Since the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution was signed in 1983, granting equal legal rights to fetuses and pregnant women, it has functioned as a total ban on legal abortion. Next May, Ireland will hold a referendum over whether to repeal the amendment, and current polling suggests that pro-repeal will carry the day. The Irish people will also vote on whether to endorse a new law legalizing abortion within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, which Parliament would then pass following a successful referendum. Just getting a vote officially set has taken years of work by numerous campaigners, organizations, and politicians. Now, as the date for the vote looms on the calendar, the anti-abortion movement in Ireland has fixated on a new symbol for its campaign against reproductive rights: cute kids with Down syndrome.
Over the past few weeks, two anti-repeal groups have launched new campaigns and produced posters featuring images of children with Down syndrome. The ads play on a combination of legitimately disturbing data about abortion rates following a prenatal diagnosis and the relatively positive feelings that voters hold about people with Down syndrome themselves. What’s disingenuous is the way the campaigns suggest that the current total ban on abortion is all that’s keeping Ireland from eradicating Down syndrome. That’s not true on the facts, but the campaigns demonstrate the perceived iconographic power of using disabled children as symbols for anti-choice political campaigns. Meanwhile, the whole conversation about Down syndrome in both Ireland and the United States too often gets stuck on prenatal issues, a fixation that does little to change the status quo for anyone living with disabilities, now or in the future.