Outlawing Down syndrome abortions: Isn't religion always part of this news story?

What are the countries with the highest amount of kids with Down syndrome? If you look here, they are the United States, followed by Brazil and Mexico, all of which have highly religious populations.

So you'd think that any article dealing with the syndrome and abortion in highly churched Utah might have something to do with religion.

You might think that. But the topic is not mentioned in this otherwise informative piece by the Washington Post. Once again, it might have helped to consult the religion-desk staff during the reporting process.

At stake is a piece of legislation outlawing abortion -- when Down syndrome is the overriding reason for terminating the pregnancy. 

Karianne Lisonbee stepped up to the lectern to talk about what she called “a terrible form of discrimination.”
The Republican state representative in Utah had just introduced a bill that would make it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion if a woman is seeking one “solely” because the fetus has Down syndrome. “In recent years, there has been a shocking increase in abortions performed for no other reason than because a prenatal test identified the potential for a trait a parent didn’t like,” she said at the news conference last month.

At this point, most articles would follow up her assertion with some factchecking.

As it turns out, the abortion rate with parents who learn their kid has Down syndrome goes as high as 90 percent internationally and 67 percent in the United States. Instead, this piece quoted the legislator, then added:

The highly controversial legislation -- and similar bills passed in North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana -- has put Down syndrome front and center in the abortion debate when the condition is becoming more widely understood and accepted in the United States. In many neighborhoods today, children with Down syndrome participate in mainstream classrooms and on sports teams. Companies including Safeway, Walgreens and Home Depot have created programs to train and employ adults with the condition (along with adults with other disabilities). This year, Gerber, the maker of baby food, lit up social media with expressions of delight when it announced that it had chosen Lucas Warren -- who has Down syndrome -- as its newest “spokesbaby.”

Then followed some quotes by opponents of the bill and then the typical back and forth with people who feel different ways on the issue.

What's that old saying? Location, location, location. Being that the locale is Utah with its highly Mormon populace, I wish the writer had reflected on the atmosphere, if you will, that brought this bill onto the table.

People have known for some time that Down syndrome is more prevalent in Utah, according to this 2009 Salt Lake Tribune piece. The reasons lie squarely in the Latter-day Saints' belief in large families, which means a woman may continue bearing children into her 40s, where there’s a much larger chance that last child may have Down syndrome.

Whereas some mothers might elect to abort that child, a Mormon mom –- adhering to the pro-life stance of her faith -- might not.

I could not tell if Lisonbee herself is Mormon, although there are telltale signs:  She has six children, met her husband at Brigham Young University and belongs to an association of homeschoolers.

So did Lisonbee’s advocacy of the bill have anything to do with her faith? Or does she know someone with Down’s?

No one, including media in Utah, seems to know. I did learn from this Associated Press story that a fellow Republican legislator tried to tack on an amendment obligating the state to pick up the costs that parents must bear when they have a Down’s child. Lisonbee and several others deep-sixed that proposal on the grounds that it’s a separate issue.

The rest of the Post piece is quite interesting, although I object to a reporter allowing one side to frame the debate, which is exactly what happens here:

The bills represent the latest twist in the political debate over abortion, which has raged since a 1973 Supreme Court ruling recognized a woman's right to the procedure. Since then, antiabortion activists have constructed what the Guttmacher Institute calls “a lattice work of abortion law, codifying, regulating and limiting whether, when and under what circumstances a woman may obtain an abortion.” Antiabortion activists have also moved the battleground from Washington to the states.

Some of you may remember the uproar that happened this summer when CBS released a piece on Down syndrome becoming increasingly rare in Iceland because most pregnancies with such children are aborted. We wrote about that here. Now Iceland happens to be one of the more atheistic countries in the world, so I am curious whether there’s a correlation between religious belief and numbers of Down syndrome children in the mix.

As we've also written about here, religion is a factor in people keeping their DS children even many reporters choose not to mention it. But as long as abortion has something to do with life and death and Down syndrome is related to parents choosing a sacrificial lifestyle to take care of their children, some kind of faith or ethics is sure to be part of the mix.

Let's start reporting as though it were because religion is a factor and the motives of a lead character are part of the story as well.

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