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Abortion, Disability Rights, John McCain, and the Supreme Court

Posted Nov 10 2008 5:54pm
Since John McCain's recent pick of a running mate, Sarah Palin, who holds very strong pro-life views and has an infant son with Down Syndrome, I've seen a few people in the autistic community arguing that the Republican ticket would be the best choice for us. A prenatal test for autism could be only a few years away, this argument goes, and the only way to save our people from eugenic extermination is to vote Republican so that McCain can appoint more conservatives to the Supreme Court and put the abortionists out of business before they start killing off autistic babies.

Although this argument packs a strong emotional punch, it doesn't reflect what would actually happen under a Republican administration with a conservative Supreme Court. First of all, even if the court were to decide that there was no constitutional right to abortion, that in itself would not outlaw abortion. It would simply allow the states to legislate on abortion as they saw fit. In liberal states such as California and New York, abortion would remain legal. In the most conservative states, abortion would be promptly banned; but these states have very few abortion clinics anyway, so the only difference would be that their residents, most of whom already have to go out of town to get an abortion, would have to drive a few more hours to get to a clinic in another state or in Canada. The overall number of abortions in the United States would not be significantly reduced.

What's more, even the strictest anti-abortion laws would not ban prenatal tests, most of which have legitimate medical purposes. A prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome, for instance, can result in better medical care for the fetus because the doctor can consult with specialists during the pregnancy. If a specialist determines that the baby will need heart surgery immediately after birth, which sometimes happens, there will be a surgical team standing by. Although autistic infants do not have similar medical issues, parent groups reasonably could argue that a prenatal autism diagnosis would help families to get on waiting lists for early childhood enrichment and therapy programs. I think it's highly unlikely that any state legislators would risk their wrath by proposing to outlaw prenatal testing for autism.

That leaves us with the question: If we can't put a stop to selective abortion by legislating it out of existence, how can we protect the next generation of autistic children from being routinely aborted? To find the answer, I believe we need to look at parents' reasons for choosing abortion when they are told their child will have a disability. Most parents who opt to abort are not selfish monsters who just don't want to be bothered with the child; rather, they agonize over the decision and then conclude that abortion is for the best because the child likely would never have an independent and fulfilling life.

And they're not just relying on outdated prejudices and stereotypes in thinking so. It is a fact that people with disabilities face many barriers to independent living in today's society—lack of community services and housing options, in particular, and widespread employment discrimination. These are issues that can be addressed effectively through the political process. When we remove the barriers and build a society in which all people are empowered to live as equal participants in the community, regardless of disability, the rationale for selective abortion disappears.

Therefore, when choosing the presidential candidate whose policies are most likely to bring about an America in which autistic children and others with disabilities are not routinely aborted, we need to consider the candidates' views on disability rights issues and vote for the one who will act to remove barriers to independent living.

That candidate definitely is not John McCain. As I mentioned in a recent post, McCain opposes the Community Choice Act, which would provide funding for community services and housing for Medicaid recipients who would otherwise be forced to live in nursing homes or other institutional facilities. On the employment discrimination issue, let's talk about the Supreme Court again for a moment. The House of Representatives recently passed, and the Senate is now considering, amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act. These amendments became necessary to restore the act's original protections after they were significantly eroded by a series of Supreme Court decisions—authored by those conservative justices Senator McCain so often praises.

When Senator Tom Harkin, a longtime supporter of disability rights, challenged McCain on this point at a community forum in July, McCain asserted that the decisions had nothing to do with the conservatism of their authors, but that Congress was to blame for not being specific enough in drafting the ADA. Uh-huh. Apparently, McCain would have us believe that his pals on the Supreme Court just didn't notice that the ADA was supposed to be an anti-discrimination law. Well, I'm not buying it—and I'm not voting to give McCain a chance to appoint even more conservatives to the Supreme Court so that they can take another whack at our disability rights laws, either.
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