Can We Dismember the Disabled? Are They Less Human, Less Valuable?

By Chris Gast

Editor’s note. This appeared in Right to Life of Michigan’s “Real Life Stories.”

On December 23, 2019, the signatures of 379,419 Michigan citizens were submitted to the Michigan Bureau of Elections to initiate legislation to end dismemberment abortions in Michigan. A dismemberment abortion is the most common late-term abortion procedure.

Abortion advocates know that late-term abortions are unpopular. Even many people who describe themselves as “pro-choice” intuitively understand that something is wrong with taking the life of a child old enough to survive outside the womb.

Knowing this, abortion advocates often focus on late-term abortions in extreme cases. Their go-to narrative involves a pregnancy where the child in the womb has been diagnosed with a serious condition. There are two big problems with this narrative.

The first problem is accuracy. The abortion industry’s own published research indicates most late-term abortions are for economic or social reasons; they have no connection with the stories presented in supposedly objective news stories. 

Some people—even presidential candidates—have heard this narrative so often they literally believe late-term abortions are only used on children with disabilities. They won’t publicly defend aborting a supposedly healthy child at 24 weeks of pregnancy, even though that’s the most common late-term abortion situation.

The second problem is that this late-term abortion narrative assumes children with disabilities have less value than able-bodied children. We can put a face to the mother or parents placed in a truly difficult situation, which certainly many prolife parents have faced. Sadly, we can’t put a face on the child diagnosed with a disability in the womb—we can’t physically see them or hear from them.

We can see these children after birth, and even hear their voice. The disabled do have a face, and too often they are shut out of the discussion. Here’s one child to consider, Faith Smith.

Faith Smith

Faith has Trisomy 18, also known as Edwards Syndrome. It’s often referred to as a fatal condition or explained to parents as being “incompatible with life.” Faith’s life obviously defies those cold, clinical words. Faith is no more incompatible with life than you or anyone else, all of us someday destined to pass away from this world.

Faith’s parents, Brad and Jesi Smith, have seen first-hand how our society and medical system has a built-in prejudice against the disabled. As soon as the prenatal ultrasound for Faith came back showing an abnormality, aborting Faith was suggested to them by a genetics counselor. The Smiths rejected this “advice” out of hand.

“Faith’s individual personhood, both genetically and biologically apparent through every measurable medical test, never gave me the right to own her little life, body and soul,” said Jesi of her daughter.

Contempt for Faith’s life didn’t end with abortion suggestions. A hospital ethics board tried to refuse treatment for Faith after her birth. In another situation, Faith almost died of asphyxiation in her crib because doctors withheld information about effective treatments for her. Request for treatments as cheap and simple as a c-pap mask went ignored, let alone newer treatments and interventions now available.

“It makes you wonder if those medical workers are refusing to acknowledge and adapt to the new science and innovation because of ignorance or extreme bias,” Jesi said.

Major strides have been made to provide care for children who have Trisomy 18. Part of the reason some disabilities are deemed “fatal” is so many of the children with the disability have their lives taken from them in the womb. “Incompatible with life” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when nobody is willing to invest time in caring for these children.

Look no further than the story of U.S. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler. Her daughter didn’t develop kidneys in the womb and was deemed to have zero chance to survive. The Beutlers’ refusal to accept uneducated pessimism led them to find a doctor willing to take a chance on their daughter, Abigail. It turns out her condition was treatable using a simple saline solution, enough to get her to birth and then working out a kidney transplant. Today, Abigail Beutler is 6 years old. 

How many children like Abigail had their lives ended in the womb—dismembered limb from limb—because they were deemed life unworthy of life by healthcare workers who pressured their parents?

“Innovative and courageous doctors who do not discriminate against babies based on their disabilities have done for children with Faith’s ‘fatal fetal anomaly’ what was once done for children with Down syndrome,” Jesi said. “They treated them like any other valuable human being and gave medical care when it was needed.”

Faith’s life and the struggles placed in her path by people who don’t see her as fully human have made Brad and Jesi passionate advocates. Brad recently began working for Right to Life of Michigan. The Smith’s testimony helped change state law in 2013 to stop hospitals from secretly consigning the disabled to death as “futile” cases. Brad and Jesi have both told Faith’s story to many audiences over the years.

Life for Faith is not without her own health struggles. Her Trisomy 18 will impact her every day of her life. Jesi calls out our definition of “quality of life” and points out Faith is happy, smiles, and is loved every day.

“There are many living, happy, and yes, disabled children with so called ‘fatal fetal anomalies’ not just here in Michigan but all over the country,” Jesi said.

The Smiths are active in SOFT, the Support Organization for Trisomy. Jesi believes their recent 2019 conference at the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital helped encourage Governor Whitmer to declare March 2019 as Trisomy 18 Awareness Month in Michigan.

Increasing awareness of people who have Trisomy 18 is important, but awareness is fruitless if these children’s right to live isn’t respected. A ban on dismemberment abortion doesn’t ban all late-term abortions, but it would give parents pause before considering late-term abortion. A dismemberment ban certainly would stop a uniquely barbaric act which even people who call themselves “pro-choice” are uncomfortable with.

“Even if we call it legal 2nd trimester abortion or a ‘choice,’ I do not have the right as a mother to deliberately tear my daughter’s body apart limb by limb, crush her skull, and then reassemble my daughter’s body outside the womb to make sure we ripped out every finger and toe with perfect impunity,” Jesi said.

Michigan’s end dismemberment petition drive isn’t an academic question, but an issue with life and death consequences for children like Faith. Her life forces us to ask real questions about what it means to exclude the disabled from the possibility of human rights.

Is Faith less of a human being than you? If we can’t dismember Faith now as an 11-year old little girl, could we have done it at birth, perhaps? If we would be horrified while watching her facial expression and listening to her cries as she was systemically torn limb from limb as a premature newborn baby, how is it any less horrific if it happened in the womb at the same stage?

“Perhaps our society should take up the old-time Scottish term for individuals with mental and physical handicaps and call them ‘innocents,’” Jesi said. “They are innocent people. They have done nothing to warrant such hatred or fear just by living.”