New feature: Abortion and disability – whose voices are heard?

// 4 April 2008

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

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.

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.

Read on here

Comments From You

Eden Smith // Posted 6 April 2008 at 12:55 am

I have just been reading about the myths around disabled people’s sexuality and how they are viewed through ignorance. The myth that disabled women are not sexual and/or not capable mothers makes it even harder to for them to demand their rights to choose to have, or not have a child.

I, for one, would like to see disabled peoples opinions and fights taken seriously.

Pete // Posted 6 April 2008 at 1:25 pm

Thank you for raising this debate. The issue of abortion on the grounds of disability is one which causes emotional turmoil for me as a disabled person and a believer in the rights of people (both women and men) to have autonomy over their own bodies. Can the rights of disabled people – including the right to equal status in society – be reconciled with the pro-choice agenda? I have some concerns, and I hope someone will be able to help me come to terms with this dilemma.

I should say, that as a male member of society who is relatively new to feminism, I still have some ill-conceived attitudes that I am working to resolve – if anything in this comment offends anybody I am sorry, this is not my intention.

Much can be equated between the respective issues for disabled people and women: neither truly enjoys equal status in society; the suffixes of ‘dis’abled and ‘wo’man/’fe’male in our language pretty much see to that. We have both been medicalised and pathologised throughout the modernist era, are behaviours are socially prescribed as to how we are expected to present ourselves, what we should aspire to achieve, and how much or even if we should have sex. The same of course, also applies to several other marginalised groups who should not be neglected. We both have to constantly fight for our equality and basic rights, and to feel valued in society.

My sister-in-law recently gave us a beautiful addition to the family and I became uncle to a baby girl for the second time in my life. During her pregnancy, my brother quietly asked me how much I knew about any genetic basis for my condition, which there is none. At about 20 weeks (I think) the foetus was scanned for signs of abnormality and all was clear. Most troubling for me was that should there have been a problem, there would have been a debate about whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. I was born in 1983, when screening was very rare, but my late mother once told me (when asked) that a similar discussion would have taken place between her and my father had they known I would be born disabled.

Now, I know that women do not choose lightly to have a pregnancy terminated. I know it does not come without huge physical risk and massive psychological impact. After my S-i-L’s traumatic experience I know that childbirth is incredibly risky too; so I’m trying not to put my own feelings above this. I understand the concerns about having a disabled child: I took more looking after, I was ill more often and caused more worry for my parents; I was bullied at school and made hard work for them. I’m likely to be starting a PhD in October, have been in relationship with a wonderful woman for nearly five years, and have a really good quality of life. My mum would have been made up to see me now. I know that some people aren’t as lucky or happy as I am, it can be a lottery.

Most people (myself included) want their children to be healthy and happy. Some would prefer to have a boy, others a girl, others don’t mind. Some even have preferences as to whose eye and hair colour they would like the child to have. No-one wants their child to grow up to be a murderer or rapist, career criminal, etc. There are certain things we can’t control. My point is that at least in the UK, the decision as to whether or not to have an abortion could never legally be made based on the sex of the foetus. That would be discriminatory. So how can this decision be made based on disability? If continuing with the pregnancy of a disabled foetus would increase the risks to the mother during the term or during childbirth then I think the issue is less troubling. But how do the opinions of medical professionals influence decisions around termination – both for and against? Are they more influential than when debating the possibility of a ‘regular’ (apologies for not being able to use a more appropriate word – mental block) abortion? Is termination on the grounds of disability as discriminatory as sexism and misogyny? Can feminism be reconciled with equality of disabled people? Someone please help…

Shea // Posted 7 April 2008 at 1:08 am

Re: Pete— there are abortions on the grounds of sex, where there is a sex linked autosomal disorder, such as certain muscular dystrophies.

Firstly though I take issue with your comparison that no-one wants their child to grow up to be a rapist or disabled. You assume that there is a gene that causes someone to become a rapist. I disagree, I think it is far more likely to be the result of environmental factors and I dislike the comparison, it is extremely unfair and derogatory.

There is a small matter of choice in a criminal career, which is totally absent in the case of disability. Termination on the grounds of disability admits of degrees, I doubt many people would hesitate to abort an encephalitic fetus, which would not survive more than a few days after birth, but would be far more uneasy aborting in the case of deafness.

I don’t share your horror at couples selecting desirable traits in their child, they do already to a degree when they select a potential mate and of all the potential parents out there and the infinite variety, why would it be preferable to leave it to nature than to the parents?

I have seen alot of parents of disabled children, they are always tired, always in debt, perpetually struggling.There is scant support and very little help. The child will be with them for life. I would wish for a little more autonomy, both for me and for any child.

It doesn’t devalue anyone with a disability to say I wouldn’t wish that for them or anyone else. Anything that seriously impedes the life and health of someone has to be acknowledged as a disadvantage, be it HIV, blindness or schizophrenia.

If you want to let people choose to have children, then you have to let them choose to have children.

Pete // Posted 7 April 2008 at 10:34 am

Dear Shea,

I wasn’t for one minute suggesting that there is a gene that makes people become rapists – I’m a psychologist with a forensic background, but I can see how I phrased the sentence wrongly. And I have no horror in people chosing desirable traits in their children since my brother was praying that his daughter didn’t get his nose… the point was that some things scanning can tell us, and others not. Then there are grounds on which a pregnancy can be terminated, and others not.

Looking just at my disability, Spina Bifida, there is very little that scanning can tell you about the severity of the condition – it unfolds following birth and as you grow up. I got fairly lucky and have mild to moderate impairment. Yes I caused more work for my parents when I was younger but I’m completely independent now and my dad now just enjoys having a happy son, so I was worth the effort. But if scanning had been better while my mum was pregnant it could have been very different. It could have depended on health professionals advice and it would have dependent on which disability was diagnosed.

I resent that I should be acknowledge as disadvantaged – I’m often glad to have been born differently because it has made me stronger, more adaptable and more thoughtful and less cocky than those around me. I still think the issue is less black and white than being either pro-choice or not pro-choice.

Jess // Posted 7 April 2008 at 12:15 pm


I can understand where you’re coming from, but I think the answer is to work on attitudes towards disabled people in society, and education, rather than restricting women’s control over their own bodies.

I can see that there are perhaps competing concerns here, and the idea of abortion on the grounds of disability does raise difficult questions to say the least. But forcing unwanted pregnancy on women can’t be the solution, and once you start portioning out access to abortion on the basis of whether the woman in question has the ‘correct’ reason for wanting one, that’s a dangerous road to go down.

Education and changing attitudes towards disabled people is the only way I can see forward…


Pete // Posted 7 April 2008 at 1:22 pm

Dear Jess,

Thank you for the constructive comments. I just want to make it clear that under no circumstances would I ever condone the forcing of unwanted pregnancy any woman – ever – regardless of whether or not fetal abnormalities were present. That’s not my place and shouldn’t be, neither is it my place to judge what a ‘correct’ decision is – I can’t even comprehend how difficult a decision it must be to choose between going to full term and aborting, and since I don’t have the reproductive capability to become pregnant I never will fully understand – I accept that.

Part of the way forward is the changing of attitudes towards disabled people, but anomolies still exist in law, especially in the Abortion Act, which mean that disabled people are valued less than the able-bodied, which I now see is a conflict with law rather than feminism.

I think I may have found my reconciliation: remove the legal time limit on abortion altogether (as unlikely as this is to ever happen). No legal discrepancy, just well-informed choice…

Thanks for your help, I think I’m coming to terms with things. Pete.

Alex T // Posted 7 April 2008 at 1:48 pm

Hi Pete.

My sister’s really severely mentally disabled, and is a really happy, joyful person. My parents have regularly said that they would not change anything about her condition as it’s a part of who she is. She has made all our lives richer and has turned me, at least, into a better person than I would have been without her. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of abortion on the grounds of disability and I think a lot of it is down to ignorance. So many people seem to think that having a disability or a child iwth a disability means having some sort of non-life. Anyone who meets you or my sister can see that this is nonsense.Yes, life has been diffcult for my parents, but not once have they ever expressed regret at my sister’s birth.

Shea, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the parents of disabled children are always struggling, always in debt etc. Is the solution really to prevent them ever being born in the first place? If life is hard for people with disabilities and their families, then it is society that needs to change.

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