Ethics News

New light of the anti-abortion movement — an accomplished woman with Down syndrome

Anti-abortion activist Karen Gaffney speaks at OneLife LA on Jan. 20, 2018, in Los Angeles. Photo by Heather Adams

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Karen Gaffney has swum the English Channel, given a TEDx talk and received an honorary doctorate. As a public speaker, she disarms audiences with her warmth and humor.

For all these reasons, and because she has Down syndrome and opposes abortion, Gaffney, 40, also serves as a prized speaker for the anti-abortion movement.

“I want my voice to be heard,” Gaffney, of Portland, Ore., said during a speech that received a standing ovation in January at OneLife LA, a gathering  to protest abortion. “And I want my message to come through loud and clear.”

Her message is that people like her deserve a chance at life.

Kathleen Domingo, the OneLife LA organizer, heard Gaffney speak while watching her TEDxPortland talk online last year, and soon realized that she would be just the person to address OneLife LA.

“After reaching out we realized, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s actually a Catholic woman,’” Domingo said.

Anti-abortion groups are particularly worried about the high proportion of women choosing to terminate fetuses with Down syndrome after prenatal testing, which has become increasingly safe and sophisticated in the past decade.

This year wasn’t the first time OneLife LA has featured a speaker on abortions chosen because of  fetal abnormalities. In 2015, its first year, Rick Smith, known to many as “Noah’s Dad,” spoke about being a parent of a child with Down syndrome.

March for Life, one of the nation’s best-known anti-abortion groups, also stepped up its work on the issue after the release of a 2017 report from Iceland that showed a nearly 100 percent abortion rate for women who learn they are carrying a fetus with Down syndrome.

“I think the Iceland story was so shocking to so many people,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life. “They just didn’t know that this is a situation.”

The winning photo of Lucas Warren, taken and submitted by his mom, Cortney Warren, to the Gerber Spokesbaby contest. Photo by Cortney Warren via Gerber

The movement got a boost last month when baby food maker Gerber announced that its 2018 “spokesbaby” is Lucas Warren, an 18-month-old with Down syndrome.

Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, told CBN News that Gerber’s choice could make people think twice about abortion. “Images have the power to revolutionize and transform hearts and minds,” he said.

There are about 206,000 people in the United States living with Down syndrome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some anti-abortion activists are concerned that elective abortions may one day mean there will be virtually none.

A 2012 study in the journal Prenatal Diagnosis showed that between 1998 and 2011, at least half and as many as 85 percent of American women who learned that they would give birth to a child with the syndrome opted for abortion. In the United Kingdom, the rate is 90 percent.

Down syndrome is marked by a delay in physical development, low muscle tone, reduced intellectual capabilities and shorter life expectancy — but there can be wide differences in how it affects people. As Gaffney attests, many children and adults with Down syndrome are integrated into mainstream classrooms and the workplace and lead full, happy lives.

“I want to inspire so many people with Down syndrome and really tell them that people like me can live,” said Gaffney, a graduate of a Catholic high school and community college who works as a research assistant at Portland’s Oregon Health and Science University.

Many who favor abortion rights say it’s unfair to use Gaffney and other adults and children with Down syndrome in the campaign against abortion. They say it wrongfully pits disability rights against a woman’s right to an abortion.

“In the U.S., anti-abortion leaders are hijacking this rhetoric of the disability rights movement to argue against women’s rights to choose their own future for their families and bodies,” wrote Slate staff writer Christina Cauterucci.

Attendees listen to speakers at the OneLife LA rally on Jan. 20, 2018, in Los Angeles. Photo by Heather Adams

“Women’s rights and disability rights are not mutually exclusive movements; they intersect and inform one another in important ways. Anti-abortion activists are stoking fear in advocates of the latter in hopes that they’ll join an assault on the former.”

Abortion rights advocates further argue that abortion foes only showcase families who thrive with children who have Down syndrome, and not the women who feel forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

But for those who don’t believe abortion should be a right — and perhaps even for some who do — Gaffney presents a strong argument against aborting a fetus with Down syndrome. In the past few years in the U.S., several states have introduced or passed bills banning the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome.

The debate on the bills often features proponents with Down syndrome, who, like Gaffney, show that their genetic abnormality has not precluded a rewarding life.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion right research group, six states have passed laws that would require counseling or restrict abortion on the basis of fetal abnormalities. But only one of those laws prohibiting abortions in these cases, Indiana’s, remains legally enforceable. In practice, however, it is difficult to enforce.

Whether these laws proliferate or not, the continued push for them means Gaffney’s voice — and those of others with Down syndrome willing to speak out against abortion — are likely to remain in demand.

Gaffney, who began her public speaking in high school, where she swam competitively, stands out in particular for her ease in front of a microphone and her stamina in the water.

In any given year, she can fulfill more than a dozen requests to speak before disability rights groups, college classes and parents of children with special needs. She also serves as president of the 20-year-old Karen Gaffney Foundation — a nonprofit founded to promote inclusion of people with disabilities.

She often furthers its mission with her athletic feats. Gaffney has swum from Alcatraz Island across the San Francisco Bay on 16 occasions and was part of a relay in the English Channel in 2001.

At her day job, she splits her time between the university’s hemophilia clinic, where she helps with clerical work, and the Down syndrome clinic, where she helps with scheduling. Gaffney also works in the physical therapy room at the Down syndrome clinic and meets with families to answer questions about what living with Down syndrome is like.

“I especially like meeting the families who come in with their children,” Gaffney said.

Gaffney earned an associate of science degree and teaching certificate from Portland Community College, where she graduated in 2001 with a cumulative grade point average of 3.41. She also holds an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Portland.

She swims almost every day. In her free time, she enjoys going to musicals, playing with her goddaughter, entering card tournaments with her father and doing puzzles. Her favorite author is Jane Austen, although she’s currently reading “Tough Girl,” a book written by another Portland swimmer, former Olympian Carolyn Wood.

Gaffney expresses hope for her future and for others with Down syndrome.

“It was a wave of humanity that lifted us out of institutions, brought us home, got us into schools and included us in the community of life,” Gaffney said during her OneLife LA speech. “It will require another wave of humanity to stop the targeting of Down syndrome around the world.

“I believe that God is watching over me,” Gaffney said, “and a lot of other people like me.”

About the author

Heather Adams


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  • The problem is that for every person with trisomy 21 like Gaffney who are relatively high functioning, there are many more who need chronic institutionalization, cardiac surgeries, and have leukemia. It’s a very complex medical decision and should not be left to laypeople to decide for everyone.

  • Thought provoking in any case I would think, regardless of where one stands on the question.

  • Windy Edward Cooper BS Boswell, you…just…couldn’t…hold that one back, could you? Yet again…

  • Not really. It missed a fundamental point. Her parents chose to keep the pregnancy. They were not forced to, as the speaker wants.

    The anti abortion stance still comes down to the arrogant assumption that the opinions of the proponent are more important than the will, rights and personhood of others.

  • Even less of a decision for outsiders like the author who have no say or business interjecting themselves into the lives of pregnant women.

  • Statistically, for every person with Down syndrome that has a “normal” IQ, there are about that many people with Down syndrome who have more severe intellectual impairments. Most people with Down syndrome have mild to moderate intellectual impairment and a high quality of life.

  • Yes, the anti-abortion stance still comes down to the arrogant assumption that all human life matters, no matter its stage in the life cycle, the wishes of potential parents, or the profits of Planned Parenthood.

  • As a parent of a child with severe disabilities, I know that I could not have chosen an abortion as a personal alternative. It does not mean that others should not have the option to terminate a pregnancy when there are severe fetal abnormalities. Something that concerns me is our current Federal Administration’s position on the education and services that are provided through school districts for children with disabilities. Betsy Du Voss has made it clear that she thinks it is a waste of time, effort and money to educate or provide services for people with severe disabilities. This puts us back into the “let’s institutionalize them” mindset. As a parent, this gives me great pause to know that there are people in high places that advocate for having children at any cost…except that they are unwilling to pay the cost when it comes to supporting the disabled for their lifetimes.


    …and no it doesn’t. The human life of a pregnant woman is utterly disregarded. She is not considered a person in their eyes, but is instead considered their property. There is no regard for life which is born, therefore the regard for the unborn is complete and utter bullcrap.

    If you have any regard that all life matters, that would include respect for the lives and personhood of pregnant women. But you don’t. So its all just nonsense on your part.

  • Just when I think liberals can’t be more cruel in their dehumanization of the unborn to justify their disposal, you all go an demonstrate that you can sink to new lows.

  • It is not an either or situation as you and those who defend abortion would make it. It is both and. There are two lives here, two bodies, two persons. And as in all other law where two or more persons have their lives intwined, it is a cardinal principal of our jurisprudence that one cannot unjusty take the life of another. Abortion only exists because of two reasons: a majority of people find it in their selfish interest to not have to be responsible for another person whom their behavior brought into being and second through a herculean effort to dehumanize the unborn to make easier their disposal.

  • No it is. You either respect the lives of others or you impose upon them and try to force them to follow your opinions.

    Your opinion does not ever translate to a say in the matter. It’s not your body. You bear 0% of any of the physical burden of a pregnancy. Your input is neither welcome, nor necessary here.

    There is only one person who is really involved here, the mother.
    Not you.

    “it is a cardinal principal of our jurisprudence that one cannot unjusty take the life of another”

    You are trying to argue by stipulation and declaration. In our jurisprudence a fetus is not a person with distinct and separate rights from its mother. A woman is legally capable of terminating her pregnancy for whatever reasons she sees fit.

    As for whether an abortion is “justified” or not is just more effort on your part to pretend your opinion or approval is necessary for the intimate and personal decisions of others. It isn’t.

    “a majority of people find it in their selfish interest to not have to be responsible for another person”

    Here is the s1utshaming and narcissism inherent in your view. Women are selfish for making decisions without your approval, therefore they should not be able to. Because all women are yours to command as their alleged moral superior.

    It’s not about concern for life for you. It’s about people doing as you command. This is why any attempt at moral pretension for your POV is a complete joke.

  • the forced birthers are sickening and despicable. Once you are born they care not one whit.

  • Women have the right to determine how their body will be used. If they do not wish to bring a fetus to term, they are within their rights to abort. What any specific fetus brought to term may or may not end up doing as a legal person is irrelevant to that decision.

  • Bob, why are you so hateful ? Each time i stumble upon your posts its shocking how much venom and hate you harbor in your heart. What happened to you that caused you to be that way?

  • It could be worse.

    Were you my ex-wife I am sure I would be more “hateful”.

    The response was completely appropriate in context.

    But now you know not to read my posts, which will improve both dispositions.

  • It’s great some pregnant women knowing their fetus have abnormalities decide to not abort, knowing full well what they have to look forward to. What’s bad is groups seeking to eliminate the choice. They are fascists and terrorists.

  • You may want to take “English as a second language” locally.

    The word “Were” connotes imaginary, as in Winston Churchill’s famous exchange:

    “Sir Winston, if you were my husband, I’d give you poison.”

    “Madam, were you my wife, I’d take it.”

  • Women have been given the legal right to an abortion in this country. Many of us believe that development in our history was wrong. A right to privacy became a right to kill.

    Karen’s story – and the story of her parents – reveals a truth we all know but ignore. Life is not private. It is, by its very nature, public.

    We give each other a level – a degree – of privacy. I don’t have to tell you how much I weigh, for example, or what I eat for dinner. But I do not have the right to injure myself or others.

    Let’s rethink this law. Let’s affirm life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  • Except you don’t affirm life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. You mistake having an opinion on a subject with declaring you have a say in the matter.

    Don, unless you can become pregnant, your belief here doesn’t amount to anything other than your desire to impose on others. It is a declaration from the view of ignorance. You have no real perspective because you will never bear any of the physical burden of a pregnancy.

    Privacy also means that personal and intimate decisions, especially about what goes on in one’s body is not for your approval ever, nor belongs to the government.

  • There is more cruel and dehumanizing talk from conservatives about a variety of people (as in those already born) to render their concern for those gestating, just so much self-important narcissistic bullcrap.

  • Frankly, that is absurd. A woman cannot impregnate herself. You are denying biology in favor of idealology. Indeed, your perspective is sexist because it subordinates the male to the female.

    Yes, patriarchy has caused tremendous harm to women over the centuries but we are not discussing history, we talking morality; the nature of the good, what is right and what is wrong.

    I do affirm life. I am a pro-woman and anti-abortion Catholic. And, as a human being, I have both the right and the duty to contribute to public discussion about the good, what is right, and what is wrong.

    Yes, as a society we impose laws on one another for the common good. Unless you want chaos and anarchy. Democracy is mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.

    Do you think people should smoke in public? Own machine guns? Probably not.

    Come on Suppdie, lay out your political philosophy – are we a democracy or not?

  • A man doesn’t bear any of the physical burdens of a pregnancy. It’s not in his body. It’s not his body to command. You are pretending women are your property. Their bodies at your disposal to follow what you want them to do.

    “Indeed, your perspective is sexist”

    Bull effing crap. I am not the one denying a woman her personhood. Attacking her very basic right to make decisions for what goes on in her own body.

    It’s not about morality, it’s about forcing people to do as you wish.

    There is no morality in your view. You are not affirming life you are demanding lives be subordinate to your will out of some arbitrary criteria and distinction. You show no regard for women as people or for the lives of the born.

    All of this is an expression of a self aggrandizing narcissism. You want to feel superior to women to the point of making important decisions for them.

    Yes we live in a democracy. A key part of that is that ones body is their own. We are not property of the state or others. We have basic fundamental rights not subject to the will of others.

    BTW the majority support abortion rights. You guys lost that fight 45 years ago. Now you are left with ly!ng and subverting rule of law and medical ethics to try to get your way.

  • You use a lot of words but create no common ground, no place of conversation.

    I wish you well.

  • I found the title to this article somewhat demeaning to folks withe Down’s; “an accomplished woman with Down syndrome”. As though this is such a remarkable thing, that someone with Downs could actually be “accomplished”.

  • looks like 50% of babies have congenital heart defects, mortality is higher, and health care costs are 12 times higher for trisomy 21. That’s a pretty high burden to force most people to undertake.