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A new Ohio bill may, as Sarah Palin put it, prevent women from "snuffing out the life of their baby just because the child has an extra chromosome". Isn't this a rather simplistic way of viewing a complex topic?

Society sends the message that parents aren't "capable of being able to handle and nurture and love and raise a child with special needs", Sarah Palin was quoted all over the news as saying. She added: "There is some fear there of the unknown. Certainly, there was fear in my heart about how in the world are we going to be able to handle the challenges up ahead, not necessarily thinking of the beauty that could come from a child being different, being unique."

The topic? Down Syndrome. Though Sarah Palin, as the mother of a son with Down Syndrome, has very direct experience with the issues about which she spoke, her comments didn't emerge in isolation. Palin spoke to CNN in support of a new Ohio bill that, if passed, will ban women from having abortions in response to a positive prenatal test for Down Syndrome.

The bill's supporters hope that Ohio Governor John Kasich — also a Republican presidental candidate — will sign it before Thanksgiving. Given the fact that Kasich already, as Catholic Online says, "enacted 16 anti-abortion measures and closed nearly half of the state's abortion clinics", that's hardly an unlikely move. The bill was endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee, and the majority of legislators are anti-abortion in this case.

This bill could soon become law, then. But should women's reproductive choices really be restricted in this way — and is it really a fear of the unknown and social pressure that leads women to terminate a pregnancy after a positive test for Down Syndrome?

Why This Bill?

A review of studies conducted between 1995 and 2011 found that between 50 and 85 percent of women who have prenatal screening that indicates their fetus may have Down Syndrome will opt to terminate their pregancy, though also noting that those numbers were lower in the later years it looked at. Supporters of the bill argue that it isn't about abortion at all, but is instead an anti-discrimination measure designed to protect individuals with Down Syndrome. 

Critics, meanwhile, say that the bill directly violates the landmark Roe vs Wade ruling in which women gained the right to terminate a pregnancy at any point before the fetus is viable — for any reason, as a private matter between a pregnant woman and her doctor. 

The bill isn't completely without precedent. North Dakota passed legislation preventing women from terminating a pregnancy for reasons related to any fetal genetic abnormality. 

Why Do Women Abort When They Hear Their Baby Could Have Down Syndrome?

"Do I think it should be legal for a mom to snuff out the life of her baby just because the child has one extra chromosome?", Palin asked, before answering that no, that shouldn't be possible. Let's be honest for a moment and acknowledge that this is a simplistic way of putting things.
There is no doubt that people with Down Syndrome can, in an increasing number of cases, live fulfilling and largely independent lives. There is no doubt that the opportunities available to people with Down Syndrome in many western countries today are a far cry from being locked in an institution for life. 
Yet, we also have to acknowledge that the implications of life with that one extra chromosome reach far beyond a cognitive disability:
  • Almost 50 percent of all babies born with Down Syndrome will suffer from congenital heart disease.
  • People with Down Syndrome are also likely to suffer from poor muscle tone, hypothyroidism, blood disorders, and spine problems. 
  • People with Down Syndrome often face an immune system weakness that makes fighting off infections much harder — they are 12 times more likely to die from "unmonitored and untreated infections" than the general population, the National Institutes of Health say.
  • Vision and hearing problems are also a possibility. 
Families raising a child with Down Syndrome in the United States may be luckier than other families around the world: the extensive medical treatments their child will need are likely to be covered by insurance policies, including social insurance programs such as Medicaid. To be able to access all the therapies and schooling someone with Down Syndrome needs to reach their full potential, families will require funds — funds Palin doubtless has, but they may not. Respite care and other support services that help parents be the best parents they can be, both to their child with Down Syndrome and other children they may have, could be completely unavailable. 
Ultimately, saying women "snuff out the life of their baby", "just because of an extra chromosome" and because they're scared and manipulated by society is not only naive, but also condescending. Taking their options away without increasing their access to the services that would offer them the support they need is downright dangerous. 

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