Abortion and disability - whose voices are heard?

Are disabled women's voices silenced in the abortion debate? asks Clare Laxton

Clare Laxton, 4 April 2008

Like the majority of people in the UK, I am pro-choice when it comes to abortion. I feel that it is a woman's right to choose whether she continues with a pregnancy or not, and I will campaign for that right as long as there are people who are out there to restrict it.

Since the 1967 Abortion Act, abortion in the UK is legal up until 24 weeks of the pregnancy - however a woman needs two doctors' signatures (which no other medical procedure requires) and abortion in Northern Ireland is still illegal. There is a strong pro-choice sentiment within the UK, although the anti-choice lobby seems to be able to shout louder and receive more media attention. The Abortion Act has been in constant jeopardy since its conception. In the past year alone there have been three attempts - all by female MPs - to reduce the legal time limit for abortion in the UK. I will campaign against any restrictions on the abortion law, and for liberalisation, for my whole life probably.

I wonder whether our society truly understands disability and might too often make an uninformed decision about continuing with a pregnancy because of a potential impairment

This article is not about questioning my pro-choice stance or my commitment to the movement - it is about opening up avenues of debate around this complex issue.

Since working for a disabled people's charity I have been more aware of the voice - or lack thereof - of disabled people within the abortion debate. Learning about feminism and feminist theory taught me how to question my beliefs and where they come from - which has brought me to question the lack of voice of disabled people in the abortion debate and the pro-choice movement.

Let me tell you where the difficulty for me arises - I firmly support the social model of disability, which arose from the disabled people's movement and occurred much the same time as second wave feminism in the UK. This proposes that a person is disabled by the disabling barriers of society, and not the particular circumstances of their impairment. These barriers can arise from disabling attitudes, prejudice and exclusion. The social model directly challenges the negative views that society has of disabled people and their ability to participate fully in society. As Feminist Perspectives on Disability, by Barbara Fawcett, says:

The social model of disability highlights negative social relations, not impairment and emphasises different ways of viewing the self.....[it] moves the focus away from individual impairments viewed as limitations.

I am a true believer in not only the diversity of society, but also the diversity of feminism both as a movement and a theory. There are those that feel that as a movement feminism should project unity and therefore strength, however I feel that there must be room for discussion within the movement otherwise we will never move forward. Just as different people bring unique insights and values to society so do different viewpoints on feminism and women's issues. We should never be scared of questioning; questioning the patriarchal structure of society is what brought us the most powerful feminist movement in history and inspired - and continues to inspire - millions of women around the world.

So, supporting both the social model of disability and a woman's right to chose puts many feminists like myself in a difficult position. I support a woman's right to choose not to continue with a pregnancy because the foetus may be disabled, but on the other hand I wonder whether our society truly understands disability and might too often make an uninformed decision about continuing with a pregnancy because of a potential impairment. How does abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality make disabled people in this society feel?

There are so many stereotypes in society that women have to deal with every single day - the same is true with disabled people. When someone talks to a disabled person's companion instead of them, when people assume they must be unhappy and depressed or worse, a 'true fighter in the face of adversity', and when people assume that wouldn't or couldn't work and would have no ambition. These stereotypes are difficult to shake off and go far to create a negative stereotype of a disabled person and the life they lead.

Baroness Masham tabled an amendment to the current Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill to outlaw abortion on grounds of foetal disability before and after the 24 week time limit. The amendment was withdrawn but the debate continues. I would never support such a move, as it restricts a woman's right to choose, but it raised an interesting and relevant aspect of the abortion debate.

What if the NUS Disabled Students' Campaign, or any other disabled people's movement, did not offer their support to the pro-choice movement?

Abortion Rights recently held a pro-choice public meeting in Parliament to start the campaign to lobby MPs when this bill comes before the House of Commons. There were many speakers, including Diane Abbot MP, John Bercow MP, Katherine Rake and Ann Quesney, and included in the line up was Alex Kemp from NUS Disabled Students' Campaign. I was happy to see that disabled people's voices were being included in the debate and eager to hear what he had to say about abortion as an issue and the bill in particular.

Alex stated that NUS Disabled Students' Campaign strongly supported a woman's right to choose and would oppose any attempt to restrict it - even in terms of foetal disability. He made the very good point that in attacking the pro-choice movement the disability movement would not further itself. He was met with rousing support from the 300-strong crowd.

Afterwards, I began to wonder if there hadn't been an amendment tabled that specifically mentioned disability, would a representative from the disabled people's movement have been invited to offer their opinion on abortion and the pro-choice campaign? Furthermore, what if the NUS Disabled Students' Campaign, or any other disabled people's movement, did not offer their support to the pro-choice movement - would they be silenced or would their voices become a constructive part of a debate that we all have to consider. Does it just make all non-disabled pro-choice feminists relieved that we have the support of the disabled people's lobby? These are difficult questions that I don't have the answers to - I feel that they should be part of the debate surrounding abortion though.

I believe that the apparent omission of a disabled person's voice from not only the abortion debate, but from the feminist movement as a whole, reflects the place of disability and disabled people in society more generally. It is time that the negative stereotyping around disabled people in this country is challenged, and including their voice in the abortion debate is one way of doing this. Even if disabled people say that they are not sure they agree with abortion on the grounds of foetal disability at least their voices are being heard and a true debate of opinions is being had.

We need to face up to these difficult issues, question our opinions and our true feelings on the subject. I know that there may not be any answers to this questioning, but that is not really the point - the point is to have an inclusive and informed debate on the subject of abortion and disability.

Disabled women are isolated by the feminist movement who want a woman to support a woman's right to choose no matter what the reason. They are in turn isolated by the disabled people's movement, which like most liberation movements has an element of patriarchy

The issue of abortion and disability raises so many questions for me and for society as a whole - both theoretical and practical. They are questions and issues that affect disabled women all over the world as well.

I have read blogs and webpages that are written by disabled women who look at the apparent contradiction of being a pro-choice feminist and a disabled woman. Looking at current research and surveys conducted of disabled people in the UK - the majority of disabled people are in favour of a woman's right to choose when it comes to abortion. That doesn't mean it isn't a difficult or contradictory issues for them though. I am not going to pretend to know how a disabled woman feels in this society and therefore will not assume their opinions on this subject.

It is also important to acknowledge that there are disabled people's groups in the UK that do not support the notion of abortion and campaign against women having abortions for the reason of foetal disability. For non-disabled feminists it may seem that these groups are anti-women's rights, while they are, in fact, pro-disabled people's rights.

After reading disabled women's views and hearing disabled people speak about this issue, the difficulty of the issues really shows itself. Disabled women are isolated by the feminist movement who want a woman to support a woman's right to choose no matter what the reason. They are in turn isolated by the disabled people's movement, which like most liberation movements has an element of patriarchy. Alex Kemp's words that attacking one equal rights movement does not further the strength of another become even more pertinent now.

So what is the future for the question of abortion and disability? I cannot say that I have the answer to that question but I would hope that supporters of the pro-choice movement and feminists alike take a minute to really think about what disability means to them and their place in society. Further to this, I hope that people realise that questioning their feminism and their beliefs does not make them less of a feminist but more open to new ideas and therefore a more inclusive society.

Like I said, I don't know the future of the abortion debate - or the Abortion Act for that matter - but I hope that all campaigns and discussions will include the articulation of disabled people's voices and the attempt to understand how disability fits into the debate.

Written by one of the pro-choice majority in the UK.

About the author

Clare Laxton

Clare Laxton is a recent graduate in politics from Leeds University where she wrote her dissertation on Islamic feminism in Iran. She became involved in women's campaigns at university and is a self- proclaimed radical feminist. She now works in London in policy and campaigns for a disabled people's charity

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