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.