Karen Gaffney, the first person with Down syndrome to swim the English channel, spoke at the Pennsylvania Capitol building Monday to advocate for a newly-introduced bill to ban abortions based solely on the fact that the unborn baby would have Down syndrome.
“It’s okay,” she told those gathered, “I know I am different than you. I look different, I talk differently, I walk differently, I don’t hear as well as most of you do and I don’t see as well either and sometimes it takes me longer to learn things. Now another thing that is different about me is that I can swim much longer and much farther than anyone in this room.”
Gaffney went on to point out that she’s not the only one with Down syndrome who has been able to accomplish some amazing things.
She talked about the “people who have fought all the odds and are living and growing and contributing in the communities where they live. You will read about some talented authors and musicians, joggers, surfers, hockey players, fashion models, and fashion designers…all showing that Down syndrome is a life with dignity.”
Gaffney pointed to the progress that advocates for those with the condition had made saying, “sixty years ago in this country people like me didn’t even have a place in the classroom.” She said families and supporters “started knocking down doors, pulling out all stops, standing up for our rights…for many of those families it was too late for their children but they made it happen for my generation and the generations to come.”
She went on to acknowledge the hurdles that people with Down syndrome still face but said the biggest hurdle is the possibility that all the progress that has been made will be wiped out by the onslaught of prenatal screening and abortions for those with the condition.
“Those of us with Down syndrome and our families face a very difficult future,” she said. “We face the possibility of wiping out the tremendous progress we have made in the last sixty years, just as we are making so much progress a whole industry has grown up focused on prenatal screening, screening that would end our lives before we take our first breath.”
“Now that you can test for Down syndrome before birth there are many experts in the medical community who will say that this extra chromosome we carry around is not compatible with life,” she continued. “Not compatible with life? So think about that for just a minute. Think about the people we just talked about. Think about all the people you know with Down syndrome, your cousin, your brother, or your sister…am I not compatible with life?”
“Well after everything we have done I would say we are more than compatible,” Gaffney concluded. “We are what life is all about, our lives are worth living and our lives are worth learning about.”
Pennsylvania is the latest of many states moving to ban abortion on the basis of a Down syndrome diagnosis. Ohio recently enacted a similar law which is currently being challenged by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood who claim it unconstitutionally restricts abortion access.
Indiana enacted a similar measure before a judge blocked it, an appeal is pending. North Dakota banned abortion on the basis of Down syndrome in 2013, it has gone unchallenged likely due to the fact that the state’s only abortion clinic does not perform abortions after 16 weeks of pregnancy.
Unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted at high rates globally. According to a CBS report, the United States has an estimated abortion rate of 67 percent (1995-2011) for unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome. Iceland has a nearly 100 percent termination rate following diagnosis. The high numbers even caused one human rights group to appeal to the United Nations, calling the abortion rates a “contemporary form of eugenics and racism.”