Obama HHS Mandate Debate: Is Fertility the Next Down Syndrome?

Opinion   |   Denise Hunnell, M.D.   |   Mar 14, 2012   |   11:36AM   |   Washington, DC

There is little doubt the HHS mandate that requires all insurance polices to provide hormonal contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs with no co-pay is an assault on religious liberty. Along with a diverse array of Catholic leaders and writers, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is more united in forcefully addressing this unjust regulation than they have been on any other issue in recent memory. Cardinal Dolan, president of the USCCB, has declared that the Catholic Church will not back down in the fight for religious liberty.

Yet lost in this critical fight to safeguard our freedom of religion is the assault on womanhood that is intrinsic to this mandate. By accepting the seriously flawed recommendation of the Institute of Medicine that contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs are preventive care, our federal government has essentially declared that a woman’s fertility is an unnatural condition, and a disease to be eradicated

Where will such thinking lead? Perhaps it is instructive to look at another modern case in which the modern medical community, rather than addressing the root problem, has sadly come to accept an assault on life – the abortion of children with Down syndrome.

With the discovery that this genetic condition is caused by an additional 21st chromosome, it became possible to screen prenatally for Down syndrome. The availability of such testing has led to a situation in which at least 90% of children with Down syndrome are aborted today. The option to abort has become an expectation to abort. In a March 2005 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, mothers reported that upon receiving the diagnosis of Down syndrome in their unborn child, they were put under extreme pressure by their medical providers to terminate their pregnancy. They received little positive information about Down syndrome and were offered little support.

Those who choose to continue their pregnancies face overt disapproval from our culture, and are sometimes labeled as selfish and irresponsible for bringing the burden of a child with Down syndrome into society. Elizabeth Schiltz, a law professor at The University of St. Thomas and a mother of a child with Down syndrome wrote:

From time to time, we are all confronted with the disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us. I’ve always seen myself as a responsible, law-abiding citizen. I recycle, I vote, I don’t drive a Hummer. But I’ve come to realize that many in the scientific and medical community view me as grossly irresponsible. Indeed, in the words of Bob Edwards, the scientist who facilitated the birth of England’s first test-tube baby, I am a “sinner.” A recent book even branded me a “genetic outlaw.” My transgression? I am one of the dwindling number of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and choose not to terminate our pregnancies.

This ideology has expanded from individuals and professional societies to governments. The Danish government vowed to eliminate Down syndrome in Denmark by 2030. This goal is not based on medicine or science; rather it is based on a more rigorous prenatal screening program that will abort all infants diagnosed with the condition. Medical ethicists Giubilini and Minerva recently argued that those infants with Down syndrome who were not diagnosed until after birth could be ethically killed at that time.

It is completely reasonable to expect that once fertility is enshrined in law as an abnormality to be corrected, a similar disdain for women who choose to bear children will become mainstream. Indeed, such thinking has already been accepted in the political arena. In the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section, senior Newsweek editor Lisa Miller criticized the Republican presidential candidates for showing off their families with “smug fecundity”:

Especially worrisome is the inevitable corollary to that belief: Women should put their natural fertility first — before their brains, before their ability to earn a living, before their independence — because that’s what God wants.

So much for respecting others’ reproductive choices. Just as women who bear a child with Down syndrome are now often asked, “Didn’t you get tested?” pregnant women in a post-HHS-mandate world will soon be asked, ”Why didn’t you make use of your insurance?” The standard for women who want to enter the professional world will be for them to be childless. After all, if they were serious about their careers they would correct their “disability” of fertility. Just as Elizabeth Schiltz found herself branded a “genetic outlaw” for bearing a child with Down syndrome, women who embrace their total femininity will be scorned as “fertility outlaws”.

As Gloria Purvis so eloquently argues, contraception, sterilization and abortifacients are not necessary for the health and success of women. To suggest otherwise is demeaning to women. True femininity welcomes all the gifts of womanhood, including the ability to bear children. In fact, scientific prowess, business acumen, creativity and all other talents are enhanced by the maternal nature of women. As Pope John Paul II said in Mulieris Dignitatem:

A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God “entrusts the human being to her”, always and in every way, even in the situations of social discrimination in which she may find herself. This awareness and this fundamental vocation speak to women of the dignity which they receive from God himself, and this makes them “strong” and strengthens their vocation. (emphasis in original)

Catholic women must courageously – and without apology – defend both religious freedom and the dignity of authentic womanhood.  Fertility is not a disorder to be conquered, but rather a gift to be cherished.

LifeNews Note: Denise Hunnell, MD, is a Fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International. She writes for HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum. This article first appeared on CNSNews.com.