Righting America

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Individuals with Developmental Disabilities: Poster Children of the Pro-Life Movement | Righting America

by John Parrett

John Parrett received his M.A. in Theological Studies from the University of Dayton. Before that, he graduated from Wilmington College with a Bachelor’s of Arts with a double major in History and Religion/Philosophy. While pursuing his master’s degree, John began working with adults with developmental disabilities, and is now a Certified Employment Support Professional (CESP). While John does not intend to further his education at this time, he continues to study religion in American culture in his spare time.      

On the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Arizona is taking up a new challenge to the ruling. Arizona’s SB 1381 would make any abortion performed on the reason of sex or disability of the fetus a class 2 felony. These kinds of abortion bans are often referred to as “reason bans.” 

The Right uses reason bans because such bans make abortion advocates argue the double standard that a pregnant person can take a developing life based on a class protected by anti-discrimination laws, laws that are often championed by the Left. In this debate, the Right’s favorite poster children for reason bans are those with Down Syndrome. Since March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, I thought it would be timely to address why those with cognitive disabilities are the poster children of the Right.  

According to Answers in Genesis (AiG), in an article entitled “Are Humans with Disabilities Facing Extinction?,” a study from Iceland reveals that “100% of all those diagnosed with Down Syndrome have been aborted in the past several years.” According to this interpretation, we should believe that those with Down Syndrome are facing extinction. This statement is not accurately referenced from the study. While the quote from the AiG suggests that all those experiencing pregnancy opt for testing, they do not. That is to say, Down Syndrome babies are very much continuing to be born in Iceland. 

More generally, AiG’s claim that humans with disabilities are facing extinction is a gross  exaggeration. The most accurate testing of the fetus is not possible until 15 or 20 weeks80% of pregnancies are terminated before ten weeks, and little more than 5% take place after 16 weeks. These statistics show that a disability diagnosis is not a driving force for abortions, and those with disability diagnoses are not facing a eugenic genocide.   

If statistics tell us that cognitive disabilities are not the leading cause of abortion, why has the Right focused on them as their talking point? It is also possible to test for Dwarfism, but no one on the Right is trying to play champion for those with Dwarfism. Why don’t we see the Right unite to protect that protected class? 

The answer is because those with cognitive disabilities make good perpetual poster children, precisely because no other group of people with disabilities can more effortlessly be represented as childlike. But as a professional who supports adults with developmental disabilities in community employment, I know full well that no one stays a child forever. While the Right often falls silent on how to care for their poster children once they are born and once they become adults, we live in a capitalistic society where life is always connected to a cost. That is to say, being genuinely pro-life means that we must consider the price, even after birth. 

Within their first year of life, a child with Down Syndrome will need a 2-5 times longer stay in the hospital than a typically developing child, depending on their exact diagnoses. This will add up to a child with Down Syndrome costing 2-11 times more than a typically developing child. Luckily, many government and private insurance programs will cover these costs when the child is young. Of course, that is only if the nondisabled are willing to pay the tax bill, or if the parents are lucky enough to have insurance. After the first year, the cost of caring for these children will decrease, but it will never go away entirely, as next comes adult life and employment.  

The pandemic has demonstrated to the world just how hard it is to build inclusive employment. In January of 2020, the unemployment rate for those without disabilities was 6.7% and 12.6% for those with a disability. By April, 14.3% of those without a disability were unemployed compared to 18.9% with a disability. In total since March, when the pandemic began, 1 in 5 workers with a disability have lost their job, in comparison to 1 in 7 able-bodied individuals. These numbers show that inclusive community employment for those with disabilities is an ongoing challenge. 

Those without a disability have always been seen as the preferred job candidate. That is a shame when we consider that if those with disabilities were included—and not just integrated—into community employment, the GDP would rise by an estimated 25 billion. Is the Right willing to take the next step and absorb the initial tax burden of creating more government funded employment services? Is the Right willing to create programs like Putting Faith to Work from the Collaborative on Faith and Disability so that congregations at the grassroots can build inclusive workspaces?  

Some museums and amusement parks are starting to notice the economic power of those with disabilities. Many places now offer free online social stories to help those with developmental disabilities understand and prepare for what they will see, such as this one from the Georgia Aquarium. I often use this kind of tool to help my individuals understand and perform their job tasks. Kings Island also offers this extensive free guide for its visitors. Compared to the resources provided by these certified sites, the alternatives provided by the Creation Museum and Ark are severely lacking. Does being pro-life not mean inclusion in communal spaces? 

It seems those with developmental disabilities or any disability are only being used by the Right as a means to an end. In Embrace, a Women’s Conference for Answers in Genesis, a speaker commented that “The reason that we’re saddened and shocked by disability is because we all know deep down that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, we live in an abnormal world where disability is now the norm.” 

This is another way of articulating the old idea that disability is a result of Adam’s sin. In her work, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Dr. Nancy L. Eiesland explains that if we believe disability is the result of sin, then those with disabilities will be sequestered away from society quickly and easily. And when those with disabilities do enter the abled community, they must be “camouflaged to make it acceptable for public discourse.” More than this, the media often camouflages disability by turning those with disabilities into “supercrips” whose task it is to teach the abled-bodied life lessons. 

Disability is also “camouflaged” through systematic housing poverty. In 2017 working-age adults with cognitive disabilities had a 31.5% chance of living in poverty. Many adults with cognitive disabilities must live on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which only provides, on average, $559 a month for those ages 19-64. More than this, as of 2015 850,000 people with cognitive disabilities were living with family caregivers over the age of 60. Is the Right willing to support a hike in taxes to provide more inclusive housing, especially as individual families can no longer provide support? Is the Right willing to support a tax increase to cover the other costs associated with the long-term support and care of adults with developmental disabilities? That is to say, is the Right willing to be truly pro-life?

While providing my service out in the community, I have seen firsthand the result of misguided theology and how those with disabilities must be “camouflaged.” Just last month, while working with one of my individuals at their community job, one of their able-bodied coworkers asked me, out of my individual’s earshot, if it was fair for God to create someone like that? The coworker then explained that he believed that my individual existed as a test for the nondisabled, to see if they were deserving of heaven. Comments such as these will often come when I am assisting nonverbal individuals or individuals whose physical forms make others uncomfortable. I always brush these comments off because, when I am wearing my badge of a direct service professional, it is not the time to discuss theology. But internally I am taken aback at the ableism born of ignorance and bad theology. The individuals I serve are human. I am not being “patient” with them when I take time to walk slower or wait for them to get their words out. Instead, I am respecting them. 

Building respect, equality, equity, and inclusion are uphill battles. No one person or group has the answer. However, we will not get there by using those with developmental disabilities as poster children in the pro-life movement. We will only get there together by building communities that invite and welcome all. We must move beyond asking the “why” of another’s existence, like the Right does. Instead, we must accept their being, and we must learn to support them after birth, in their health care, special education, housing, vocational rehabilitation, and more. 

In short, we must do what the Right does not do. We must accept that caring for life does not end with birth.