Reproductive Testing for Disability
Two developments in the 1970s and 1980s led to a striking contrast in public attitudes and policies toward having children with disabilities. On the one hand, the more routine character of prenatal genetic testing (and the availability of legal abortions) made it increasingly common, and perhaps expected, for parents to abort fetuses found to have “serious” disabilities. The termination rate for fetuses with one of the most common and easily detected conditions, Down syndrome, was estimated to be at or over 90 percent (e.g., Shaffer et al. 2006). On the other hand, those two decades saw the emergence of a strong disability rights movement and the reconceptualization of disability as a social phenomenon, the interaction of a physical or mental condition with an exclusionary environment. Informed by this social model, the disability rights movement played a major role in the passage of landmark disability discrimination laws in the United States in 1973 and 1990. As the abortion of fetuses with disabilities became routine, children and adults with disabilities became more visible and better integrated into educational and social activities. It was not long before proponents of the latter development observed a deep tension with the former.