Amy Julia Becker is a writer and mother of a child with Down syndrome. For several years she has sought to debunk the frequently reported claim that 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted. Technically, she’s right. It’s not accurate to say that 90 percent of all babies with Down syndrome are aborted. That’s false. It’s also immaterial.
Some pregnant women either refuse or aren’t offered the kind of testing that can provide a definitive prenatal diagnosis. These women are never faced with a choice to abort. But 90 percent of women who do get a definitive prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, opt to abort. This is the statistic that matters. It’s true, and Becker doesn’t deny it. So what’s she on about?
Becker is convinced that through repeated exposure to the 90 percent statistic, pregnant women absorb the notion that carrying such a baby to term puts them outside the mainstream. “The last thing a pregnant woman facing the likelihood of a baby with Down syndrome needs is to think that keeping that baby is an abnormal choice,” she writes.
The 90 percent statistic, Becker says, is itself a possible cause of abortions, as doctors and family members push expectant mothers toward social conformity. It’s equally possible that some women don’t care what other women decide to do. But it’s not at all clear how underselling the trend will lead to fewer abortions. In any event, for the expectant mothers at issue—those facing a choice—the 90 percent statistic is accurate. We should note it, be alarmed by it, and work to reverse it.
There’s something else going on here. The flipside of the 90 percent statistic is that ten percent of pregnant women who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis opt to keep their babies. This has resulted in an advocacy community that tilts heavily, though not uniformly, pro-life. Becker counts herself among those who would like to provide some counterbalance.
In November 2012, she wrote on Parents.com of her intention to vote for President Obama. She couldn’t support Mitt Romney, she said, because of his history of “equivocation on abortion.” Last month, she handed her column space over to writer Rachel Marie Stone, who used it to offer a “more complete background” of Planned Parenthood founder and noted eugenicist Margaret Sanger.
Becker has aligned herself with the “pro-information” movement. Pregnant women who receive a diagnosis of Down syndrome should be provided with accurate information, they say. Whatever happens after that . . . well, that’s up to the woman.
In service of the “pro-information” cause, Becker has written critically of recently passed state laws banning selective abortion due to genetic abnormality. These laws are intended to prevent a diagnosis of Down syndrome from becoming a death sentence. She says they will lead to more abortions:
Outlawing abortion based upon a prenatal diagnosis insures that women do not receive answers to their questions, connections with other parents who have faced the same fears and overcome them, and accurate medical information about the reality of raising a child with a chromosomal condition in today’s society. Pro-information laws take a more pragmatic stance. They recognize that abortion is the law of the land.
One can’t help but notice: In Amy Julia Becker’s world, everything pro-lifers do and say leads to more abortions. She never explains how “outlawing abortion” will prevent people from asking questions and meeting other parents.
Becker claims a new study in the American Journal of Medical Genetics justifies throwing away the 90 percent statistic for good. The authors of the study are reputable gentlemen, but their work is based on statistical models and estimates. It should not be confused with a double-blind, randomized controlled trial.
Nevertheless, Becker declares that the study “demonstrates that carrying babies with Down syndrome to term and receiving them into families and communities is the norm within the United States.” I’m not at all convinced it does that. Unknowingly carrying babies with Down syndrome to term may be the norm. Knowingly doing so is not.
I respect Amy Julia Becker. We are both parents of little girls with Down syndrome. We work the same side of the street. I know she is sincere in her attempts to make the broader culture more accepting of people with Down syndrome. But I humbly ask—as I have in the past—that she explain why she is so dead set on refuting a statistic that doesn’t matter anyway.
Matthew Hennessey (@matthennessey) writes from Connecticut.