Abortion, feminism and disability

Robyn Hunt

As a human rights practitioner, and a former human rights commissioner I clearly understand the status of the unborn child in human rights law. My standpoint is that of human rights, and in particular disability rights, as codified in the CRPD (the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). New Zealand played a major role in developing this human rights standard and ratified it in 2008.

There are disability issues around abortion that make it a very difficult and nuanced issue for disabled feminists. For many feminists this is a really clear cut issue. For us, not so much.

Abortion is not a simple issue of choice for disabled women, especially given that for many of us our choices are more constrained than those of non-disabled women. Many disabled women do not have control over their own bodies, never mind their reproduction and sexuality. For example, over generations thousands of disabled and other “undesirable” women all over the world have been sterilised without their consent and disabled women are still sometimes sterilised without their consent.

As a disabled, feminist, prospective mother I had to contemplate whether or not any children I might bear would share my impairment. I didn’t know. It was a leap in the dark. But I had decided that my life was very much worth living and so would theirs be. That is a critical part of the issue: Whose lives are worth living?

There are a number of threads to this issue for us, but they are rarely explored in an environment where we feel safe enough to honestly discuss our concerns about some of the implications. The ‘caring’, disability support, and health professions are well populated with women, yet it is paradoxical that disabled women’s voices struggle to be heard and attended to on this and other issues that are important to us.

Eleanor Lisney, Sisters of Frida (a disabled women’s cooperative), described this struggle: “In the discourse of feminism, disabled people are seldom included … Disabled people are often seen as a ‘burden’ on the feminist from before birth to the older parent often portrayed as with dementia. The decision of aborting a disabled child is seen to be totally understandable, disabled people need caring for – usually by low paid or unpaid carers where women sacrifice themselves as carers.”

Disability is often seen as a ‘fate worse than death’. It arouses a fear of what is unknown and not understood and carries social stigma as well as social and medical pressures.

Questioning whose lives are worth living led to the ‘hidden holocaust’of World War II where over 200,000 disabled people were exterminated; this holocaust began with a German father asking the Nazi regime to kill his infant son. This was the logical culmination of the eugenics movement. But eugenics did not disappear with the end of that regime; it is still alive and well and living in New Zealand in the form of pre-natal testing which leads to some babies not being born because of their ‘abnormalities’. Would we tolerate birth selection on the grounds of race or gender? I hope not.

The crunch point for me is contained in the phrase ‘bearing a child she doesn't want’. How is that ‘doesn't want’ constructed? Is it because she is afraid and faces negative social and medical pressure? Is it because support services are woefully inadequate in some cases, and parents of disabled children can be isolated and unsupported?

And is this because of society’s fear of disability, and the eugenicist move to eliminate certain impairment groups? Is the mother afraid of social and economic sanctions if she goes ahead with the pregnancy?

However, many impairments are not detectable before birth and even when a child is born “perfect,” they may not stay that way. What then? Medical and other science may not always be able to cure, and not everybody wants to be fixed, and while there are ways of ameliorating conditions that were unheard of even a generation ago, an accident or illness can result in lifelong impairment. Imperfection and impairment are part of who we are as humans.

Abortion should not be used as a tool for eugenics. Disability cannot be eliminated this way. Disability is part of the human condition. Just think about the message this gives to people already living with the impairment – it says you are of no value – your life is worthless and your birth should have been prevented. They might be living lives they see as definitely worth living, not a fate worse than death. I have witnessed this very direct pain in people I know.

Abortion on the grounds of disability devalues disabled lives.

Robyn Hunt, ONZM, is a former Human Rights Commissioner, Disability leader and activist, writer, and a founder of Not Dead Yet Aotearoa (New Zealand).

This piece is based on an address given by the author to the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand.