Comments made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the first leaders debate of the 2022 Federal Election that he and his wife were “blessed” that their children didn’t have disabilities sparked a backlash from community representatives and federal politicians. The Prime Minister’s comments were made in response to a question from a mother of a son with autism who was concerned about cuts to NDIS funding. Mr Morrison replied:
“Jenny and I have been blessed, we have two children who haven’t had to go through that.
"And so for parents with children who are disabled, I can only try and understand your aspirations for those children.”
There was a swift and immediate backlash to the comments online.
Autism Awareness Australia tweeted that the comments were disgraceful, remarking that “all children are #Blessings.”
Disgraceful comments by Prime Minister @ScottMorrisonMP during last night's debate. ALL children are #Blessings. Your words speak volumes about how you perceive people with a #disability.— Autism Awareness Aus (@AutismAwareAus) April 20, 2022
Similarly, Bill Shorten, Labor Shadow Minister for the NDIS, tweeted the following:
ScoMo says he is “blessed” to have two non disabled children. Every child is a blessing. The NDIS is there to help people with disability live their lives to the fullest. The Morrison Gov has slashed NDIS plans for 1000s of children around Australia. Labor will fix the NDIS.— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) April 20, 2022
“Every child is a blessing.”
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese refrained from criticising the Prime Minister, but similarly commented, “I think every child is a blessing for parents”.
Katy Gallagher, manager of opposition business in the Senate and mother of a daughter with autism, said she found the comments “really offending and quite shocking”.
“It is something that people who have a disability, children with autism, it is a kind of response they get all the time”.
Ms Gallagher tweeted:
“I am blessed to have a child with autism. She teaches me things every day. Our lives are enriched by her.”
Curtin University Professor Katie Ellis has criticised the comments as a clear example of the "tragedy model" of disability:
"Instead of talking about tragedies of disability, or Scott and Jenny being blessed to have kids without disabilities, what we need to talk about is the way we can change society to make it a more enabling place for people with disabilities," Professor Ellis says.
The emphatic response from so many people affirming the value and blessing of every child, no matter their abilities or disabilities, is a welcome development in our public discourse. Public statements defending the unique and unrepeatable value of children with disabilities, and stories of the way these children enrich the lives of their families, their loved ones, their communities and our society have elevated our public discourse and highlighted the inherent value of children with disabilities.
But do we really think that every child is a #Blessing?
What about children who haven’t been born yet? What about children for whom a prenatal genetic screening or diagnostic test indicates a high probability of being born with a disability? Or a diagnosis of Down syndrome, cleft lip/cleft palate, congenital heart defects? Do we also think these children are #Blessings?
There appears to be a cognitive dissonance between the public rhetoric (and accompanying outrage) and the reality of the private decisions being made in response to prenatal diagnosis of disability. Whilst we like to think of ourselves as a society that is inclusive, and in particular, one that is welcoming of children with disabilities, the reality is that we currently accept, as a matter of course, the widespread and routine practice of prenatal screening and diagnostic testing and subsequent abortions on the basis of disability.
For example, there has been widespread acceptance and support for the recent commitment from the Federal Government for a Medicare rebate for genetic testing to screen embryos for severe genetic conditions prior to implantation, such as a cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy, fragile X syndrome, neurofibromatosis and Huntington’s disease. And the next step being advocated is free population-wide reproductive genetic carrier screening in both pre and early stage pregnancy.
It’s no secret that terminations following a diagnosis of Down syndrome are already being routinely offered to women and couples as a matter of course in Australia. Research is even indicating that women and couples are being pressured to abort in these circumstances.
2017 data from Western Australia (one of only two jurisdictions in Australia that collects comprehensive statistics regarding abortions in the state, the other being South Australia) indicates that 93 per cent of babies with prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome are being aborted:
“That figure, if replicated nationwide, would put Australia in a similar range to countries like Iceland where the rate is close to 100 per cent and Denmark at 98 per cent. Nations with lower rates include the United States with 67 per cent and France with 77 per cent.”
This has resulted in fewer than 270 babies born with Down syndrome in Australia each year.
In Denmark, the figures are even more stark:
“The number of babies born to parents who chose to continue a pregnancy after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome in Denmark has ranged from zero to 13 a year since universal screening was introduced. In 2019, there were seven. (Eleven other babies were born to parents who either declined the test or got a false negative, making the total number of babies born with Down syndrome last year 18).”
As outlined by journalist Sarah Zhang:
“Denmark is not on its surface particularly hostile to disability. People with Down syndrome are entitled to health care, education, even money for the special shoes that fit their wider, more flexible feet. If you ask Danes about the syndrome, they’re likely to bring up Morten and Peter, two friends with Down syndrome who starred in popular TV programs where they cracked jokes and dissected soccer games. Yet a gulf seems to separate the publicly expressed attitudes and private decisions. Since universal screening was introduced, the number of children born with Down syndrome has fallen sharply. In 2019, only 18 were born in the entire country. (About 6,000 children with Down syndrome are born in the US each year.)”
“Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States. In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people speak publicly about wanting to ‘eliminate’ Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.”
It is time we changed laws that allow and encourage the current practice of aborting babies on the basis of disability to reflect the sentiments expressed so eloquently in the recent ‘every child is a #Blessing’ campaign. All children are indeed a blessing, not a problem to be eliminated. The pressure being brought to bear on parents to abort babies who would be born with disabilities places an unfair burden on them. The responsibility should instead fall on society to ensure that it is a place that supports parents to raise children with disabilities, and indeed welcomes every one of these children as the #Blessing that they are.
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