This past week numerous Jewish groups, including the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Rabbinical Assembly, The Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women’s Rabbinic Network, got crushed in the US Senate on an international treaty to support civil rights, dignity and hope for people with disabilities. The treaty needed 66 votes to pass and went down when 38 conservative Senators voted against it.
Who voted against it and why?
Former senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, whose daughter Bella has a disability, led the effort against the treaty. He asked:
Who should make the critical health-care decisions for a child with a disability? A well-meaning, but faceless and distant United Nations bureaucrat, or a parent who has known, loved, and cared for the child since before birth?
Santorum and other Republicans were worried about the treaty’s impact on abortion, home schooling and other issues of “parental rights.”
Given that just this past week the governor of Oregon formally apologized for the state previously forcing more than 8,000 of its citizens to be sterilized because they had disabilities, concerns over these issues are not without cause.
However, the sad fact is that religious conservatives were left out of the early planning process on the treaty. This was a massive mistake as they should have had a seat at the table. They have real concerns about ethical issues. For example, studies show the fully 90 percent of pregnant women who have a test showing that they are carrying a fetus with Down syndrome actually choose to abort. Unlike polio, which was stopped with vaccines, Down syndrome is being stopped through abortions.
So who are having babies today with Down syndrome? It’s people like Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Pete Sessions – Republicans who are pro-life and who are proud of their exceptional children with Down syndrome.
As medical science advances, potential mothers will eventually know if they are carrying a child with autism and a whole host of other issues. How many potential children will be aborted because they are not considered “neurotypical?” Keep in mind that fully one third of American women today have had an abortion (there are 750,000 abortions a year in America). This is even without selective abortions that the future of medical discovery will make possible.
As much as we didn’t like Dr. Mengele and the Nazi’s search for a pure race, should governments have the power to eliminate Downs syndrome from the gene pool? The ethical issues involved are massive.
Today the disability community is dominated by articulate, devoted and smart liberals such as Rep. Tony Coelho and the Kennedy family. But much like Republicans, who woke up the day after the election and discovered that America (Eureka!) has a lot of women and minorities, disability advocates would do well to learn from the fiasco on the Senate floor that Christian conservatives and Catholics need to be heard and respected on disability issues.
The disability community has many battles yet to fight. We must learn from this failure and go boldly ahead to solve real problems. For example, sadly, despite that America passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) twenty-two years ago, Americans with disabilities are no more likely to be employed today than they were before the ADA. Indeed, only 27.6 percent of working age Americans with disabilities are working today. That’s nothing short of a disgrace.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently identified and evaluated 45 federal government programs that are intended to support employment for people with disabilities. Bottom line, our government’s solutions for helping Americans with disabilities achieve the American dream – work and independence – are a mess. Coordination, performance metrics and transparency are desperately needed. What most of these people need is the proverbial hand up, not a hand-out.
If we want to solve these problems we need to combine the forces of our Jewish community with the broad spectrum of those who have a stake in these issues. There are 38 senators who voted against the disabilities treaty. We know many of them well because they are massive fans of Israel and have worked hard to stop the threat of Iran. But so too, many of them also care deeply about people with disabilities. We should cooperate with them, listen, and get them inside the tent.