the most commonly diagnosed prenatal genetic abnormalities are sometimes or always reversible, Down syndrome never is, making it the condition most likely to trigger the sonogram law’s genetic exemption. To be fair, Down syndrome is typically first detected when physical abnormalities are observed during a routine sonogram. So, the abortion-seeking Texas woman claiming exemption for genetic reasons will almost certainly already have had at least one sonogram, perhaps more.
Nevertheless, the simple fact is that the new law strives to make it as easy as possible for a woman seeking to abort a fetus with Down syndrome to do so. By implication, it supports the twin views that no one should have to bring an imperfect child into the world and that every woman who has received a pre-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome should have guilt-free access to abortion on demand.
This doesn’t sit well with me. As any parent will tell you, there is no such thing as the perfect child. All children, disabled or not, say terrible things, make poor decisions, break legs, drop out of college, get sick, get into cars with people who’ve been drinking, and date the wrong people. Some of us even end up living with our parents well into our twenties. We are, in many ways, defined by our imperfections. Only a society completely unmoored from its moral foundations would allow human imperfection to become a pretext for extermination. Yet that is just what this law countenances.
I imagine that more than a few pregnant women will rethink their abortion plans after seeing a sonogram and hearing their baby’s heartbeat. In so much as I think abortion is bad, I rejoice in the innumerable doomed lives that could be spared. But in so much as I don’t think having a child with Down syndrome turns a woman into a victim, I can only muster two weak cheers for the Texas sonogram law.
Matthew Hennessey lives in New Canaan, CT, where he writes a column about faith and family for his diocesan newspaper, Fairfield County Catholic. His writing has also appeared in The Irish Echo and Catholic New York. He blogs at www.ninetydeuce.com.