Wisconsin Senate Tackles "Wrongful Life" Lawsuits

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 4, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Wisconsin Senate Tackles "Wrongful Life" Lawsuits

by Maria Gallagher
LifeNews.com Staff Writer
November 4, 2003

Madison, WI (LifeNews.com) — With the Terri Schiavo case in the news, greater attention is being focused on the rights of people with disabilities. Pro-life activists have long seen discrimination against the disabled as having great implications for the right to life cause.

In Wisconsin, a Senate committee recently took a step aimed at addressing discrimination against the disabled by taking up the issue of so-called “wrongful life” and “wrongful birth” lawsuits.

The Wisconsin Senate Judiciary, Corrections, and Privacy Committee has approved Senate Bill 27, legislation that would ban wrongful life and wrongful birth lawsuits. Such suits, say pro-life leaders, are based on the bizarre idea that a child is better off dead than disabled.

“It is inaccurate, ignorant and discriminatory to assume that persons with disabilities cannot live meaningful and satisfying lives,” said Susan Armacost, Legislative Director of Wisconsin Right to Life.”Wrongful birth and wrongful life lawsuits encourage discrimination against unborn children with disabilities.”

According to Armacost, wrongful birth lawsuits are civil actions brought by parents seeking damages for the birth of a child with disabilities. Such suits claim that the parents would have aborted the child if they had known the child was disabled. Parents who file such suits seek financial compensation from the doctor for emotional distress and medical and education expenses involved in rearing the child.

Wrongful life suits are brought by or on behalf of a child with disabilities, alleging that the child’s very existence is a legal wrong and that, if the child’s disability had been detected before birth, the child would have been aborted. The child in such cases seeks money from the doctor for pain and suffering and for expenses relating to medical care and education.

“In wrongful birth and wrongful life lawsuits, the doctors have not done anything to cause the child’s disability and should not be sued when they did nothing to cause the child’s impairment,” said Armacost. “If a doctor does cause harm to the mother or to the baby, there are an array of other legal options available that are not based on the offensive notion that a disabled individual would have been better off if he or she had not been born. For example, SB 27 does not affect the ability to sue a doctor for malpractice if the doctor’s act or omission causes harm to the mother or her unborn child.”

In testimony on behalf of the bill, Rep. Becky Weber (R-Green Bay), one of the bill’s sponsors, said, “As the mother of two boys, I cannot imagine going before a court and saying I wished my child had never been born. In a mother’s eyes every child is perfect. Wrongful birth suits give children with disabilities the message that their very existence is a tragic mistake. It sends the message that these children’s’ lives are so bleak and such a burden to the family that the only compensation would be millions of dollars. This is such a distortion of what these childrens’ lives are like.”

In 1975, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that wrongful birth actions are allowable in the state. But Weber insists the decision was clearly an example of the judiciary acting in error.

“Aside from the moral issues, this action alone was a case of the Court overstepping its bounds and creating a common law of action where one had never existed before," Weber said. "It is long overdue for the legislature to correct this action by the Court.”

Weber believes such suits represent a dangerous form of litigation. “Wrongful birth is becoming widely accepted as a mainstream legal suit. Wrongful birth is wrong! Across the country, thousands of these cases have already come before the courts. If wrongful birth and life cases continue to become more common, will doctors, in an effort to protect themselves from a possible lawsuit, be forced to advise abortions even when risks are remote? How many healthy children will not be born because of this?” Weber asked.

The abortion lobby has been vocal in its opposition to the bill.

Planned Parenthood testified against the measure, as did the American Civil Liberties Union. While one might expect an organization that promotes civil liberties to work on behalf of people with disabilities, the ACLU has consistently sided with the pro-death lobby, as in the Schiavo case (the ACLU has joined with her husband in calling for the Florida woman’s feeding tube to be removed).

The bill’s sponsors point out that the Wisconsin legislation does not prevent parents from requesting medical tests on their unborn child. In addition, the bill does not allow a doctor to willfully withhold medical information from a parent, nor does it exempt doctors from the duty to offer, perform, or advise parents of the results of prenatal tests.

“SB 27 sends the message that there is no such thing as a wrongful birth or wrongful life,” Weber said. “It says that every child is precious — no matter what their disability may be.”

The Wisconsin legislation passed the committee by a three to one vote. Committee chair Sen. Dave Zien (R-Eau Claire), Sen. Cathy Stepp (R-Sturtevant) and Sen. Scott Fitgerald (R-Juneau) voted in support of the bill.

“Our thanks go to all of these legislators who so strongly believe in the value and dignity of each and every member of the human family,” said Armacost.

Related web sites:
Wisconsin Right to Life – https://www.wrtl.org