We need to avoid disablism when we talk about abortion
D H Kelly // 1 May 2016
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day.
It is not exactly socially acceptable for a woman to say that she would have had a termination had she known who her child was going to be, but when it comes to the mothers of disabled children, this is something you will hear on talk shows and read in newspapers. Other mothers of disabled children argue that having a disabled child makes them more sympathetic to women who require an abortion, without any exploration of whether having a non-disabled child might have made them feel the same way.
No woman should have to continue with a pregnancy she doesn’t want, for any reason. The decisions pregnant women face can be complicated and heart-rending, or they may be entirely straight-forward. Every single one is immensely personal.
What is less personal is the way we talk publicly about the termination of pregnancies where a child would have been born with impairments. We should be able to argue for women’s right to choose without undermining the dignity of disabled people who have already been born. An argument about women’s rights should not necessitate the insistence that it is kinder or more socially responsible to prevent disabled children coming into the world. We should not hear that a particular condition would be impossible for any individual or their parents to cope with when there are people living happy and productive lives with these same conditions.
If one wishes to have children at all, it is impossible to avoid having a disabled child. Prenatal screening can only detect a handful of conditions, which include very severe foetal abnormalities – the kind of problem which would make it impossible for a child to survive outside the womb – along with conditions like Down Syndrome, spina bifida or cleft palate, all of which qualify for late term abortion (no time limit). These conditions, their prognosis and women’s individual circumstances vary dramatically. To assume the same noble thoughts are passing through a woman’s mind when she decides to abort such a pregnancy is naive; many of these cases will be utterly heart-breaking, but some women will choose termination because they don’t want a child who isn’t ‘normal’. Some will be influenced by stereotypes about disabled people and the burden they place on families. Others don’t want a child who is disadvantaged or fails to meet certain social expectations – in much the same way that, if we were to have abortion on demand, some women would choose to abort any female foetus.
In supporting women’s right to choose, we can’t concern ourselves with the possibility of prejudiced or distasteful motives on the part of individual women – that’s really none of our business. But pretending they don’t exist is part of a curious aspect of disablism which assumes that, aside from playground bullies, non-disabled people always act with compassion when they encounter disability. In 2014 when Tania Clarence was arrested for the killing of her three disabled children, social media was abuzz with non-disabled people stating that the rest of us couldn’t judge; we heard the same talk of unknowable burdens and acts of kindness that we hear around abortion. As it turned out, Clarence had been extremely unwell, but at the point the news first broke, it wouldn’t have been unduly judgmental to assume that the children had been killed as an escalation of ongoing domestic violence – by far the most likely scenario when a parent kills a child.
Our culture objectifies disabled people and venerates our carers – especially primary female carers of disabled children. Veneration is quite different from respect, of course; carers often find themselves in situations of profound social isolation. Cuts in benefits and social care provision mean that unpaid family carers are relied upon more and more and must constantly battle with local authorities to get their charges appropriate care, equipment, respite and, in the case of disabled children, education.
It benefits the rest of us to believe such people are saints, as saints don’t struggle with their lot. Saints don’t need money, status or more time to themselves; they are fueled only by love and compassion. The rest of us don’t need to consider offering to babysit, pick up the shopping or even to check in on the family because we, mere mortals, are not saints. We don’t need to worry whether a woman pregnant with a disabled foetus has her choices undermined by such a culture if she doesn’t consider herself to have the strength required of a saint.
As well as being an appalling situation for carers, this is extremely dangerous and damaging for disabled people, especially disabled children. Disabled adults are frequently victimised by their partners and carers – disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic violence. However, disabled children are three and a half times more likely to be abused or neglected than their non-disabled counterparts. When the parents and carers of disabled children are abusive, their saintly status can make them untouchable and very much more dangerous.
Disabled foetuses have no independent moral status, but the way we talk about the children that these pregnancies might produce is part of an ongoing deeply problematic objectification of disabled children. Fighting disablism and defending a woman’s right to choose should not be mutually exclusive.
[The image is a grid pattern containing stick figures in a wide variety of colours. One is a wheelchair-user and another is holding a stick or cane of some sort. Above the grid reads Blogging Against Disablism. This image was produced by