29 March 2013

Re: Reproductive rights, disability, selective abortion

(Trigger warning: Quote of ableist statement, discussed of forced treatment and eugenics, discussion of Nazis and murder.)

This was actually written in its entirety as a Facebook comment, but Facebook refused to allow me to post it into the appropriate thread from any internet browser or from my phone. So I posted it here instead unedited (except for the removal of the addressee's name). It wasn't intended as a post. 


A 1999 literature review published in the journal Prenatal Diagnosis examining termination rates after prenatal diagnosis for five impairing conditions found that the highest termination rates were for fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome at 92% (with a confidence interval spanning 91%-93%).(1) According to the Centers for Disease Control abortion surveillance report for the same year, 1999, the overall abortion rate was 256 abortions for every 1,000 live births, or 25.6%,(2) which is by any calculation far lower than the abortion rate for fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome.

That disparity is the result of ableist attitudes that claim that certain experiences (i.e. those of able-bodied and neurologically typical people) are normal, ideal, and healthy, while any experiences deviating from a typical physical and neurological profile are presumed to be undesirable, lesser, inferior, defective, deficient, and or unhealthy. People with deviant bodies or minds have historically been marginalized as a direct result of these assumptions and attitudes, and continue to experience discrimination and oppression because of their actual or presumed impairments.

For example, as part of the Nazis campaign to create a pure Aryan race that led to the Holocaust, the first group of people targeted for extermination as hereditarily unfit to reproduce were the disabled, who were first subjected to forced sterilization and later to outright murder.(3) Closer to home for many of the people in this thread, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1927 that forced sterilization of the disabled (especially the intellectually disabled -- people who used to be referred to as those with mental retardation) was not a due process violation.(4) That decision has never been overturned.

There are several core assumptions that underlie this profoundly disturbing history, many of which are reflected in your previous comments.

- Being disabled is a lesser state of existence. To be mentally or physically disabled is to lead a life inferior and lesser than that of an able-bodied or neurotypical person.

- Some people's lives are not worth living, and they would be better off dead -- "not suffered to live" -- than alive.

- It is possible to determine what lives are worth living and what lives are not.

- Disabled people are burdens on their families and on society.

- Parents always know best for their children and always act in their children's best interests.

The first three of these statements are tied intricately to an ableist belief system that undermines and devalues disabled lives solely on the external presumptions of non-disabled people of what those lives must be like, which is hardly a legitimate way to assess the quality of another person's life. If a (cis) man were to say that to be a man is better than to be a woman, and that all women must suffer terribly because they are not men, he would be quickly ridiculed for his presposterous, arrogant, and condescending presumptions. Yet when non-disabled people (or disabled people whose personal experiences and circumstances are different from those they are describing) make the assumption that a disabled person's life must be so terrible as a direct result of disability that it is not worth living, this utter denial of agency, presumption of incompetence, and condescending assumption is not treated as such; instead, it is legitimized as valid and objective.

Without living another person's life, you have absolutely no way to know what that person's experiences are like -- whether that person is happy or could be happy with the appropriate supports, whether that person is suffering or not, whether that person's life is meaningful and satisfying to them or not. Making the assumption that because someone might be disabled, or, say, severely impaired in multiple domains of functioning, that their life must therefore be insufferable, is a dangerous assumption. You do not know. Since you have not experienced that person's life, you have no grounds on which to make that statement save your own privilege as a non-disabled person (or a disabled person who does have appropriate and necessary supports in place). You can never make this assumption because you can never know.

You do not have the right to make decisions for other people based on your own lived experienced that are privileged as normative and ideal.

When people make the decision to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of a fetus's actual or presumed disability, that is not a truly free choice, because it presumes that a disabled life is lesser and undesirable. When people make the decision to terminate a pregnany on the basis of a fetus's female sex, that is not a truly free choice, because it presumes that a female life is lesser and undesirable. The only difference between the two situations is that women and allies will speak against the latter, and their voices will be acknowledged as legitimate challenges to institutionalized sexism, whereas disabled people and allies speaking against the former are routinely dismissed, derailed, and de-legitimized, if not outright erased, omitted, or silenced altogether.

The fourth of these five statements, you articulated quite explicitly in your comment, "I know people who chose to have a profoundly disabled child and they've basically given up their own lives......and horribly impacted the siblings of the child. Caring for the child uses up all the financial and energy resources of the family."

Let's start with unpacking each juicy tidbit of ableism in this one appalling statement.

- If you don't want to take care of your disabled child, you always have other options. You can put your child up for adoption; you can surrender your child to child protective services; you could even institutionalize your child. None of those options (especially the last one) make you a great parent, but at least you won't be the shitty parent complaining about your child's existence as a drain on your life. (And at least you won't be the even shittier parent who outright abuses or even murders your disabled child.)

- If you think having a disabled sibling is a burden, try being disabled and having a sibling who resents your existence and see how that feels. (Then again, given the prevailing assumption that disabled people can't actually have feelings, or if we do, they don't matter, while everyone else's feelings are so important, I guess this doesn't matter much. /sarcasm)

- Sure, paying for support services, therapy, or other types of treatment costs money. So does sending a kid to private school, signing up a kid for sports or music lessons, sending a kid to summer camp, hiring an academic or college prep tutor, paying for braces, paying for driving lessons, or, god forbid, sending a kid to college. Given, poor and working-class families are significantly disadvantaged in acquiring appropriate and necessary support services for their disabled children, but that's a result of intersecting classism and ableism. If your concern about having a disabled child is that your disabled child is going to cost your family money, I don't think you're fit to be having any children at all. Measuring someone's worth by how much they'll cost you seems pretty callous to me.

Regarding the last of the five statements, I won't deny that many parents (certainly not all) do believe in good faith that they have their actual or potential children's best interests in mind at least most of the time. That being said, parents still are not their own children, and will still never know their children as well as their children know themselves. Suggesting that parents should be afforded blanket permission to do whatever they like to their children is a slippery slope that allows for egregious violations of children's human rights, unnecessary and involuntary commitment to residential placements (that are inherently coercive by nature), forced and nonconsensual treatment that the children may not have ever wanted or chosen for themselves, and other harmful practices that can inflict lasting consequences on children in the name of "parental rights."

I think that about sums it up.

You have a good night.

(1) Mansfield, C., Hopfer, S. and Marteau, T. M. (1999), Termination rates after prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, spina bifida, anencephaly, and Turner and Klinefelter syndromes: a systematic literature review. Prenat. Diagn., 19: 808–812. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-0223(199909)19:9<808::AID-PD637>3.0.CO;2-B

(2) Elam-Evans, L., Strauss, L. T., Herndon, J., Parker, W. Y., Whitehead, S. and Berg, C. J. (2002). Abortion surveillance -- United States, 1999. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 51(SS09);1-28. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5109a1.htm

(3) Gallagher, H. (2001). What the Nazi "euthanasia program" can tell us about disability oppression. J. of Disability Policy Studies, 12:2, 96-99.  doi: 10.1177/104420730101200206

(4) 274 U.S. 200; 47 S. Ct. 584; 71 L. Ed. 1000; 1927 U.S. LEXIS 20 (Carrie Buck v. John Hendren Bell, Superintendent of State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded)


  1. Sadly, frequently when I see other disabled people talking about the issue? It's less about tackling the disabilism that holds disabled lives as lesser and denies help to disabled people and their families and usually about how everything would be okay if we just forced women/people with a uterus to give birth against their wishes by banning abortion.

    The result is often that the problem doesn't get engaged with, we just end up with a slagging match between usually cis male disabled people and FAAB people many of whom are disabled and don't appreciate the idea of anyone being forced to give birth. It certainly doesn't help us get taken seriously when some of the loudest voices are basically cis disabled men who think women are incubators in general.

  2. Algorithms have been guilty of discriminating against people on the spectrum.

    In fact, the Algorithms probably could screen people on the broader autism phenotype that venture out into the Google Plus and Facebook territories of the online world, as part of the algorithm’s design is to police an appropriate and profitably acceptable social environment.

    Facebook has a limit on words in comments its Algorithm considers "Socially Inappropriate in Length".

    It is comforting in a way to hear "I am not the only one" that has been discriminated against by the "Autistic Hating Algorithm". ;)

    The Algorithm also has a propensity to "weed out" people that do not care to show their face publicly, collect peer appropriate relationships, display a variety of interests instead of restricted ones, use restraint in perseverance of using the same features repetitively, and engage in the reciprocal social-communication device of likes and messages.

    Monologues are at times not enough to keep good social standing with the Algorithm.

    The “Google Plus” Algorithm is even more restrictive in "weeding" out "Online Autistic Behaviors".

    At least online, it is often the Algorithm instead of society that should love Autistics instead of "Hating" them, particularly if one considers another stereotype/myth is that Autistics design them.

    To go a step further my Firefox Browser Spell Checker, has yet to accept "Neurodiversity" or "Autistics", as even being real words yet.

    As we begin "Autism Awareness Day", perhaps this is one part of acceptance that could be fixed with computer code.

    The Google Algorithm Autistic-complete, excuse me, I mean auto complete search results now tops "Autistics Should be Loved" as part of an Autistic generated effective solution in designing a popular Facebook page with that exact phrase.

    However, if the Algorithm really means it, show us some unconditional Acceptance, not just words. :)

    I had a long "drawn out" monologue about the disability and abortion issue that is another one of my special interests, but I guess it is just as well that I accidentally deleted it and provided this monologue instead, generated by a statement, in part, I could relate to. :)

    On a more serious note, and maybe a positive one in some cases, I guess in some ways the Facebook and Google Plus Algorithms can potentially be an effective means of teaching social skills that are part of the social norm, as it does provide free ABA type behavioral modification techniques to alter human behavior. :)

  3. Well, adoption or surrendering your child to the state is not really a "solution" to abortion. Also, because of pervasive ableism in society the child would probably not be adopted, and areat greater risk of abuse.



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