I don’t view a fetus as morally equivalent to a human life. Other people disagree with that, and I respect that; this post is not about trying to convince those readers that I am right and they are wrong, or that they should feel ashamed of thinking the way they do. Actually, it’s an exploration of why the nuance in discussions about reproductive rights has been lost, and what we could do to reclaim that.
I do recognize a fetus as a symbol. As something which has potential, huge potential. And a wanted fetus, a fetus that a woman wants to carry for 40 weeks and then give birth to, has more moral weight to me than an unwanted fetus. The fetus is often likened to a parasite, which in a lot of senses it literally is, but it’s a morally loaded parasite; you can’t take a course of metronidazole and forget about it. This is a parasite we need to talk about, no matter how you feel about it.
Here’s the problem, for me, with the way in which the debate over reproductive rights is being framed. It focuses on abortion, not the larger issue of reproductive rights. The right to control the timing and spacing of your children. The right to access safer sex. The right to prevent pregnancy. The right to control your body and your future.
But, if we’re talking about abortion, let’s, for a moment.
Views on abortion seem to fall into two broad camps: It’s always unacceptable and morally wrong (usually because people believe that a fetus has personhood) or it’s always acceptable (and the jury seems a bit mixed on morals). That doesn’t leave room for a lot of nuance, something I note in particular whenever discussions about abortion and disability crop up.
And this is worrying, because the conversation about abortion and disability is one that needs to happen, and it’s not going to if we have no room for nuance in this discussion. Someone who believes that abortion is always unacceptable loads it with their own moral issues, while someone who believes that it is always acceptable may in fact feel some moral qualms, but think that it’s more important to support abortion than it is to explore those qualms.
That’s not a good way to think. You can discuss the fact that you have qualms about the morality of abortion in some circumstances without actively working against reproductive rights and freedoms. You can identify as pro-choice and still think that there are some settings in which abortion is complicated. Hell, you can identify situations in which you personally think that abortion should not happen, even though you might not take the next step and work to prevent other women from exercising choice in those situations. There’s a difference between thought, discussion, and action, people. The fact that I think that aborting a baby with Down’s Syndrome is problematic doesn’t mean that I think there should be a law against it.
Because, abortion for disability? It’s a problem.
I support the right to choose abortion if you feel that it is right for you and your circumstances. I do not place limitations on when that abortion should occur. I think that you should have the right to a safe, legal, compassionate abortion and that you are not obligated to tell anybody why you are choosing abortion. You should not be obligated to tell your parents, if you are a teenager and you do not feel safe talking to your parents. It’s your choice. If you want me to drive you or hold your hand or bring you soup afterwards, I’ll be there.
But, if we’re going to talk about abortion for disability, I am going to speak up. Because abortion in general, in the abstract, for people who are pro-choice, it’s centered around women’s bodies and autonomy. And that’s something I can support. But when we start discussing abortion for disability, you’re invoking another kind of body.
You’re invoking a disabled body. And you’re saying that disabled bodies shouldn’t be alive. Shouldn’t have the right to live. That people with disabilities are burdens. That people with disabilities are too hard for parents to deal with. That it is acceptable to abort if you don’t think that your baby will meet your standards of ability. And, dare I say it, perfection? You’re also making value judgments about different kinds of disabilities; saying that disability is objectively bad, and some disabilities are worse than others. Disability-as-tragedy. Disability-as-horrible-burden.
It’s important to make a distinction at this juncture. If a fetus is unlikely to survive to full term, that is not a disabled body, and I am not questioning the right to abort if a fetus has died in the womb, or is likely to do so. Or if it is possible to carry to term, but the baby will die shortly after birth. Likewise, if carrying a fetus threatens the life of the mother, whether or not the fetus has disabilities, she absolutely has the prerogative to terminate and I have no moral qualms about that.
But when a prenatal screening identifies disabilities (or the potential for disability, which I will get to in a moment) and a mother decides to abort, there’s a value judgment going on there. It’s not a judgment about whether or not abortion is acceptable, it’s a judgment about whether or not disability is acceptable. When you abort for disability, or suggest that there are no moral complexities involved when a previously wanted fetus is aborted because screening reveals disabilities, this is a consequence of ableism.
And let’s talk about the implications of prenatal screening. Prenatal screening is often overapplied, and it can be wrong. Which means that when people abort for disability, they may literally be aborting because there is a possibility of a disability, not because disabilities are actually present. That should cause some moral qualms. No matter who you are.
But the complexity doesn’t stop here. The situation is not as simple as “aborting for disability is wrong and an ableist choice, the end.” Because we live in an ableist society. And there are very real barriers to access for some people with disabilities, and for some parents of disabled children. Children with mental illness who have to be jailed to get help, for example, because their parents cannot access services they need. Parents who are forced to institutionalize their children because they are unable to care for them. Older parents who may be worried about dependent adult children.
This is not simple. This is why we need to have this conversation, because we need to promote informed consent. Doctors need to know that it is not ok to frame disability as a tragedy, that they need to provide expecting parents with information and resources which they can use to make an informed decision. People with disabilities need to know that they can be parents, if they want to, and darn good ones too. People with disabilities also need to know that their lives and their bodies have value.
Can we admit that there is nuance? Can we have this conversation? Can we not make this black and white?