Further thoughts on disability and abortion, by request

A pregnant woman on a beach. If only the realities of pregnancy were always so serene.

I’ve been asked to consider this topic again, as Meghan has decided to make it the launching point for a blog series of her own and emailed me her first response. I initially wrote about it in a response to a Christianity Today article demonizing women for choosing abortion based on disability. The point of my response, for the TL;DR among us, was that there are a whole host of reasons a woman might choose abortion and that it is possible to see them as moral and compassionate reasons (as opposed to simple “selfishness”). After some criticism, I wrote an additional post to clarify that I wrote only in the context of individual choice, not as a recommendation to all pregnant women, and that attempts to turn my argument into a society-wide program would be just as oppressive as forcing all women all the time to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. You can read Meghan’s response to me here.

Both Meghan and S.E. Smith have spent a great deal of time critiquing my alleged attitude. Meghan writes, “Sierra has a profoundly condescending tone toward her audience.” Really? Well… huh. My original post began with what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the traditional trigger warning, and has instead been regarded as an assault on the intelligence of my readers (especially dissenters). If I have come across as condescending, then I do, sincerely, apologize for that. I am an irreverent writer, but I don’t intend to be rude. Trigger warnings in general are redundant and can easily be read as patronizing: I certainly don’t need help figuring out that posts with ‘domestic violence’ and ‘rape’ in their titles probably involve potentially disturbing discussions of sexual assault. Still, I participate in the tradition of placing a trigger warning at the beginning of such posts. Why? I don’t know. It’s just how things are done on the internet. My warning that the post contained “controversial subject matter” was a self-consciously redundant statement modeled upon a trigger warning, not an expression of doubt in my readers’ ability to detect and deal with controversy.

Meghan writes:

“In this blog post, I will explain why Sierra’s piece is condescending, ahistorical, and embraces eugenic ideas related to the continued influence of ableism in our culture. I will also consider the issue of ablebodied privilege and its influence on discussions related to ableism and selective abortion.”

It’s intriguing that Meghan has identified my article as ahistorical, given her willingness to deploy “eugenics” as a bogeyman. She writes, “History classes ignore the disability rights movement, the murder of disabled people during the Holocaust, the original American eugenics/euthanasia movement, and other aspects of disability history. If curricula included this information, perhaps Sierra would have a better understanding of why her article reflects prejudiced attitudes.” What she doesn’t realize is that I teach history curricula that include this information. Meghan assumes that I am ignorant because I reproduce an idea with a politically charged history: the prevention of suffering. This is an incredibly simplistic, ahistorical gut reaction.

It’s not news to me that the same logic informed the practices of abusive eugenics doctors and “racial purity” programs like the Nazis’. However, to look historically at the issues of the eugenics movement is not to simply invoke the word “eugenics” and flee the scene. The eugenics movement is notorious for its abuses, but the desire to prevent suffering is hardly the source of the problem. The movement’s problems stemmed from its erroneous, discriminatory diagnostic practices and its erroneous, discriminatory and abusive treatment practices. The eugenics movement defined things like racial differences as diseases – this was part of the problem. The other crucial part was that the “solution” or “treatment” involved actually killing people or preventing them from having children in a concerted, society-wide attempt to reduce their population size. Neither of those things are involved when an individual woman chooses abortion. To conflate them is to place women’s rights in opposition to the collective rights of disabled populations. It is that polarization to which I’m opposed.

We are still engaged in judgments about what constitutes disease or disability and how to deal with diseases once we’ve defined them. For instance, the Christianity Today article that prompted my response brought up cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome. I acknowledged that Down syndrome presents on a scale and that many Downs individuals are capable of living full, independent lives. In their case, yes, obviously, society is the source of what “suffering” they might experience, not biology. But cystic fibrosis? I don’t at all buy the argument that society is the problem there. Fluid buildup in the lungs, painful hospital treatments to extract said fluid, repeated and severe bacterial infections, long periods of exhausting recovery, shortened life expectancies… those are experiences of suffering in their own right. And that’s why I went out of my way to point out that cystic fibrosis and mild to moderate Down syndrome shouldn’t be compared. As for autism, which S.E. Smith brings up: I never mentioned it at all, as it was not the subject of the Christianity Today article. Extrapolating an argument based on cystic fibrosis and severe Down syndrome to cover the whole autism spectrum is just disingenuous.

Meghan argues that it’s impossible to make judgments involving the prevention of suffering for a fetus without granting some level of personhood to a fetus, because it’s impossible to judge the potential quality of life of a fetus without judging the lives of living disabled people. Well, yes and no. Yes, a woman carrying a fetus that is projected to have cystic fibrosis is going to look at the symptoms and see how they impact the lives of people with cystic fibrosis. Yes, that’s a judgment call. To make the decision, however, not to bring a child into the world under those conditions is not equivalent to deciding that living people with CF would be better off dead, or to advocate that all women everywhere make the same choice to eliminate the population. The only way to see an individual abortion based on disability as equivalent to murder is to decide that a fetus has “a life”  or personhood (distinct from the simple biological fact of being alive) to be eliminated. That is a fallacy.

Meghan also claims that I afford a special “moral, compassionate” status to abortion based on disability that I don’t also afford to abortions for other reasons: namely, poverty. That’s not true. I do consider morality and compassion the basis for choosing not to bring a child into the world for any reason, including poverty, if the intended parents believe that they can’t provide a loving, supportive and adequately supplied home for the child. It’s a moral, compassionate choice if a woman decides to abort because her partner might abuse her child, or she can’t afford to feed the child properly. But to be more specific, my choice of the words “moral” and “compassionate” were invoked against the specter of the heartless, selfish woman who aborts a disabled fetus because she doesn’t want to be “inconvenienced” by the resulting child’s special needs. It’s obviously not a moral or compassionate decision if someone coerces a woman into aborting a disabled fetus or forces her to get sterilized because she’s poor. This is where the eugenics movement went horribly, horribly wrong.

Now, for the disability movement as a contemporary issue: We need a movement to rectify that and prevent it from ever happening again [my emphasis]. I’m glad we have one. Now. Here’s where I depart from Zylstra and other activists… Astonishingly, Meghan has taken this statement as I believe abuses of disabled people no longer occur: “Sierra’s statement ignores the fact that the mistreatments she attributes to the past still go on today.” This is absurd. I have nowhere denied that abuses of disabled people continue today. I have nowhere stated that I believe in a benighted, ignorant past that no longer haunts our fair, enlightened minds. Meghan objects to a position that I have not taken and do not advocate. Indeed, if “we need a movement” (present tense) isn’t enough of an indication that I’m aware that abuse is ongoing, I’m not sure what would suffice.

“Contrary to her rather aggrandizing conception of this essay, Sierra’s argument isn’t new. It certainly isn’t going to shock disability activists and allies into “plotting her demise.””

Aggrandizing? Once again, Meghan has taken what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek remark as evidence of some deep condescension on my part. If anything, the obviously exaggerated nature of the statement (the idea that anyone would bother to want to kill me over a blog post) should prove that I don’t see myself or my argument as particularly worthy of notice. I never claimed that my article was important or original; on the contrary, I’ve repeatedly pointed out that it was simply one response to one article in Christianity Today. The fact that I used keywords like “disability” and “abortion” in my title does not mean that I meant to write a manifesto on either topic.

A second principal critique that both S.E. Smith and Meghan have made of me is not based on my article at all, but on who they think I am:

“Sierra makes huge assumptions about things that she has not experienced. She bases her assumptions about disability upon her experience of growing up in poverty. The two are simply not the same thing. While issues of class and disability certainly intersect, being an impoverished non-disabled person does not confer knowledge of what it is like to live as a disabled person of any economic background. She “wagers” that the disabled wouldn’t have chosen to be disabled, an assumption based entirely on hubris. … Because she doesn’t realize that being able-bodied predisposes her to view that status as universally desirable, she assumes that all disabled people want to be able-bodied like her.”

I deliberately ignored this argument when it came from S.E. Smith, because I think my identity is beside the point. But since this has come up again, I will deal with it, front and center. Smith and Meghan: You do not know what my experiences are. You do not know whether or not I am disabled. You assume that I am not because I disagree with you, and that is hubris. I do not believe I owe you or anyone else on the internet a personal medical history. You assume that I approach this issue from a position of pure privilege and personal distance, and you are wrong. As disability activists, you should know better than most people the discrimination and disadvantage that can attend the professional lives of people who reveal disabilities publicly. I will not take the bait and “out” myself by revealing private information for the sake of an argument. Yes, I know there’s a certain level of privilege attendant to not having to reveal medical information (not having a noticeable disability), but I do think it’s my individual right to keep private what I wish to keep private about my body.

Let me say simply that there are conditions I have experienced that I would not wish on others, that I do not consider part of my identity. Meghan’s argument, “Most people I know in the disability rights and studies communities embrace their disabilities as a fundamental part of their identities that should not be changed,” reflects a philosophical position with which I simply disagree. I do think it’s possible for me to continue to be myself with a somewhat different body. If you disagree with me, at least acknowledge that it’s a matter of philosophical position, not undisputed fact.

Finally, my “wager” was attached to the phrase “most people.” I don’t know how “most people” feel about anything; if I did, I’d be God. Short of that, I have to wager. Both Smith and Meghan have taken this “wager” as a sign of my distance from the issue, as evidence that I can only speculate about things that others live intimately. Given that I have revealed my working-class upbringing, let me use that as an example one more time: I can’t know what “most poor people” want – I can only “wager” that most of them, like me, wouldn’t want to be born poor. If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, because human beings’ defining characteristic is their ability to disagree about everything.

“Moreover, because Sierra used a Christianity Today article as her only source, my final post will address issues related to disability and religion.”

Once again, I’d like to remind Meghan and her readers that my post was never more than a response to that Christianity Today article. I didn’t cite other sources because my post was not meant to stand apart from the one that prompted it, or to deal with more than the examples that article provided in the first place. I would like to ask Meghan, Smith, and others who have brought up my essay, in good faith: How would you respond to the Christianity Today article? I really would like to see your arguments.

The problem I have with the arguments of Smith and Meghan, as with the Christianity Today article, is that their formulation of the issue either intentionally or unintentionally plays into the hands of the anti-choice movement by opposing disability rights to women’s rights. When you frame abortion based on disability as an especially heinous crime, you implicitly argue that women have a responsibility to bear disabled children in order to protect disabled populations. When you argue that women who abort disabled fetuses are ableist and cruel and shame them for their choices, you increase the likelihood that an unprepared and unwilling parent will bear a disabled child and thus increase the likelihood that the child will be abused, neglected or treated with resentment. (Incidentally, this is also why I’m not squeamish about sex-selective abortion: it’s not for me to decide whether or not a woman is equipped to raise a child of either sex, or to demand that she be prepared for either possibility.) When you argue that aborting a disabled fetus is anything more than an individual choice based on a calculation of individual needs, resources, desires and hopes, you help make abortion a subject of public obligation and responsibility and thus promote discourses of shame for women who choose it.

I want women who become mothers to do so with willingness, knowledge, preparation and support. Not with guilt, obligation, frustration and sorrow. I would rather every disabled child hear, “I wanted you and welcomed you” than “I didn’t have the heart to abort you.” Just as I want that for able-bodied children.

Finally, Meghan brings up the pain involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy based on disability. This goes to the heart of my argument: it’s a hard enough decision to make without being told you’re an evil 20th century eugenicist and you want to kill off all disabled people everywhere. Women who have to make this choice are usually already mourning the loss of their hopes for their child. They don’t deserve the added guilt of allegedly sabotaging the disability movement.

  • suzannecalulu

    Bravado! Well said as always Sierra.

  • Salix

    I hope you are getting some support for this series of posts?

    The Internet blogosphere and academic conversations on “disability rights” look very, very different from what I see in my activist work related to specific disorders/conditions. I think your thoughts would go over much better in those circles than in the current progressive blogosphere.

    I like your framing in terms of suffering reduction. There are reasons, good reasons, for a disability rights group to focus on social acceptance, but it’s very limiting for people with conditions where active, ongoing, medical treatment (that may or may not even work!) must be an integral part of any discussion.

  • lucrezaborgia

    The thousands of unwanted and disabled children in foster care show that taking care of children with severe disabilities is not a cakewalk. I really with activists like this would stop ignoring how difficult this is for women and how often a relationship fails because of the strain of a disabled child.

  • Pingback: Further thoughts on disability and abortion, by request « Better Disability

  • phil_style

    Are there limits which we should, ethically, place on a woman’s right to choose?
    I’m not trying to propose some kind of “slipper slope” here, however, the references to “eugenics” did get me to thinking.
    1. How does a decision maker determine whether or not a woman’s decision to proceed with a termination is based on compassionate grounds?
    2. If a woman were to determine that it was more compassionate for a child to be terminated rather than born female, should that woman’s choice be respected?
    3. If a woman were to determine that it was more compassionate for a child to be terminated rather than born an ethnic minority, should that woman’s choice be respected?

    Questions 2, and 3 are similar (but not the same) to disability arguments, given that many of the structures that make life more difficult for disabled people are created by society, just as they [all?] are for race and gender issues.

    • Diane

      I can’t answer for Sierra, but I would like to present my answers to your questions.

      1. I don’t think a decision maker should be in a position to judge a woman’s motivations for terminating a pregnancy. It’s impossible to prove what made someone choose to act in a certain way. Either the procedures is legal or it isn’t. The woman’s motivation for choosing it isn’t really relevant.

      2 & 3. Yes, her choice should be respected. As Sierra pointed out, no one should EVER force a woman to have an abortion based on the gender, ethnicity, disability status, etc. of her fetus. But she should be free to make the best decision for herself, her family, and her beliefs about the child’s possible quality of life.

      If life in a particular society is horrible for women, or certain minorities, or anyone else, the way to fix that problem is not to forbid women to abort fetuses with those characteristics. The solution is to stop treating those people badly, so that woman who find themselves pregnant with such fetuses don’t necessarily feel that giving birth will doom their children to a lifetime of suffering.


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