In Glossip v. Gross, the United States Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the use of a lethal injection drug that might not prevent pain violates the Constitutional prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Last week,  Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, found that it doesn’t because hey, lots of people die painful deaths. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Our decisions in this area have been animated in part by the recognition that because it is settled that capital punishment is constitutional, “[i]t necessarily follows that there must be a [constitutional] means of carrying it out.” And because some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, we have held that the Constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain. After all, while most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune. Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.

Pro-lifers, does this argument sound familiar? It should. It’s the pro-execution equivalent of “over half of pregnancies end in miscarriage, so who really cares about killing an embryo?” It’s wrong in both instances, for the obvious reason that not everything that happens naturally is OK to do to another person. Everyone dies, one way or another, but we still have a responsibility not to deliberately or recklessly take their lives. Everyone experiences pain, but it’s wrong to be cruel. Everyone’s life ends, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter how.

A new meta-analysis published in PLOS Medicine provides more information on the link between intimate partner violence and abortion. You can read the entire analysis online, but this post at WECARE summarizes some of the main points, from the point of view of people working to reduce abortions.

1) Intimate partner violence, including history of rape, sexual assault, contraception sabotage, and coerced decision-making, was associated with abortion.   Unfortunately with the limited data available to the authors, it was not possible to ascertain the typical timing of exposure to violence relative to abortion. However, it is likely that various patterns exist, with violence both preceding and following abortion in many victims’ lives. Escalation of violence after the procedure is a strong possibility, particularly when partners are against the abortion.In a high quality study by Fisher and colleagues (2005) published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the authors reported that women presenting for a third abortion were over 2.5 times more likely to have a history of physical or sexual violence than women presenting for their first.

2) Women in violent relationships were more likely to have concealed their abortion from partners compared to women who were not victims of violence. Women likely believed they could not continue the pregnancy and were afraid of the abusive partner’s behavior if the abortion had been revealed. Many women in abusive relationships may feel they have to abort, because they are trying to free themselves from the relationship, they do not want to bring a child into a home with violence, and/or they do not believe they have the emotional energy to go through a pregnancy and raise a child, among other reasons. With sensitive, appropriate pre-abortion counseling, women in abusive relationships can be identified and safely assisted out of the violent, dangerous situation and helped to continue their pregnancies if desired. Without sensitive, substantive care, abortion is often perceived as the only option available.

3) Women welcomed the opportunity to disclose IPV and to be offered help. Women who present at abortion clinics are often at a point where they are quite receptive to help, and if screening and intervention do not occur, countless women will continue their lives feeling trapped and afraid in a violent relationship. If the abortion take place, then there is a high probability that they will suffer psychological consequences as a result that further compound a life marked by significant suffering. Numerous studies from the peer-reviewed literature have documented the fact that women, who feel pressured by partners, abortion counselors, other people in their lives, and/or by life circumstances, are more likely to experience post-abortion mental health problems.

The study focused on women having abortions, but the findings also have obvious implications for crisis pregnancy centers.

(Thanks to Consistent Life for the tip.)

Recently, Jezebel published an article titled, “Church Saves Fetus with Downs, Everyone Lives Happily Ever After.” I find this article’s perspective to be perverse. I feel that its cynical tone represents yet *another* example of the mainstream pro choice movement shamelessly *using* the disabled to promote its agenda. (The mainstream pro-life movement does this as well, though in different ways.) Presumably, the woman/parents in question went to her/their priest for help. The mother and her partner decided to follow the priest’s advice and give their child up for adoption. According to Jezebel,the priest’s advice/actions amounted to this:

Here’s a heartwarming story about a Reverend who learned of a young couple planning to abort because their child, if carried to term, would have Down syndrome. “But abortion is sin!” the pastor said (we’re paraphrasing). “Let me pressure you into carrying to term by hastily crowdsourcing an adoptive family!”

Here’s the thing: If you go talk to your spiritual leader about terminating a pregnancy, there’s a good chance that he or she opposes abortion and will try to dissuade you from having one. (Not that all religious leaders feel that way, but many do.) The woman in the case was legally free to choose an abortion, and she decided not to do that. She was free to refuse the priest’s offer, and she accepted it. The fact that the parents involved were free to reject his suggestion isn’t enough for Katie Baker. Perhaps the most sanctimonious part of the post read:

So many mistreated babies and kids with Downs live terrible lives. Instead of throwing resources at a nonviable fetus, why can’t the church help children with Down syndrome that are already alive? Because anti-abortion folks care more about fetuses with fairytale narratives than actual babies.

I deeply resent Baker’s use of the story to imply that opposing the abortion of disabled fetuses indicates a lack of concern for other disabled children, and her assertion that finding a home for a disabled fetus amounts to nothing more than a “feel good” story.” This is demeaning to anyone who is living with a disability and to everyone who has chosen to bear such a child. Incidentally, how many children with Down Syndrome have you adopted, Katie Baker?

Many of the comments on this article are disturbing, as well. For instance, one person wrote:

As good Christers, we realized that we couldn’t abort this fucked-up child we no longer want. Which, obviously, means that Jesus wants us to mail it to someone and then try again for one that will look good on our Christmas cards. Have a blessed day!” 7/10/13 4:39pm

This comment makes me want to use profanity. People with disabilities are not “fucked up.” As a representative of our ableist culture, however, the commenter certainly is. Given a choice between being him/her and being a person with Down Syndrome, I’d choose the latter any day.

Another comment was more restrained, but no less ableist:

Great, I’m happy this couple found a way to deal with their singular situation, but that does not mean this sort of thing is a viable way to solve the problem of unwanted and/or non-viable fetuses. What happened to all the “discarded” families that were not chosen? Did they run out and adopt a different DS baby? 7/10/13 4:21pm

I can’t help but suspect that the distinction this commenter draws between “unwanted” and “non-viable” indicates a conflation of disability and death. Ie, a 23-week old fetus without a disability is “unwanted.” A 23-week-old fetus with a disability is “non-viable.” Both can be aborted, but the latter fetus “wasn’t viable” anyway. (Despite the fact that there are plenty of former “non-viable fetuses” with Down Syndrome walking around.) This kind of conflation may make some people feel better about aborting, but it is not based on science.

After I posted my perspective on Jezebel’s Facebook page, I noticed the following statement placed above the article:


[Note: According to the Washington Times, the Rev. reached out to a couple he heard was planning to abort; they hadn’t considered adoption before and his offer was unsolicited. So the Facebook message isn’t exactly truthful.]

There is nothing in the Washington Times article contradicting the implication that the parents went to the priest for advice and/or solace. Many parents dealing with a prenatal diagnosis do so, whether they choose to terminate or carry to term. Maybe “reached out” means ‘the priest heard about the couple’s plans from his secretary and contacted the couple,” OR, more likely, it means, ‘The devastated mother/parents went to their priest in their hour of need, and told him that they were considering abortion. The priest *reached out* to them and offered to find an adoptive home.’ I suppose that the “truth” behind that part of that situation depends on how one interprets the phrase “reached out.” IRREGARDLESS, Ableism is Ableism. No disability advocate I know, most of whom are pro choice, would ever be “ok” with the tone of this article, because most people in our movement see the decision to birth or adopt a disabled child as something more than a “Christian reality TV series.” Furthermore, the author’s protestations of concern for disabled children are hollow unless she herself is doing more than what the church, or the most active parts of the disability rights movement, do for people with disabilities. Has she participated in ADAPT protests in support of the Community Choice Act? Is she overseeing the educational needs of disabled children in foster care? Has she adopted any children with special needs? Does she give a crap about any of those things beyond using them as an ideological cudgel? Again, I repeat my question: How many mistreated children with Down Syndome, for whom you profess to be concerned, have you adopted, Katie Baker??

If you were anywhere near social media last week, you probably saw lots of people change their profile picture to this:

Red square with light red/pink "equals" sign logo

to show support for allowing same-sex couples to legally marry.

In response, the Manhattan Declaration’s Facebook page posted this graphic with the note, “So, you want to talk about equality…”

Graphic featuring an "equals" sign superimposed over a human fetus in utero.

Now, some people shared the fetus graphic to express their support for both marriage equality and fetal humanity. That’s great! But anyone using it or thinking of using it should be aware of who the Manhattan Declaration is, and why they were circulating this graphic.

The Manhattan Declaration opposes civil marriage for same-sex couples. When they wrote, “So, you want to talk about equality…” they weren’t saying “let’s be even more inclusive!” They were saying “stop being for that form of equality and be for this form of equality instead.”

Unfortunately, that’s how a lot of people used it. I heard from people who are themselves in same-sex relationships, or changed their profile pictures to support friends and family who are. These are people who have been harmed or seen loved ones harmed by the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage. And for their expression of that pain and support, for their celebration of love, they got a fetus graphic flung at them by their opponents. One guess as to whether it made them more or less inclined to feel a sense of kinship with the child in the graphic.

As a practical matter, tying abortion opposition to same-sex marriage opposition alienates an increasingly large segment of the population, especially younger people. It’s a loser. And as an ethical matter, responding to heartfelt stories of loving relationships and discriminatory policies with “Never mind you, what about my cause?” That’s just mean.

Abortion opponents in the US are talking about the horrendous numbers of sex selective abortions in some Asian nations, especially India and China. Kristen Walker Hatten, for example, writes at LifeNews.com about the “horrifying, misogynistic third-world practice of gendercide.”

But she doesn’t offer any plans for transforming the cultural conditions that lead to such wide-scale abortion of baby girls, before or after birth, except to legally ban it. Never mind that in India, for example, there are already legal restrictions on sex selective abortion. And yet it continues, because violence against girls and women at all phases of life persists.

Walker Hatten concludes that if you don’t support a legal ban, you don’t care about the problem. She asks, “Where are the feminists?” when both prolife and prochoice feminists have been speaking up and agitating for years. She seems even less informed about feminists from within India, for example, who both support abortion rights and seek to abolish sex-selective abortion in conjunction with other lethal practices against girls and women. She would do well to familiarize herself with Rita Banerji of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, for one.

Walker Hatten is also quite problematic when she speaks of gendercide as a specifically “third-world practice” that has spread into the US via immigrants. In the process, she trivializes or renders invisible and inaudible any resistance from within Asian countries to sex selective abortion. She simultaneously obscures the violence against women and girls that is also epidemic in the US culture and contributes to the incidence of abortion there and in many other countries, according to recent scientific literature.

Her argument, like that of many other US abortion opponents, draws, however intentionally or not, upon a centuries-old view of brown, non-Christian, “uncivilized,” “unenlightened” people as uniquely guilty of barbarities against women–and white Christians as their “civilized,” “emlightened” saviors from their misogyny. As if violence against women and girls was not a curse of all religions, cultures, and nations; how else is it that one in three females worldwide has been subjected to gender-based violence?

But her argument, like all too many arguments from US abortion opponents, doesn’t help to abolish female feticide. Such antiabortionists hold one part of humankind responsible while letting another part off the hook, or off too lightly. And their accusation that feminists don’t care cuts off the possibilities of cooperative action with feminists, whether prolife or prochoice, who do care profoundly, and in fact have been seeking and working for much deeper, more decisive solutions than a legal ban for a long time.

We agree with Walker Hatten, of course, that female feticide is horrifying and should be abolished. We also believe that unless prenatal lives are generally treated as if they have inherent value, it is much more difficult to make a case, whether legal, ethical, or cultural, against aborting one specific group of fetuses.

But we cannot accept her blanket accusations about feminist indifference or complicity, let alone the attitudes regarding race, religion, culture, and nationality that arguments like hers encode, intentionally or not. In fact, if we didn’t care about abolishing gendercide, why would we risk the wrath of the US antiabortion movement as such?

(Reprinted from the Fall 2012 Life Matters Journal. An earlier version, titled “What the First Wave of Feminism Can Teach the First Wave of Common Ground” appeared at RHRealityCheck.org on July 9, 2009.)

Feminists of the 1960s and 70s were hardly the first to address abortion. Their nineteenth and early twentieth century foremothers also took a strong, if–to many today—unexpectedly oppositional stance. Since at least the late 1980s, prochoicers and prolifers have repeatedly, heatedly disputed the precise content and meaning of this herstory. After over two decades of research and writing on this subject, I cannot agree with prochoicers who outright deny that early feminists opposed abortion, or who claim that this opposition was for now irrelevant or retrograde reasons. Nor can I side with abortion opponents who crudely invoke early feminists even as they defend policies that harm women, such as restricted access to family planning (pregnancy prevention) services.

So what did early feminists really say and do regarding abortion, and why?

While I cannot here do justice to the abundant, many-voiced early feminist literature on abortion, I can briefly outline a consensus shared by everyone from anarchist, freethinking “free lovers” to Women’s Christian Temperance Union members. For documentation of primary and secondary sources, please consult the book I coedited with Rachel MacNair and Linda Naranjo-Huebl, ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today: Second Expanded Edition (FNSA/Xlibris, 2005), as well as my article “Activism Through the Centuries” in Consistently Opposing Killing, edited by Rachel MacNair and Stephen Zunes (Praeger, 2008).

Like some who identify as feminists today, early feminists opposed abortion out of a belief that life began at conception and acquired human rights at that point. The context of this belief was something parallel to a present-day consistent life ethic. Early feminists’ concern for prenatal lives was hardly single-issue. It was interwoven with their robust advocacy for women, especially their defense of women’s nonabortion reproductive rights, and for already-born children. It was hardly unrelated to their challenges against racism, classism, imperialism, the death penalty and war and (in many cases) their promotion of animal welfare and practice of vegetarianism.

Early feminists did not oppose abortion simply in deference to its illegality. They nonviolently challenged many quite legal practices, such as the denial of women’s right to vote, marital rape and domestic violence, and bans on the open discussion and provision of family planning. Early feminists were deeply concerned about the danger to women’s lives from doubly unsafe procedures. At the same time, they spoke about any abortion that killed a woman as a taking of two lives, not one.

Early feminists demanded, and themselves created, greater social supports for pregnant and parenting women and their children. Single mothers and their children were ruthlessly denied food, clothing, shelter, and health care on the grounds that this was aiding and abetting “immorality.” Many single mothers could not survive without going into prostitution. Married mothers, too, struggled in isolation with such difficulties as domestic violence and economic insecurity. If they were middle or upper class, they faced enforced economic dependence; if working class, toxin-riddled, unsafe jobs that failed to pay living wages or allow for healthy child care practices. As happens today, pious rhetoric about the sacredness of marriage, home, and family frequently obscured these difficulties and blocked effective solutions.

Early feminists squarely held men responsible for any children they conceived, inside or outside marriage. They called men to responsibility in an even more radical way, starting with antislavery documentation of sexual and reproductive outrages that white men committed against African American women and children. As Matilda Joslyn Gage stated, no “subject lies deeper down into woman’s wrongs” than “the denial of the right to herself.”

Although this might seem very strange to today’s prochoicers, when early feminists spoke of a woman’s “right to herself” or “right over her own body,” for them this did not include a right to abortion. It did encompass many measures that would empower women to prevent unintended pregnancies, abortions, and cases of difficult motherhood. Woman’s right to her own body unquestionably meant her right to choose whether, when, and with whom she wished to have penis-vagina sex and thus face the possibility of conception. In other words, it meant freedom from rape, inside and outside of marriage—at a time when the very notion of marital rape was laughed at, even more than it is today. Despite the prevailing cultural belief that “virtuous” women should remain ignorant, feminists also insisted upon thorough sexual/reproductive health education as part of woman’s body-right.

Against widespread contempt for “old maids” like Susan B. Anthony, early feminists defended women’s right and ability to choose a generative singlehood. Although voluntary pregnancy prevention was cast and abhorred as some monstrously wicked, selfish shirking of maternal duty, many early feminists stood up for women’s liberty to use contraceptives and even resort to “Dianaism,” or sexual practices other than penis-vagina intercourse. In a time when women were reviled or pitied even more than they are today for not marrying men, a number of women’s rights activists openly chose “Boston marriages,” or committed same-sex domestic partnerships, or at the very least warmly supported their friends and colleagues who made this choice.

Could the herstory of early feminists on abortion still mean something for today’s abortion debate–other than more pointless, unproductive argument that leaves real-life women and children, born and unborn, out in the cold? Despite all the bickering I have heard and despaired over, I dare to hope so. I believe that this herstory holds two-at least two–big lessons for the present time.

First, many—not all, but many—prochoicers and prolifers alike can validly claim these pioneering feminists as foremothers. Substantial numbers on both “sides” share a consciousness of women’s and already-born children’s rights arising from shared historical sources. Second, if people from both “sides” share this consciousness, they can together contemplate the early feminist analysis of causes and solutions for unintended pregnancy and abortion. They can ask: How does this analysis fit and no longer fit the present? To what particular collective as well as individual responsibilities does it invite us?

What if a strong prochoice-prolife coalition demanded a toxin-free environment, a better child support enforcement system, a living wage, paid family leave, and genuinely universal health care, including a full choice of voluntary family planning methods, prompt access to quality prenatal care, and drug rehabilitation for those who need it? What if we redesigned schools, workplaces, places of recreation, and religious facilities to be truly family-friendly, to all kinds of families?

In regard to abortion itself, today’s prolifers and prochoicers obviously draw the parameters of a woman’s body-right differently. For many prolifers, pregnancy interconnects two equally valuable bodies and lives. For many prochoicers, pregnancy is a matter of one body and life, the woman’s, and/or perhaps a fully realized life nurturing a potential life inside of herself. But why can’t both “sides” at least cooperate on defending a woman’s body-right before conception?

Comprehensive sex education already enjoys a broad base of public support. It can incorporate strong messages of male responsibility and nonviolence towards women and children, as well as teaching young women the assertiveness and self-respect vital to making positive decisions about their bodies and lives.

And rooted as it is basic rights of health, speech, association, religion, and privacy—freedom of conscience in pregnancy prevention is another potentially large area of common ground. This includes the right to personally choose, or not choose, from among the various reversible or permanent contraceptive methods, fertility awareness/natural family planning, abstinence/celibacy, and sexual practices other than penis-vagina sex, whether in the context of straight or LGBT relationships. I’m not one of them, but I hope people with religious or ethical objections to any of these practices can agree that it is not government’s place to decide specifically how any of us do or do not exercise this right—even if government is responsible for ensuring that everyone can exercise it freely.

At the same time, I would like skeptical prochoicers to consider that prolifers may already be more supportive of woman’s body-right than expected. I personally have advocated this right for years, and know other prolifers who have done the same. We are not isolated cases—as shown by the appeal of All Our Lives, a nonprofit that I cofounded with Jen Roth. This nonprofit organization describes itself as “pro every life” and “pro nonviolent sexual and reproductive choices.”

If prolifers and prochoicers both take up and work steadily on these shared reproductive justice responsibilities, both at the collective and individual levels: what will our descendants be talking about and doing in a century or two? What places will unintended pregnancy and abortion have and not have in their society? I for one would love to know! Surely such a cooperative effort will both expand women’s choices and protect the lives of the unborn. And—even though we cannot be sure of what they would think—wouldn’t our feminist foremothers be proud of us, at long last?

RH Reality Check has published yet another article extolling abortion in the case of fetal disability. (I use the word extoll because these articles portray fetal disability as a a particularly important reason for pro choice policies. By using disability in this manner, disability-selective abortion is extolled-it is portrayed as something positive that needs to be preserved). Many of us at All Our Lives follow the site, and our own Mary Krane Derr has written articles for them in the past. Yet, we have noticed a pernicious pattern of ableism that permeates the site. By this I mean that the perspectives of the disabled community and issues facing that community are rarely acknowledged. Ablebodied perspectives dominate, and abortion is often cited as an important tool for the prevention of disability. Recently, the site published an article entitled, Disability, Prenatal Testing, and the Case for Moral, Compassionate Abortion.” Despite the editors eventual decision to allow a disability advocate to respond to this article, I feel that a sense of tokenism overshadows that decision and that further analysis is necessary.

The piece is so full of ableist preconceptions and misinformation that it is impossible to address them all in a single blog post. Therefore, I have decided to complete a series responding to the issues she addresses. 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. Moreover, my approach to this issue reflects personal beliefs and experiences that not every All Our Lives board member shares. While we are united in our desire to see such abortions end, we may not all take the same approach to addressing this issue. Finally, before I begin I will briefly address the pain that parents who interrupt pregnancies impacted by a prenatal diagnosis may feel when reading a disability rights analysis of such decisions.

A Brooding Conflict

The intensely personal, private and painful nature of abortion for fetal anomaly makes this subject difficult to address. Many pregnancies terminated for reasons of fetal anomaly were wanted. These parents may feel that they did not “terminate a pregnancy,” but released their child’s spirit and/or saved him or her from a lifetime of suffering. These parents were motivated by feelings of love. Hence, it is extremely painful for these individuals to hear that their agonizing choice was at least partially influenced by ableism. Nevertheless, I do not feel that this is something disability advocates can avoid when discussing the social pressures that contribute to disability-selective abortion. As Amy Sequentia, a nonverbal autistic rights advocate notes, “We don’t hate parents but we are not going anywhere. We will continue to talk and write about the need for acceptance – ours and their children’s. Autistic children are part of the autistic community. And we will point out the flaws in the autism “advocacy” organizations – they never invite us when talking publicly about autism.” Similarly, any discussion of reproductive rights and disability is going to involve difficult discussions about ableism, and that is going to come up in reference to the painful decisions parents make to terminate wanted pregnancies. Hence, I want to invite everyone reading this to try and do so with compassion for themselves and for the moral challenges we all face as we undergo the difficult experience of being human.

Logical Inconsistency

Women have abortions for a plethora of reasons, only one of which is fetal disability. Sierra has argued that advocates’ objections to disability-selective abortion conflate fetuses with born children, yet she has chosen to specify these abortions as specifically “moral and compassionate,” a distinction which depends upon her perceptions of people who are alive right now. In order to argue that preventing someone’s birth is compassionate, one must make judgments about the experiences of people who are leading lives similar to that which the fetus is expected to lead. One must conclude that these experiences are sufficiently horrific to make not being born preferable to living that life. Hence, specifying those particular abortions as compassionate while not categorizing the moral nature of other abortions DOES send the message that people with disabilities are better off not being born. Without such judgments, the decision making process related to these abortions could not take place.

Tone:

Sierra has a profoundly condescending tone toward her audience. She begins the article by saying:

“Note: If the headline didn’t already clue you in, this is controversial subject matter. If you come away from this article thinking that I advocate genocide of a disabled population or the coercion of women pregnant with disabled fetuses into abortion, that I hate disabled people or think that Down syndrome people don’t deserve to live, you have failed to understand my point. Please walk away from the computer, breathe deeply, and start again from the beginning… if you’re already angry, please stop reading and go get yourself a nice cappuccino. Have a beautiful day. And then, if you still really want to read this, take frequent breaks to punch a pillow with a “hello, my name is Sierra” badge stuck to it.”

This statement a) trivializes legitimate objections to her argument, b) insults the maturity of those who hold such objections by suggesting that we are incapable of responding to her article in a calm manner, c) insults the intelligence of her readers. (Really, this is controversial subject matter? I totally didn’t know that: thanks for telling me!)The pseudo-levity of her remarks attempts to make righteous indignation the stuff of humor. Reading that paragraph is like being talked-down to by a preschool teacher: “Oh, honey, these issues are just too complicated for your little mind to understand. Here, have a cookie.”

Token “Support”/Ahistoricism

Sierra goes on to write, “The disability rights movement is hugely important and I support it. It’s especially vital for individuals with mental illnesses, who are often judged as “not really disabled” because there’s nothing visibly wrong with them. Disabled people have a long history of being medically abused, used as test subjects without consent, being abandoned or forced to live in squalor, and being generally reviled, disrespected and treated like freaks. 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…” Sierra’s statement ignores the fact that the mistreatments she attributes to the past still go on today. (Perhaps her use of the term “rectify” in the present tense was meant to be an acknowledgement of this fact, however, her statement still puts the burden of social change squarely on the shoulders of the disability rights movement. It fails to acknowledge or reflect an understanding of the fact that disability rights impact everyone and, thus, should be everybody’s fight.) Moreover, her proceeding argument completely ignores the fact that these problems are caused by society, not by being disabled. If those abuses were to cease, people with disabilities could go on being disabled without their disabilities being an impediment to their well being, because the world would be a hospitable place for people of all abilities.

Sierra also seems to ascribe a disproportionate amount of historical and epistemological importance to her article. Shortly before launching into a discussion of “fetishism,” she writes, “Okay, now let’s go on (assuming you’re not already plotting my demise)…” 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.” Disabled people have always dealt with the influence of such attitudes, whether they manifested in Plato’s suggestion that the state control procreation, or the early eugenicists’ efforts to sterilize those they viewed as disabled. Statements of approval for that effort have been percolating in our collective consciousness since time began. Moreover, while Sierra may not consciously support eugenics, she is accepting the ableist ideas upon which this movement was based. Ie, the fact that Sierra doesn’t want to resurrect the original eugenics movement and force people to be sterilized or euthanized against their will has no bearing on the existence of this phenomenon. Eugenic ideas still exist because ableism does, not because people who hold those ideas are part of an evil conspiracy.

The tendency of geuninely good people to embrace ableist ideas can be seen in the plethora of respected leaders who supported the original eugenics movement. Plato, Oliver Wendel Holmes, WEB DuBois, and even Helen Keller (Pernick, 103) supported eugenic philosophies. Sierra’s argument is also not unique in contemporary discourse. Contemporary articles and statements in support of disability-selective abortion have been made by Joycelyn Elders (Freedom of Choice Act of 1989: Hearings before the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred First Contress, second session on S. 1912, to protect the reproductive rights of women, and other purposes, March 27 and May 23, 1990, Reprints from the collection of the University of Michigan Library, pg. 199). Virginia Ironside, Claire Raynor, Peter Singer, Julian Savulescu, and a host of other individuals. Sierra’s argument simply isn’t the theoretical breakthrough that she seems to think it is.

Sierra attempts to distance her article from its connotations of ableism by stating: “I believe that it is possible and desirable to respect disabled people while still working to eliminate genetic disorders so that children who might have had Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis (or any other disease) have a chance to be born without them. I believe that abortion of a disabled fetus can be a compassionate choice made for morally sound reasons, and does not at all conflict with the respect due to disabled people. I am firmly pro-choice, and I believe strongly that the wellbeing of all born persons in a family is paramount before considering the needs of a fetus. My position is that fetuses are incapable of being self-aware and therefore cannot experience suffering the way born persons do. The prevention of suffering is central to my moral beliefs.”

In short, Sierra is saying, “I’m not an ableist person.” This, however, ignores the systemic phenomenon of ableism by which her view of disability is impacted. Perhaps part of Sierra’s ignorance can be attributed to the so-called “hierarchy of oppression” that hinders the discussion of ableism and pits issues of disability against those related to other minority groups. It’s likely that people who attend diversity assemblies at their schools are never told that diversity includes disability. While race, gender, religion and sexual orientation are discussed, disability is rarely, if ever, addressed. 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. Despite Sierra’s attempt to distance “the prevention of suffering” from the oppression of disabled individuals, an examination of history reveals that this sentiment was shared by many eugenics supporters, many of whom felt sympathy for individuals who they felt were leading inferior lives. Even the US Eugenics Records Office, in their 1914 recommendations for the prevention of disability, argued:

“With euthanasia, as in the case of polygamy, an effective eugenical agency would be purchased at altogether too dear a moral price. Any individual once born should, in the opinion of the committee, be given every opportunity and aid for developing into a decent adulthood of maximum usefulness and happiness. Preventing the procreation of defectives rather than destroying them before birth, or in infancy, or in the later periods of life, must be the aim of modern eugenics.”

Like Sierra, the people who wrote this report had feelings of charity towards disabled individuals. They did not recognize a connection between their efforts to prevent such births and the oppression of disabled people. Similarly, Alexander Grahm Bell tutored many deaf people in lip reading and elocution, but his attempts to “integrate deaf people into society” were partially motivated by his desire to keep deaf couples from meeting, forming relationships, and procreating. In fact, Bell’s own words in support of mainstreaming the deaf closely mirror Sierra’s acknowledgement of the abuse disabled people have historically experienced. In 1883, Bell gave an address to the National Academy of Science in which he stated that laws forbidding the intermarriage of deaf individuals were not enough. Rather, the integration of deaf individuals and the subsequent dissolution of deaf communities was paramount. In support of this solution, Bell argued:

“Whatever the cause, it is certainly the case that adult deaf-mutes are sometimes hampered by the instinctive prejudices of hearing person with whom they desire to have business or social relations. Many persons have the idea that they are dangerous, morose, ill-tempered, etc. A deaf person is sometimes looked upon as a monstrosity to be stared at and avoided (Shapiro, 97).”

Because of his strong language in support of integration, Bell was regarded as a champion of the deaf, but his influence lead to a moratorium on the teaching of ASL. (Shapiro, 94-98). Like Sierra, Bell saw himself as a “supporter” of the disability rights movement. Looking for the cause of antipathy toward the disabled within his own ideology never occurred to him. He never physically harmed a deaf person, and he was probably fond of the deaf students he worked with. I’m sure that some of those students benefited from his instruction, but because he nurtured what seemed to him to be the self-evident belief that people were better off not being born deaf, he harmed the deaf community.

Sierra has embraced the same fallacy. It is not possible to support the elimination of something without acceding to its inherent inferiority. The belief that the prevention of disability via selective reproduction has a special moral status is eugenic thought, even if that philosophy isn’t forced unto others via legal means. One cannot be a legitimate ally and suggest that we ought not to be born as we are. That position does, in fact “conflict with the respect due to disabled people.” It strips us of our identity and boxes us into a caricature of personal tragedy.

Privileged Assumptions

In between insulting her audience and suggesting that her detractors head to the nearest Starbucks, 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. As a person with Nonverbal Learning Disorder, I think that some of the social cues that I have difficulty picking up on are bizarre, immoral and destructive. I do not feel that being born non-disabled and growing up to accept these practices as “normal” would have benefited me. 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. A colleague of mine expressed this sentiment well when he said, “Without dwarfism, there is no Joe.”

Perhaps Sierra’s tone and logical inconsistency are related to her own unacknowledged privilege. Despite Sierra’s experience of childhood poverty, she does not seem to recognize that like affluence, able-bodied-ness is a privileged status subject to social influences. 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. She locates the problem of disability oppression within disabled bodies themselves rather than in the attitudes of our society. (Moreover, despite her comparison of disability to the poverty she experienced, I don’t see her using that circumstance to defend “moral and compassionate” abortion for would-be indigent fetuses…)

The same issue of privilege impacts conversations about ableism and selective abortion. Most people defending such abortions have had the privilege of assuming that able-bodied-ness is the state against which the experience of embodiment will be measured. Telling these people that able-bodied and disabled are social constructs conflicts with everything they have been taught to believe. Moreover, like racism, people tend to define ableism as a personality flaw rather than a systemic phenomenon that drives oppression. Alan B. Johnson expresses this difference succinctly in Privilege, Power and Difference when he writes: “Racist isn’t another word for ‘bad white people,’ just as patriarchy isn’t a bit of nasty code for ‘men.’ Oppression and dominance name social realities that we can participate in without being oppressive or dominating people (Johnson, 10).” This is also true of ableism. It’s not that Sierra, the editors of RH Reality Check, or parents who terminate pregnancies impacted by disability are bad people, but they are impacted by an oppressive system that defines able-bodiedness as the norm and encourages the elimination of characteristics that deviate from that state (disability). Hence, it is possible for them to behave according to ableist preconceptions without harboring malice toward disabled individuals. This is something that Sierrra fails to recognize.

As shown in the comment section, the author of the original article has written a response to my critique. It can be found here.

Because of the London Family Planning Summit, the British newspaper Financial Times has just published a special report on sexual and reproductive health.

And we get a little mention in at least the print and .pdf versions–see page 6, under the “North America” heading (although we would have preferred “Global.”) We join nearly 1300 other civil society organizations, many from the Two Thirds World, who agree that “Family Planning Saves Lives.”

You can also see the full list of endorsers here.

We are not specifically mentioned, but we are also one of the 200-plus organizational members of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, whose ad appears on page 1 of the Financial Times report.

The ad mentions “unsafe abortion” as one consequence of lacking contraceptive access. All abortions are unsafe for unborn children. Some are maternally unsafe as well.

Wonder if any other endorsers of the civil society declaration would agree with us.

Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant living in Indiana, was shamed and abandoned by her boyfriend when she told him she was pregnant. She became so despondent that she attempted suicide by eating rat poison. Because friends and medical personnel intervened, she survived, and tried to make sure that her daughter, whom she named Angel, did too. Unfortunately Angel died in her arms a few days after birth. Bei Bei Shuai was then charged and imprisoned for feticide and murder. She recently lost her appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court to have the charges dropped.

Today Shots, the health blog of National Public Radio, reports that Bei Bei Shuai’s bail has been set at $50,000, a daunting amount, especially for someone without money. According to Shots:

Meanwhile, the groups now fighting to have women spared from prosecution under fetal homicide laws are turning to those who advocated for them in the first place — anti-abortion groups. Those groups, however, have been uncharacteristically quiet. Neither of two of the more outspoken groups; the National Right to Life Committee nor the Susan B. Anthony List, would comment on the issue.

My feedback to Shots:

I serve on the board of a prolife group, All Our Lives (http://www.allourlives.org), that *is* taking a stand for women like Bei Bei Shuai and Christine Taylor. We have sent a letter of support to Bei Bei Shuai and signed onto National Advocates for Pregnant Women’s amicus brief in the Alabama Kimbrough/Ankrom case, which is about prosecuting pregnant women who use substances.

We do not believe that prosecuting and scapegoating women for substance use/abuse or fetal homicide is the way to bring about respect and support for both of the inestimably valuable lives, the mother’s and the baby’s, in each and every pregnancy. In fact, such criminalization can pressure women into having abortions.

How about instead guaranteeing that every woman-with-child can access, and promptly,  all the health and social services, such as substance abuse treatment and mental health care, necessary to give life and health to *both*?

I also wonder why the Susan B. Anthony List, if it wants to genuinely follow in Anthony’s footsteps, would stay quiet about these criminalization cases. After all, during the late 1860s, Susan B. Anthony advocated strongly for Hester Vaughan, a penniless immigrant woman impregnated and then brutally abandoned and turned into the streets by her employer. Vaughan was then imprisoned and sentenced to death when her baby died shortly after she gave birth in an unheated garret in wintertime. Because Anthony and other feminists–including Dr. Charlotte Denman Lozier, for whom the SBA LIST has named its new public policy wing–rallied to Vaughan’s aid, Vaughan was pardoned and helped back to her home in England.

Anthony and her compatriots opposed abortion and infanticide, yes–they even used the terms interchangeably–and they worked vigorously to alleviate the root causes of these practices, through legislation and other means, such as calling men to sexual and reproductive accountability and promoting voluntary motherhood. But they did not want pregnant and postpartum women to be criminalized. Their stance was of its time, and yet it still has something to teach ours.

The organization Liberty Counsel has its own amicus brief in support of Alabama’s drive to criminally prosecute pregnant women who use substances.

Why? On the grounds that the unborn child is a full-fledged human being.

Liberty Counsel amasses historical evidence that the law has treated unborn children as human beings like any other.

But its brief does nothing to assess whether in the real world, the criminal prosecutions in Alabama actually foster the treatment of unborn children–not to mention their mothers!–as full-fledged human beings.

Liberty Counsel thus takes an enormous and unwarranted leap from the claim of fetal humanity to a position that *threatens* fetal and female lives, health, wellbeing, and rights.

Any such claim needs to have advocacy of robust, generous, nonpunitive assistance with abortion alternatives written right into it, or it has no validity whatsoever.

In the case of pregnant women who abuse substances and their fetuses, that means immediately accessible, free/affordable, specialized, high quality drug treatment programs.

Liberty Counsel mentions nothing of the sort in the brief, or anywhere else.

It also invokes nineteenth century physicians and academics who opposed abortion, without mentioning or discussing the fair amount of misogyny mixed into their views.

The brief does quote the antiabortion views of one feminist doctor, Mary Dixon Jones. But it omits her connections to the women’s rights movement.

It says nothing of early feminists’ consensus on abortion. They defined it as unjust prenatal lifetaking that could not be opposed without simultaneously and throughly challenging its root causes, such as the denial of women’s sex education and family planning rights, and the criminalization of single mothers as sex offenders.

Small wonder that All Our Lives got behind the opposing brief, not Liberty Counsel’s!