A Woman’s Right to Choose vs. Disability Rights: When Your Own Ideologies Conflict

This post was supposed to be a continuation of my Organizing series, but this subject came up on Twitter, and my thoughts on the subject required more typing than I am willing to do with my thumbs!

CW: eugenics, abortion

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Saturday morning I was scrolling through Twitter while I decided whether or not go back to sleep (it was 4 am, can you blame me for debating?). Then I came upon this tweet by Dr. Elena M Chandler:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsNeedless to say, this kind of woke me up. I went back to the original tweet in this thread, and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It started with the tweet below:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsThis tweet links to an article by a woman explaining why she has no issues with the idea that she would abort a child with Down’s Syndrome. And the wheels started turning. My mind reeled that entire morning, and below are the thoughts that came forward.

Rights of the Individual – Mother vs. Child

One of the big arguments in the article above is that the decision to abort is the right of the woman bearing the child, not to be affected by a government. She states:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion. Nearsightedness? Being short? There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate. But in the end, the Constitution mandates — and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores — that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

And therein lies the big debate – is a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body – including abortion – trump the right to a disabled child to have a life?

The article argues that it does. The author believes that she should be able to choose whether or a child with Down Syndrome should live. That the decisions of Roe vs Wade, the defining court case in the arguments regarding abortion in the USA, mean she has the right to her own body.

The fact that, on the surface, I agree with the over-arching ideals that the author is espousing, does not mean I agree with her individual argument. Deciding to take a potential life SOLELY on the basis that they may have a cognitive problem is immoral. It is, to me, truly disgusting. And, make no mistake, it IS eugenics.

Eugenics: What Will It Cost?

This lovely little twitter argument about a woman’s rights to abort included some real interesting arguments. Disability Rights Activists rightfully bring up the “creepy, eugenics aspects” of this screening and resulting abortions. My favourite (for values of favourite that are highly sarcastic) was this gem:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js… I don’t even know how to respond to that gem. Thankfully, Dr. Chandler has my back and responded beautifully:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsThank you Dr. Chandler.

But this did lead me down an interesting Google rabbit hole. And in it, I found some very interesting thoughts. So let’s look at Eugenics, and figure out what it means. Francis Galton is the one to whom we can best trace the idea of Eugenics. He described the ideals of Eugenics in his “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims.” In this article, he defines eugenics as

… the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage. The improvement of the inborn qualities, or stock, of some one human population …

So, there is no mention of governments here. The ideas expressed in this article relate to traits, and the “betterment” of society by wiping out undesirable traits. He states:

Let us for a moment suppose that the practice of eugenics should hereafter raise the average quality of our nation to that of its better moiety at the present day, and consider the gain. The general tone of domestic, social, and political life would be higher. The race as a whole would be less foolish, less frivolous, less excitable, and politically more provident than now. Its demagogues who “played to the gallery” would play to a more sensible gallery than at present. We should be better fitted to fulfil (sic) our vast imperial opportunities. Lastly, men of an order of ability which is now very rare would become more frequent, because, the level out of which they rose would itself have risen.

In other words, get rid of the bad and the good will increase! While this seems a great ideal, the truth of the matter is that if we get rid of one negative trait, say the gene that results in Down’s Syndrome, there is no knowing what positive qualities will be lost along with it. Frank Stephens, a young man who has Down’s, sums up my argument beautifully:

This is what we would be giving up. Sure they face struggles, as do their care givers. And not everyone can handle the role of care giver, this is true. But there are options beyond abortion – do the women who choose to abort even consider them?

Reconciling Feminism and Disability Rights

I am a feminist. I cannot understand how it is that we are in 2018, and women’s rights are still an issue. We know the morality of it. We know what is right, yet we still have MRAs (Men’s Rights Advocates) crying misandry whenever the discussion comes up. So-called “Pro-life” activists still picket Planned Parenthood because they firmly believe that women should be baby-makers, and that PP only ever does abortions for promiscuous women.

It’s all crap. Women and men should be equal. Planned Parenthood offers a TON of gynecological services to women who cannot afford the alternative. We should not be having these arguments, and yet…

You SHOULD be able to tell, from the paragraphs above, that I AM a feminist. I will fight for a girl’s right to wear a tank top in June when classrooms are sweltering, and they just want to no longer be overheated. I will fight for any woman’s right to the same job as any man can do. Or a trans woman’s right to exist.

And I will fight for the right of any woman to have an abortion.

“But what about your arguments about eugenics above?”

I’m glad you asked that, Billie,  because I’m about to lay it out.

If you take the discussion of aborting children with Down’s Syndrome as an individual right, then one can hardly argue against it. A woman should have autonomy over her body. Even if that means aborting a child because it’s not the child you want. Is that selfish? Yes. Does typing those words make me uncomfortable? FUCKING right it does.

So the argument boiling in my brain is disability rights – a child’s right to the best possible life they can have – vs. a woman’s bodily autonomy. I have strong feelings on both.

If you came up to me today, and said “I am pregnant, I don’t want this baby. I’m going to abort.” I will ask if you want company when you go to make the appointment. I’m with you 100%.

If your reason is because you were raped, I’ll be there.

If your reason is because (like me) it will put your life at risk, with little chance of a healthy baby? I’ll put bells on.

If your reason is because you don’t want a child? I’ll bring a flamethrower to keep the Pro-lifers away.

But if you tell me that you want to abort because the baby has Down’s Syndrome? Then I have a problem.

Both sides of this argument have slippery slopes. We’re dancing on a precipice that has eugenics on one side and governments forcing brain-dead women who have a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order to be kept on life support because of an unborn child.

This is why I firmly believe that this is a societal problem, not an individual one. We CANNOT split the rights of the mother and the child. The idea that all choices are valid in terms of abortion necessarily accepts that people will decide to abort a child because of genetic issues – or even hair and eye colour. Ideas that hearken back to the days of Hitler, when the eugenics movement was widespread in the Western world.

In Julia Becker’s “North Dakota’s Ban Is a Bad Way to Stop Selective Abortion,” she follows the argument that I have made above. She states:

Until we learn how to value every human being based upon their identity as children, neighbors, friends, and siblings, as ones who exist in reciprocal relationships of love and care with others, we will continue to devalue every human being. A liberal democratic society is based upon an ideal of community and civic responsibility in which we care for the most vulnerable among us, in which we go out of our way to support individuals and their families not because of their potential economic productivity but because of their intrinsic worth.

Did you hear that in the back? The “ideal of community and civic responsibility” is a great goal to strive for. It brings to mind the idealistic future in Star Trek, where they have done away with commerce and humans are all treated the same. In fact, they even make the argument against eugenics in several episodes – the story of Khan being the most memorable. But for me, the big episode was the Next Generation’s “The Masterpiece Society,” in which the Enterprise is sent to aid a genetically-engineered society. Geordi LaForge, who was born blind, is the one to, along with Hannah Bates, a scientist from the planet, develop the technology that, of course, saves the day in the nick of time.

This episode makes the argument that I make above when discussing Eugenics – in ensuring that no child is born blind, the society had no need for Geordi’s visor technology, which turns out to be instrumental in how they solve the problem. It makes me wonder: if we, as a society, were to abort all fetuses with Down’s Syndrome, what would we lose? While having Down’s Syndrome does mean that, in our society, a fair amount of struggles for both the individual and their care givers, these individuals bring their own value and a unique and much-needed point of view to this society.

If we, like the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, were to accept people for what they bring to the table, for their strengths instead of their weaknesses, the result could be a lot happier society across the table. Idealistic, yes. But when you have goals, make them ones to strive for.

Its been said before, but is worth repeating – disability rights ARE women’s rights. If we make the world accepting of those of us with disabilities, then we also make it more accepting towards women, POC (people of colour), Muslims, Jews, and many other people who currently do not have the privileges given to the white hetero-cis-male Christian.  Celebrating diversity helps everyone.


How DOES one reconcile opposing ideologies?

In my case, I looked beyond the individual rights. The overall problem in both these cases is a society that is not set up to support either individual women OR the disabled. If we focus on the individual rights, we won’t solve the issue. We’d be fighting each other instead of the system that is causing the problems in the first place.

Instead, we need to focus on a society where EVERYONE is valued. You live and breathe? You have value! If everyone has value, and is accepted based on their strengths, then having a child with Down’s Syndrome (or other genetic disorders) would not be seen as a tragedy, but as much a cause for joy as any other child. Women would be in charge of their own bodies, and able to do what they think best.

In the end, all activism – whether disability rights, feminism, anti-fascism, black lives matter, or any other – are fighting for the same thing. We want all people treated like the hetero, Christian, white, cis-male. We need to focus on this better world and not fight each other.


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