This is an image of a woman in a crowd of protesters. She is holding up a pink sign that reads, "keep your laws off my body."

The Disability Rights Movement Must Be Pro-Choice

The hardest thing about the current framing of the abortion debate for disability justice advocates is that it forces us to choose between two of our core convictions: Inherent human worth and bodily autonomy. As a disabled person, an asexual non-binary person who was assigned female at birth, and an activist, I hate the ideas and circumstances that have put these principles in opposition to each other. Still, the choice is easy for me to make. My nearly absolute belief in bodily autonomy means nothing if I’d support forcing a person to remain pregnant and give birth against their will for any reason because of my own opposition to eugenics.

There’s no question that I, as an autistic person with a cleft lip and palate (among other disabilities), am among the types of disabled people impacted by what’s often referred to as disability-selective abortion. There are ongoing attempts to find a “cure” for autism, in large part through genetic research. Because of the same kind of pervasive ableism that has led potential parents to abort over 90% of fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome, as well as widely-held and specifically anti-autistic beliefs, any success in this research will likely result in a significant decrease in the autistic population. Meanwhile, abortions on the basis of cleft lip and palate are already legal and ongoing, however controversial they may be.

But I also know that the same ableism that has justified historical and ongoing attempts to outright eliminate disabled people has even more often led to violently imposed restrictions on our autonomy. The same conditions that have led me to strongly oppose eugenics have also served as the justification for involuntary surgery and medication. On a broader basis, nondisabled policymakers, doctors, educators and family members have segregated disabled people in institutional settings, tied or held our bodies down to floors and furniture, electrically shocked us, and involuntarily sterilized us. And that’s a very incomplete list. A lot of this has been or continues to be done supposedly for our own good, for the good of society, or some mix of both.

Because the disability community knows the costs of medical coercion, we shouldn’t support, much less work toward, any restriction on reproductive freedom in the name of opposing eugenics, nor should we allow ourselves to be used by anyone who would. The result of opening the door to such restrictions will necessarily be more people being forced to be pregnant and give birth against their will. Even the viewpoint many anti-abortionists have that pregnancy is and should be a consequence of having sex fails to support this outcome, because in most other contexts a person doesn’t lose their bodily autonomy by making a mistake no matter how serious it is. For instance, the law doesn’t force a person who causes a serious and easily preventable car accident to donate blood or organs to save the lives of the other driver or any passengers, nor are any significant number of people advocating that it should be able to. For that matter, doctors cannot even harvest organs from dead bodies if the person refused consent to it while alive. Treating living, conscious pregnant people as having fewer rights than either potential people who haven’t yet developed awareness of their own existence or people who have already died is unsettlingly close to, and no more acceptable than, denying disabled people our bodily autonomy in the interests of some abstract “greater good.”

My opposition to eugenics comes as much from the coercion and violence with which it’s been carried out as from the underlying belief that disabled lives aren’t living. Legal or other limits on disability-selective abortion cannot and will not meaningfully address underlying systemic problems such as poverty and structural ableism in healthcare, education and employment that have perpetuated that belief and in doing so pitted disability and reproductive justice against each other in the first place. Their only purpose and effect will be to serve as a first step toward greater and more general restrictions on abortion and other forms of reproductive freedom.

Taking time and energy away from advocacy that would actually improve the quality of our lives just to increase our numbers at the cost of many people’s bodily autonomy turns my understanding of disability justice on its head. We would do much better to focus on making changes that would address the legitimate concerns and limitations of many prospective parents of disabled kids, and that disability rights activists have been working toward for decades. Already, because of the advocacy of disabled people and our allies, nondisabled people of childbearing age have almost certainly met, gone to school with, or worked with people with disabilities throughout their lives. Therefore, whether they know it or not, they will likely be working off of a very different idea about the kind of life that someone with a disability can lead than their parents had at their age. My guess is that every one of us in the disability community wants to make sure the same thing can be said of those children thirty years from now, whether they’re disabled or not. The best if not the only way to do so is to focus on fighting for the disabled people alive right now – our inherent worth, our well-being, and our autonomy.

22 thoughts on “The Disability Rights Movement Must Be Pro-Choice”

  1. I think the final paragraph is a very important point. Increasing the worth of disabled people in the public’s eyes will lessen the likelihood of prospective parents deciding not to carry potentially disabled children “for their own good” without infringing their bodily autonomy. And prioritizing that autonomy across the board helps protect already-born disabled people from the kind of restrictions listed above.

    In the end, anyone may privately consider some reasons to have an abortion better than others, but that should have no impact on the right to do so.

  2. Disability-selective abortion is discriminatory if laws provide for different time frames for regular abortion and abortion based on a (often just possible, but not sure) disability. Many countries have such differening time frames. Many allow the abortion of disabled foetuses right up to birth! Even the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found in the cases of Spain and Austria that such differing time frames are discriminatory against persons with disabilities. The compromise is to accept disability-selective abortion within the regular time frames during which abortion is legal in any circumstances. No discrimination based solely on disability!

      1. Well, I for one don’t think it’s a good idea to just allow abortion right up to birth for all. Otherwise, we will very soon be in Peter Singer territory who wants to allow “abortion” of newborns and babies if they should have a disability (and very soon this will be extended to the time they might get an autism diagnosis at 2-3 years). See also this 2012 article by Oxford academics arguing for this:

        1. It’s an easy dividing line – are we allowing the use of someone’s body against their will? If not, there’s no issue. To reach the opposite conclusion — that a person’s bodily autonomy can be taken away for someone else’s well-being — sets a worse precedent with a lot more farther-reaching potential consequences.

          1. That’s not even my argument. Someone can decide on whether they want to have a child or not within a set time frame (often around 12-14 weeks). All I’m saying is that it’s discriminatory if that time frame is extended (to 20, 22, 24 weeks or right up to birth) just in case the foetus is or may be disabled. Legislators may allow abortion right up to birth for everyone, but personally I would think that’s a bad idea, for the reasons I set out and to which you did not respond. Who’s using someone’s body against their will? The foetus? Are you ascribing agency to the foetus? Why can’t they make up their mind within the first trimester? Why do they need additional time to decide that they do not want to have a (possibly) disabled child? How’s that not discrimination?

        2. A great deal of late-term abortions occur not because of disability per se, but because of life-threatening anomalies that would prevent the infant from living longer than a week (and even then not without major life supports). That is….really not the same thing as aborting because of cleft pallet or Down’s Syndrome. There are even cases of Republican legislatures wanting to force people to carry already-deceased fetuses to term, which is completely cruel and unsafe.

          Are there late-term abortions committed for ableist reasons? Sure, probably. But I have no idea how we would regulate this without also forcing people to carry dead or soon-to-be-dead fetuses, which is absolutely monstrous and, like Shain says, contrary to the principal of bodily autonomy.

          The fact is, it is really, really hard to create legislation that allows only abortions you approve of. The solution to that is clearly (IMO) to allow all abortions.

          1. Legislation allowing for disability-selective late-term abortion is usually phrases so vaguely that it gives the impression to target fatal conditions like microcephaly that make life outside the womb impossible, but are then in fact used to abort 90% of children with Down’s and other non-fatal impairments because they too are seen by society as severe enough to warrant abortion. In fact, I don’t think there are many abortions because of actually fatal anomalies. They just don’t occur that often. The solution to this is to allow late-term abortion if there’s a risk to the physical health of the mother or if the disability/impairment is fatal or the foetus is already deceased. Not that hard to legislate.

          2. Actually most late term abortions happen for ableist reasons. non life threatening reasons are less common

        3. “Well, I for one don’t think it’s a good idea to just allow abortion right up to birth for all.”

          The Roe v. Wade decision already strikes this balance, though. States may not ban abortion in the first trimester, they can regulate it in the second, and they can ban it once a fetus would be viable outside the womb.

          There IS virtually no state where you can have an elective abortion right up until full-term birth in the absence of life-threatening complications.

          I think we could fairly set differential time limits based not on disability, but on viability vs. a finding that a fetus is experiencing complications that would make it extremely unlikely to survive birth.

        4. Don’t be ridiculous. Canada has no legal timeframe restrictions on abortion, and (shock!) people aren’t engaging in infanticide (or late term abortions) left, right, and centre. Your slippery slope argument has no basis in reality–and there’s almost 30 years of reality at this point to base an assessment on.

          1. It would appear that third trimester abortions in Canada are not common because clinics and doctors refuse to perform them. So why allow something that medical professionals won’t do – abort a viable human being. The two exceptions they seem to make are risk to the health of the mother or … genetic disorders, i.e. foetuses diagnosed with a (possible) disability. I would also like to recall the concerns disabled people in Canada are expressing regarding legislation that would ease assisted suicide, as they see this as targeting them directly.

  3. I agree with empowerment and protection without discrimination based on disability.
    I also believe if you don’t use protective measures when you decide to have sex you are deciding to be responsible for the results, including and especially, conception. No one has the right to “change their mind” after the fact.
    Knowing this allows us to make the healthiest choice before sex.
    That’s the real “Pro-choice”.

    1. A child shouldn’t be a punishment for a mistake, though. If someone becomes pregnant by accident and it turns out they want to have a kid, awesome. If not, the harm for everyone presently or yet to be involved by forcing them to deal with unwanted pregnancy, childbirth and (probably) parenthood as a consequence isn’t worth whatever lesson might be learned from it.

      1. Couldn’t the same argument be made for euthanasia of disabled children, though (which is already possible in Belgium)? If societal attitudes and pressures and barriers make life difficult for the parents of disabled children, the solution should be to remove the barriers and change the attitudes of society (i.e. autism acceptance) and provide support and services, not kill the children or abort the foetuses. This seems to me implied in the social model of disability. The newly elected Chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Theresia Degener from Germany, and Gerard Quinn of NUI Galway, wrote in 2002: “The relative invisibility of people with disabilities can have a dramatic impact on their enjoyment of civil rights. The right to life has been violated through abortion on the basis of disability.”

        1. There’s a difference when someone else’s body is involved. Keeping someone who’s born alive requires no one to deal with the physical effects of a pregnancy they don’t even want.

          1. I would argue that parenting has a physical effect and puts a strain on many parents’ bodies and minds. From sleepless nights to breastfeading to having to share economic resources (such as food) among more members of the family, which may weaken each one in turn (think developing countries).

          2. But no one is forced to be a parent. People can give children up for adoption or put them in fostercare, which may not be ideal but nevertheless does not compel anyone to do something.

            If you disallow abortion, people are required to be pregnant and give birth, period.

  4. Autonomy cannot give anyone the right to take the life of another human being. Autonomy can only allow us to do what we have an inate right a human beings to do, an no one has the right to take another life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *