Poland’s new protections for babies with disabilities should be celebrated

Poland’s new protections for babies with disabilities should be celebrated

By Rachael Wong 

Over the past two weeks, thousands of people in Poland have been protesting a new Constitutional Court ruling that found abortions on the basis of disability unconstitutional, demanding for women to have “freedom of choice”.*

In other words, they are insisting that women have a “right” to end the life of a child who is less than perfect, should they so decide.

Meanwhile in Australia, the ABC has recently aired ‘The Upside of Downs’, a thought-provoking documentary exploring the ethics of prenatal testing and aborting children with disabilities, particularly when it comes to Down Syndrome.

Actor, writer and director Julia Hales – who has Down Syndrome herself – did an excellent job of hosting the documentary and bravely helping her audience to reflect on the ethical questions involved, including whether lives like hers are worth living.

Julia of course, is adamant that they are, and states quite frankly during the documentary that she’d rather live with discrimination than not be born at all.

"I want everyone to know that people with Down syndrome are capable of living in the world and reaching their goals. I want their voices to be heard and to make the world a better place for them,” she says.

The documentary also addresses the issue of “choice”, and how hollow such a notion is when the information provided after a prenatal diagnosis is often heavily weighted in favour of termination and when women face pressure by medical professionals to abort.

In Australia, over 90 per cent of pregnancies with a chromosomal abnormality detected end in abortion.

Receiving a prenatal diagnosis can be upsetting for parents who only want the best for their child and are confronted with the unique challenges that caring for a child with disabilities brings. However, many parents will attest to the fact that it also comes with incomparable joys. What is crucial is that women and families are given the support they need to raise these children and for them to be given the opportunity to thrive in our society.

Unfortunately, a lot more work needs to be done in terms of combatting negative attitudes towards disability, evidenced most recently by Australia’s Disability Royal Commission which revealed the shocking neglect and abuse of people with intellectual disabilities within the health care system.

In a world that is meant to be fighting against discrimination and working towards greater inclusiveness for people with disabilities, one could be forgiven for thinking that Poland’s decision to protect babies with disabilities might actually be celebrated as a step in the right direction, rather than condemned.

It is difficult to see how we can claim to champion the rights and welfare of people with disabilities on the one hand, while insisting on the “right” to discriminate against them before they are even born.

Outrage at the Polish decision comes because of the threat to a woman’s “right to choose”. However, we know that the “choice” of abortion is often no choice at all, due to the societal pressures and lack of support women experience, whether in relation to a prenatal diagnosis or otherwise.

Perhaps it is also time we asked what exactly is being chosen and what that choice means for individuals with disabilities, the disability community and our society as a whole.

Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia

*Polish law does not criminalise women who undergo an abortion.