Kennedy’s True Legacy on Abortion and Disability

In his column this morning, Ross Douthat sets up a dichotomy between Ted Kennedy and his also recently-departed sister, Eunice. Ted was a Bad Kennedy and a Bad Catholic because he was pro-choice; Eunice was a Good Kennedy and a Good Catholic because the cause of her life was disability rights, and she supported anti-abortion rights organizations such as Femnists for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, and Democrats for Life.

But Kennedy's legacy on abortion and disability is actually far more complex than Douthat acknowledges. In 2005, Kennedy co-sponsored a bill — the Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act — that expanded federal financing for support programs for expectant and new parents who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis. Research shows that doctors delivering such a diagnosis often share very little information about living with the disease, and presume that the patient would prefer to terminate her pregnancy. Indeed, about 90 percent of couples who receive a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis do choose abortion. But enriched by his sister Rosemary's life, Kennedy sought to link expectant and new parents with mentor families already raising a child with Down syndrome, as well as create a national registry of families willing to adopt disabled infants.

Kennedy's partner on the bill was conservative Catholic Sen. Sam Brownback, who regularly compares abortion to slavery. During negotiations between the two offices, Kennedy held fast to his belief that the law must go further than just dissuading abortion; he wanted to be sure the legislation offered funding to improve the lives of disabled people and their caretakers. Last October, the bill was signed into law by President Bush. In a testament to Kennedy's coalition-building genius, it was even supported by NARAL President Nancy Keenan, who said it offered women choices without undermining their right to an abortion.

Only Ted Kennedy could bring NARAL to the table with Sam Brownback. And that's because he knew, in his heart, that there was no contradiction between being deeply pro-choice and deeply pro-disability rights.

For more on the moral complications of genetic testing, disability, and abortion, check out my 2007 In These Times feature, "Genetic Disorder."

cross-posted at TAPPED

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