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Moms as Genetic Outlaws

Some Women Resist Pressure to Abort the Less-Than-Perfect

PARRAMATTA, Australia, MAY 27, 2006 ( Society increasingly demands perfection, and babies diagnosed with problems are aborted more often than not. Some women, however, resist the pressure and bear children who suffer disabilities.

The stories of a number of these women are brought together by Australian researcher and activist Melinda Tankard Reist in a book titled, “Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics” (Spinifex Press). First-person testimonies comprise the bulk of the book.

In her opening essay Tankard Reist, founding director of Women’s Forum Australia, gives an overview of the women who confront a society fearful of disability and who decide to have babies without the genetic stamp of approval. “They are, in a sense, genetic outlaws,” she states.

The experience of some of the women also raises doubts over the medical profession. Some received grave diagnoses regarding their unborn children. Later, these children were born, either without any problems, or with handicaps that were much less serious than predicted. Some doctors even refused to help women who refused to abort children who were diagnosed with disabilities.

In fact, with increasing frequency women’s desires are ignored. Tankard Reist recounts the case of one woman who didn’t wish to be informed of any possible problems before she underwent an ultrasound procedure. On taking the image home she found on the image, nevertheless, a series of annotations of possible abnormalities. The baby was later born free of any of the conditions mentioned.

The upshot, the researcher states, is that prenatal screening, instead of giving women more power — part of the rhetoric of the “right to choose” — in practice puts pressure on them to conform to social prejudices against the handicapped.

The a-word

Also looming is another, more insidious, danger with genetic testing. Screening and abortion become merely a part of the routine prenatal program, Tankard Reist argues. Prior to prenatal testing the possibility of abortion might not even be mentioned and when problems are detected a full explanation of the options available might not be given.

Such was the case of Natalie Withers. Her fourth baby was diagnosed with heart problems and other conditions. She told Tankard Reist that the term “abortion” was not even mentioned; there was merely talk of “inducing birth” — at 20 weeks gestation. Only when Withers was in labor was she informed that the baby might either be stillborn or die immediately. Not until after it was all over — the baby didn’t survive — did Withers discover that children born with her daughter’s condition can survive and do well if they receive the right care.

Women, then, can become victims after innocently going along with the attitude of “doctor knows best.” Only too late do they discover that their own interests and preferences are passed over in favor of the conventional wisdom of perfect children, says Tankard Reist. And once they wake up to what is going on, even well-educated women can find the going difficult if they choose to go against the preferences of medical experts.

Often the information given to women is slanted in such a way as to encourage abortion. In many cases parents are not directed to groups that would help them to understand better the nature of the disabilities involved. That in turn makes it difficult for them to know how their child might fare or what support is available.

Other difficulties involve coping with the trauma and anxiety of test results that show possible problems. Tankard Reist cites a number of studies showing that many woman who are told their children suffer from defects suffer from serious shock, distress and panic. These psychological pressures can even affect the mother’s well-being, and that of the unborn child.

The dangers involve physical risks too. Some observers question, for example, the frequent use of ultrasound machines without an adequate evaluation of the negative consequences. And amniocentesis, in which a sample of the amniotic fluid is taken from the mother’s womb for analysis, can lead to the loss of the baby in 1 in 125 pregnancies, according to one meta-analysis cited in the book. Another study showed that this procedure caused up to four healthy babies to be miscarried for every abnormality detected.

Sometimes the tests are simply wrong. A study of 300 fetal autopsies found that the prenatal hypothesis concerning problems was confirmed in only 39% of the cases.


The eugenic mentality behind the practice of aborting handicapped children is sometimes more blatant. One survey of obstetricians in England and Wales, for example, found that a third of them require a woman, even before she undergoes prenatal diagnosis, to agree to abort a pregnancy if the child were found to have a problem.

Behind such a practice lurks the belief that allowing these children to be born would burden them with second-rate lives and bring misery into the world. This gives rise to a form of new eugenics masquerading under the appearance of health concerns, Tankard Reist warns. People who follow such a line of reasoning, she adds, might end up acquiescing to the selection and elimination of less-than-perfect children, a sort of infanticide.

Such a mentality mirrors the increased desire for perfection in today’s society. Other manifestations of this trend include excessive dieting and the ever-spreading use of cosmetic surgery. A number of prominent geneticists and ethicists, including figures such as James Watson and Peter Singer, openly favor the use of genetic techniques to design more perfect babies.

Ever-higher health costs also contribute to the pressure on mothers to abort the handicapped. Parents who decide not to abort imperfect children are sometimes made to feel irresponsible for “burdening” society.

Tankard Reist cites Australian geneticist Grant Sutherland, who reckoned that preventing the birth of a child with Down syndrome saves the community a million dollars or more. He has urged governments to set up public clinics to screen pregnant women.

This financial pressure extends to other areas, such as the increasing difficulties faced by people with genetic defects in obtaining life insurance, or permission to adopt children.

Healthy Harrison

A report in last Sunday’s London-based Telegraph newspaper highlighted the relevance of the problems raised in “Defiant Birth.” Lisa Green was 35 weeks pregnant when her baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome, and she was offered an abortion by doctors.

The doctor, recounted Green, only disclosed the negative aspects of giving birth to the child. She rejected the advice, and two weeks later gave birth to a baby, named Harrison, now 2 years old. He is, said the newspaper, a “happy and healthy” child, according to the mother.

In an editorial published the same day, the Telegraph referred to the practice of aborting babies in a very late stage of pregnancy. “It is very difficult,” it said, “if not impossible, to explain what makes these ‘terminations’ different from the killing of children.” Such killings will continue, so long as the new eugenics mentality prevails.

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[As part of a worldwide promotion, Melinda Tankard Reist’s book “Defiant Birth” will be presented in Rome on June 1 at 5:45 p.m. in the Art Museum of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Via Acciaioli 2]

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