Right to Life for Babies with Disabilities

A few weeks ago I came across the heartwarming story of Sierra, a little girl born with Mosaic Trisomy 18 (T18) who has just turned one.  Born in the US, Sierra’s mother had to fight for her little girl’s right to have life saving heart surgery to ensure her survival.  Her journey is being recorded by her mother in the Facebook page aptly titled Splendidly Sierra – Blazing a New Trail with Mosaic T18. Unfortunately this reminded me of a number of parents who have shared their story here in Australia of being pressured to terminate their pregnancy once diagnosed with T18, of being criticised for caring pregnancies with T18 to term, and of fighting for appropriate care for their babies born with T18.  Parents who are fortunate to birth a live child with T18 here in Australia rarely take their baby home.  Life saving treatment is simply not an option for them.

In 2014, an academic study was undertaken on the attitudes of obstetricians in Australia, New Zealand and the UK towards prenatally diagnosed T18.  This study revealed some interesting facts on the practice of obstetricians in Australia and New Zealand: – 97% of obstetricians indicated that they would always discuss and offer an abortion following the antenatal diagnosis of T18;
– only 60% offered a paediatric consultation early in the pregnancy;
– 20% indicated that they would not comply with a request for fetal-orientated obstetric care which would maximise the change of a live birth; and
– 70% would only monitor the baby during labour if directly asked, they would not do this routinely as they would for a ‘normal’ birth.

The study revealed that many obstetricians had an incorrect understanding of postnatal survival of T18 babies raising the possibility that lower survival figures represent a self-fulfilling prophecy.  More than one third actively discouraged obstetric care aimed at fetal survival with one fifth going as far as saying that they would not comply with such a request even if it was made.

In contrast, UK-based obstetricians were more likely to discuss or offer paediatric consultations, palliative care, fetal monitoring, and multidisciplinary team involvement.  From the UK, doctor’s were also more likely to have strong religious views with an ethical or moral objection to abortion.

One conclusion drawn by the authors was the recognition that a form of passive eugenics was being practiced.  The incidence of directive counselling where women are not offered a full range of options for their pregnancy and delivery when they are found to be carrying a baby with T18 was concluded to be widespread.  This is in sharp contrast to professional and ethical guidelines which state that obstetricians should be non-directive in counselling parents and that fetal-orientated management is usually appropriate for T18.  Overwhelmingly, perinatal management of this small cohort of babies is influenced by the values of the practitioner.

Promoting a true Culture of Life involves promoting the intrinsic worth of all.  However, the society in which we live sees life as disposable.  Years ago we cared for those who we considered weaker than ourselves.  Now that genetic testing is available we see the worrying trend towards more and more eugenic abortions – not just for babies with T18, but also for deafness, cleft palate, club foot, reductions of multiples (ie aborting one twin or triplet), and even simply for being a girl.  It wasn’t that long ago that Iceland and other countries were claiming that they had “cured” Down Syndrome through prenatal screening and ultimately through abortion. 

Chelsea Zimmerman, a pro-life activist with a disability had this to say about our attitudes towards unborn children with disabilities:

Advocating for abortion for unborn children with various diseases and disabilities in order to ‘spare them a life of suffering’ suggests that one must be perfect in mind and body in order to have a fulfilling life, which sends a message to those of us poor fools living with disabilities outside the womb that you do not think that our lives are worth living”.

Chelsea Zimmerman

As we go about our week let us remember the unborn and support families who are being pressured to terminate the life of their child simply for having a prenatal diagnosis which doesn’t fit with the medical practitioner’s view of a ‘perfect body’.