How Ableism Led (and Leads) to Abortion

Posted on March 27, 2018 By

Sarah Terzo at the March for Life

by Sarah Terzo


Part 1 of 2; Part 2 is How Euthanasia and Poverty Threaten the Disabled.  

To be truly pro-life is to value all human beings. People are valuable not because of what we can do but because of what we are: human beings. For pro-lifers, people are not judged by how attractive they are, how wealthy they are, or how useful they are to others. People have inherent worth.  This is the core of the pro-life message.

We live in a culture that does not value the preborn. It also does not value the disabled.  In fact, a desire to eliminate disabled people was a driving force behind abortion even before Roe v. Wade.

Before the 1960s, the majority of Americans opposed legalizing abortion. This was clear in opinion polls. But the movement for abortion legalization got an enormous boost from two events:  the Sherri Finkbine case in 1962 and the German measles outbreak of 1964.

Sherri Finkbine was the host of the popular children’s show Romper Room. She was pregnant and suffering from morning sickness and insomnia. To treat her ailments, her husband brought a drug back from overseas – the drug thalidomide, which had not been approved in America, and gave it to her. Months into her pregnancy, Finkbine found out about the terrible birth defects that were caused by this drug, such as missing and misshapen limbs, and other health problems.

At the time, abortion was legal only to save the life of the mother. In practice, however, hospitals sometimes approved abortions for other reasons. Sherri Finkbine applied for an abortion at a local hospital, and her abortion was approved and scheduled.

To warn other women about thalidomide, Finkbine gave an interview to a newspaper about her situation. When the story ran, the hospital, fearing bad publicity, canceled the abortion.

What happened next was a media frenzy. Newspapers publicized how Finkbine, this beloved figure, was being forced to carry a horribly deformed child. She was portrayed as the innocent victim of cruel anti-abortion laws. Abortion-legalization activists used the story to drum up support for abortion. After Roe v. Wade was decided, lawyer Sarah Weddington, one of the pro-abortion attorneys who argued Roe, would say to Finkbine: “It’s a privilege to meet you. If it hadn’t been for you, my job ten years later would have been much more difficult.” (quoted in Patricia Myers. “Shades of Gray.” Phoenix, October 1989, pp. 40–45)

Finkbine ended up getting her abortion in Sweden. According to Cynthia Gorney, who wrote a book about the history of abortion in America: “when Sherri Finkbine was asked afterward what the Swedish doctors had said about her abortion, she said they had told her that deformities were present and that ‘baby’ was not the best description for what she had been carrying. It was better to think of it, Mrs. Finkbine reported the doctors having explained, as a growth.” (Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, p. 51)

The disabled baby was considered less than human by the doctors who aborted him or her (no sources I found bothered to document the child’s sex.)

Shortly after the Finkbine case, an epidemic of German measles in 1964-1965 led to the birth of disabled children throughout the United States. German measles, otherwise known as rubella, was a relatively mild disease in adults. However, pregnant women who contracted it often had babies with disabilities. Babies born to mothers infected with rubella developed heart defects, deafness, and intellectual disabilities.

The connection between rubella and birth defects was discovered in the 1940s by Australian ophthalmologist Norman Gregg, who openly promoted abortion for pregnant women infected with the virus. Leslie J. Reagan, author of Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America, states: “German measles was crucial for bringing out the public discussion of abortion and propelling the early abortion rights movement…. [It was] the opening that made it possible for women, and men too, to talk about the validity of this procedure and the necessity of making it legal.”

Pro-abortion activists capitalized on the fears of pregnant mothers who wanted healthy, normal children. These activists framed abortion as a medical issue, necessary to ensure that babies were not born disabled. In this way, abortion supporters used ableism to make abortion more palatable to the public, promoting the claim that it was better for a baby never to be born than allow him or her to be born with a disability.

Abortion supporters are still using ableism to promote abortion. An Episcopal priest recently said that abortion should be legalized in Latin America because of the Zika virus. Since the Zika virus can cause birth defects, she argues, abortion must be legal. If it isn’t, women will be forced to “suffer the consequences of a disabled child with special needs” (Kira Schlesinger Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice, p. 8).

Today women are expected to have tests to determine if their children will be disabled and are often encouraged to abort if they are. In some cases, it’s said to be in the best interests of the disabled child. One article I read recently was about a woman whose child had kidney problems and may have needed a kidney transplant after birth. Rather than let her baby be born, and giving him medical treatment, the woman decided to do what she said was the most “humane” thing for him. She had him dismembered in a D&E abortion.

In a D&E abortion, the abortionist uses forceps to extract the child piece by piece, literally tearing him apart. The abortionist pulls off the baby’s arms and legs, tears apart the rest of the body, then finally crushes the baby’s skull to remove it.  It is a violent, gruesome procedure. Yet the author described the abortion of her son as an act of kindness.

Often, though, if we read the actual words of those who abort disabled children, the well-being of the child really isn’t the main concern. In some cases, a disabled child is just too expensive and inconvenient. Rayna Rapp, in Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: the Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America quotes some parents whose unborn children were being tested for Down Syndrome. They were waiting for their test results to come back. All of them intended to abort if the test was positive.

One woman said, “I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t be that kind of mother who accepts everything, loves her kid no matter what. What about me? Maybe it’s selfish, I don’t know. But I just didn’t want all those problems in my life.” (p. 138)

Another said: “It’s devastating, it’s a waste, all the love that goes into kids like that.” (p. 134)

A third said: “I think it’s kind of like triage, or like euthanasia. There aren’t enough resources in the world. We’d have to move, to focus our whole family on getting a handicapped kid a better deal… Why spend $50,000 to save one child?” (p. 146)

The mention of euthanasia is all too appropriate. The same ableism that often drives support for abortion also drives support for euthanasia and other measures that hurt the disabled.

Part 2 will address euthanasia.


For more of our blog posts on people with disabilities, see:

Women with Disabilities Speak

For more from Sarah Terzo:

Abortion Doctors: We are the Executioners

The Vital Need for Diversity

Healing for the Perpetrators: The Psychological Damage from Different Types of Killing

See all of our blog posts put in categories



abortiondisability rightseugenics

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