Wednesday, 2 November 2011

What does it mean to be pro-choice and support disability rights?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I read a few pro-life blogs.  One of the things that they have been talking a lot about recently is the">screening programme for Down's Syndrome.  They're pretty intent on misrepresenting it, but the way that they misrepresent and use the rhetoric of disability when doing so makes me think about some of the problems with pro-choice discussion about disability

In our legislation 'fetal abnormality' is a specific category for abortion. In some DHBs, people seeking second trimester abortions for foetal abnormalities go through a different process, and see different doctors, are treated differently from those who are seeking them for other reasons. This different status is repeated often among pro-choice activists.  There was an element of this in  the coverage of George Tiller's murder, and the way that abortions for 'fetal abnormality' were emphasised over other reasons for second and third trimester abortions.  'Fetal abnormality' is treated as a more legitimate reason for abortion, particularly late in the pregnancy, than a woman who just doesn't want to be pregnant.

I think this is extremely problematic.  I don't think pro-choice politics and disability rights have to be at loggerheads, I think they are fully compatible (and the rest of this post will at least partly explain why).  But I think a lot of pro-choice discussion about abortion and fetal impairments is not compatible with disability rights, and certainly not with the social model of disability.

I think what illustrates this most starkly is the difference in between pro-choice discourse around abortion because of fetal impairment, and abortion because of the sex of the foetus.  A post on The Hand Mirror is called  More On Abortion: Female Foeticide.  Something that I don't think many pro-choice activists (unless they were also disability activists) would be comfortable saying about abortion because of foetal impairment.*

There are two, related but distinct, reasons that people decide that they cannot continue a pregnancy based on some characteristics of the foetus. The child your foetus is going to be will take more resources to raise than the child you had hoped to have. And the child your foetus is going to be is valued less, by society and/or by you than the child you had hoped to have.

I see no moral or ethical difference, no difference based on principle, between decisions about abortion when someone has learned that the foetus is female, and decisions about abortion when someone has learned that the foetus will have an impairment. Or rather any argument that there is a difference has to be based on devaluing people with disabilities.

I think the compassion that I see many feminists extend to women who are making decisions after learning about a foetal impairment is appropriate (although not the status as somehow different from other women seeking abortions). But I wonder why they don't extend the same compassion to women who terminate pregnancies based on the sex of the foetus. I do wonder what part the fact that many western feminists can imagine themselves, or someone they know having an abortion because the fetus has an impairment. Whereas having an abortion because the foetus is female is something that other women do, in other countries.

My position is that the only good decision maker when it comes to is the person who is pregnant.**  I think people who are making difficult decisions about their pregnancy should have their decision making process taken seriously, and be treated with compassion. I do not believe that it is legitimate to deprive people of information about their pregnancy on an individual level, because of fear of what decisions they'll made. I can judge a culture that devalues girls and people with disabilities, I can try and change that system. But the problem is structural not individual.

But however a feminist articulates supporting reproductive freedom, I think treating all cases where people are making decisions about abortion based on characteristics of a foetus the same, is an important principle.

* And Deborah's companion post about abortion and disability illustrates this - she comes to the same conclusion, but uses very different language to explain that conclusion.

** I also believe, but don't think it's particularly relevant to the political argument, that it's not necessarily in the interest of girls, or people with disabilities, to try and make people who don't value them, become parents to them.


This is part of a week of Pro-Choice Postings hosted here at The Hand Mirror starting on Friday 28th October 2011. For an index of all the posts, being updated as they go up, please check the Pro-Choice Postings index. And if you'd like to submit a post for cross-posting, guest posting or linking to please email


Scott Chris said...

If anyone is interested in debating this issue, Kiwiblog commenters are currently giving the "pro choice" idea a bit of a going over on the "Gender Gap" thread:

Lucy said...

I also believe, but don't think it's particularly relevant to the political argument, that it's not necessarily in the interest of girls, or people with disabilities, to try and make people who don't value them, become parents to them.

This is the crux of it for me. It horrifies me that sex-selective abortion, infanticide, and neglect have such impacts on the gender ratios of some countries, but forcing people to parent children they don't want is, guess what? Most likely going to result in neglect. (IIRC, there is a detectable difference between gender ratios at birth and gender ratios at age five or six in countries which also have a lot of sex-selective abortion, and it's not in the usual direction [higher male infant mortality]. Guess why.) It's not better for the child. And it's not better for the mother.

You change these things by changing societies, not policing women's bodies.

katy said...

There was quite a media debate about this a few months ago when the new safer test was announced. I can't remember if I posted about this at the time, I had intended to but maybe got busy... I found it really powerful listening to parents of children with disability talking about their experiences raising those children in response to a lot of ignorant commentary around what it is like to be such a parent which was broadcast in response to the story (less about the crap support our community gives to parents and children in this situation). In terms of the nuchal scan for Down Syndrome, I could choose not to have this myself (though I did ask to know the gender) but I do know of someone in NZ who was told the result of the nuchal scan despite asking not to be. Which makes me think that there might be an idea in some parts of the medical community that disability should be part of the decision making process around whether to continue a pregnancy, which bothers me as I don't think it should be in a separate category.