Disabling the “Choice Paradigm” in the Abortion Debate and Enabling Complexity

Okay, so I am trying to contain my excitement.  But who am I kidding?!  Enerfly, a new social networking and social movement site for disability, just released my first e-publication outside of my sweet WordPress blog.  HOLLA!

Here’s the awesomeness, re-posted for your reading pleasure and for the sake of my own little e-archive:

The Pro-Life Action League made their annual appearance at my campus this week.  As they were obstructing my path to class, I held up a folder against my face in protest while I quickly walked passed.

Pro-life versus pro-choice.  Reproductive rights versus reproductive justice.  What’s the difference?

Native sovereignty activist and scholar Andrea Smith argues that “a reproductive justice agenda must make the dismantling of capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism [and ableism!] central to its agenda…We must reject single-issue, pro-choice politics of the mainstream reproductive rights movement as an agenda that not only does not serve women of color [and women with disabilities] but actually promotes the structures of oppression which keep women of color [and women with disabilities] from having real choices or healthy lives.”[i]

Native sovereignty issues are also disability justice issues.  The potential for radical coalitional work here is profound.  But, more on that later.

When it comes to disability, the mainstream reproductive rights movement simply isn’t enough.  Not only is it not enough, but as Andrea Smith points out, it actually promotes the structures of oppression by not confronting the systemic root causes of disabled women’s health and wellness.

Can disabled women be mothers?  Can nondisabled women, or disabled women, knowingly carry to term a fetus with “defective genes”?

With the historical legacy of eugenics, and interlocking systems of oppression, these are difficult questions that the reformist binary of pro-life vs. pro-choice cannot “answer.”

Caroline, a wheelchair-user, reflects on her experiences with doctors regarding reproductive issues: “To acknowledge what I feel I have been denied is almost too painful to think about.  It’s safer to tell myself that I don’t want to have children anyway.”[ii]  Among the friends, family, and physicians of disabled women who were surveyed in a research study, three fourths “believe that maternal disability is cause enough to restrict childbearing.”[iii]

The struggle with reproductive issues has been a significant aspect of disability justice projects since the 1970s disability rights movement.  Ujima, disabled at the age of twelve, testifies in her early forties, that “there are people out there who think that they have the right to tell you that you shouldn’t [have a baby] simply because you’re disabled.  Many years ago I had an abortion that I didn’t really want because everyone I told…all said that it would be wrong for me to go ahead with it.  At the time I remember my doctor telling me that I should consider being sterilised so that I wouldn’t make the mistake of having another unwanted pregnancy, but the fact is that I did want it and have been wanting to have another baby ever since.”[iv]

Many disabled women have spoken out against the forced sterilization and abortions they have experienced, and against the nonconsensual use of Depo-Provera, a birth control hormone injected every three months, by both doctors and personal assistants.  Yvonne Duffy, a self-identified  “severely disabled” wheelchair user who contracted polio at age two, “was particularly disappointed” when she learned that a “prominent advocate of sex education for the [cognitively disabled] suggested injections of Depo-Provera as birth control for those of us who cannot manage it [sexual intercourse, menstruation and changing pads/tampons regularly] for ourselves.”[v]

The elusive history of U.S. eugenics underlies much medical research and actions towards disability and reproduction, and permeates in genetic research today.  On selective abortion and disability, feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard notably begs the question, “Who should and should not inhabit the world?”  Hubbard examines current situations surrounding selective abortion where pregnant women are required to sign either “yes” or “no” to prenatal testing which tests women’s fetuses for various “disabilities.”[vi]  If a woman “chooses” to test, and her tests are “positive” (Hubbard discusses the major discrepancies and unreliability of many of these tests in terms of their results), then the woman is left to “decide” whether or not to “burden” society with a child with a supposed disability.  Hubbard discusses the underlying eugenic ideologies at length and how today’s rhetoric “of the concern for the quality of life” in genetic testing and research, and in many other public sectors as well, is like the “arguments about lives not worth living.”[vii]  Ever heard the horrible ableist statement, “I’d rather die than be disabled”?  Such sentiments are directly reflective of the root causes that reproductive justice campaigns need to tackle.

Importantly, disability reproductive justice campaigns and activists need to be vigilant about co-optation by nation-state and pro-life interests.  Just on September 2, 2011, The Pro-Life Action League published an article praising a mother for “choosing” life for her conjoined twins.  This is a stark example of pro-life co-optation of disability reproductive justice issues.  The rhetoric of “choice” is individualist language that functions to mask underlying structural oppressions which greatly impact reproductive issues for disabled women, women of color, and nondisabled women with “disabled” fetuses.  Native sovereignty activist Andrea Smith argues that the

“consequence of the “choice” paradigm is that its advocates often take positions that are oppressive to women from marginalized communities.  For instance, this paradigm often makes it difficult to develop nuanced positions on the use of abortion when the fetus is determined to have abnormalities.  Focusing solely on the woman’s choice to have or not have this child does not address the larger context of a society that sees children with disabilities as having lives not worth living and that provides inadequate resources to women who may otherwise want to have them.”[viii]

It is not simply a matter of “choice” for abortion or for life; several critical factors come into play such as the historical context of eugenics, structural issues such as healthcare, educational opportunity, community support and accountability, which, although the woman “chose” to have her conjoined twins, by staying within the paradigm of choice The Pro-Life Action League does not take into account root causes that shape reproductive issues especially surrounding disability.

Image featured in my Enerfly article


[i] Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005, 104-105.

[ii] Shakespeare, Tom, Kath Gillespie-Sells, and Dominic Davies. The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires. London and New York: Cassell, 1996, 15.

[iii] Waxman, Barbara Faye. “Commentary on Sexuality and Reproductive Health.” Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996, 182.

[iv] Gillespie-Sells, Kath, Mildrette Hill, and Bree Robbins. She Dances to Different Drums: Research into Disabled Women’s Sexuality. London: King’s Fund Publishing, 1998, 12.

[v] Duffy, Yvonne. All Things Are Possible. Ann Arbor, MI: A.J. Garvin and Associates, 1981, 24.

[vi] Hubbard, Ruth. “Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Should Not Inhabit the World?” The Disability Studies Reader, Third Ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York and London: Routledge, 1997, 114-18.

[vii] Hubbard, 117.

[viii] Smith, 100.

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