Ableism In the Pro-Reproductive Rights Narrative (Again)

I have been struggling with this post for over a month. Every time I approach it, I shy away again. Because any post questioning pro-reproductive rights positions is a challenging one. It is assumed, no matter how nuanced and carefully structured the post is, to be a defense of anti-reproductive rights rhetoric. That’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is asking people to think about the way that pro-reproductive rights statements are framed, and, yes, to talk about ableism in the reproductive rights movement. Ableism is a problem from the pro and con sides, whether it’s the side arguing that abortion for disability is absolutely 100% unproblematic or the side holding up children with disabilities as precious angels put on Earth to teach us.

Before I begin, I’d like to restate that I am absolutely, firmly, unequivocally, in support of reproductive rights. Reproductive rights for the individual are absolutely a personal matter and one which I would never interfere with. However, I am concerned about certain structural aspects of reproductive rights discussions, and that is what I am addressing here today. In other words, talking about institutions, not individuals.

As many of my readers are no doubt aware, because it’s gotten a lot of press lately, Oklahoma recently passed some legislation to severely restrict reproductive rights. Of special concern is the requirement that before women receive abortions (for whatever reason, including for rape and incest or a medically indicated abortion), women must undergo an ultrasound and receive a graphic description of the fetus. Now, ultrasounds actually are medically necessary for safe abortions, but detailed descriptions of the fetus are not. This is a part of the bill which I am absolutely horrified by.

Another aspect of the bill is a section which, as I and many other commentators understand it, protects doctors from accusations of malpractice if they fail to disclose fetal diagnoses to parents. This is read as a great big victory by the anti-reproductive rights camp, which is apparently pro-doctors-lying-about-important-information if it will prevent expecting parents from aborting for disability. Naturally, the pro-reproductive rights camp is equally incensed because they are not pro-doctors-lying-about-important-information if it will prevent expecting parents from aborting for disability.

On almost every single feminist and pro-reproductive rights website I have seen discussing this particular clause of the legislation, the discussion has boiled down to: ‘Doctors will lie and not tell you your baby’s defective and you will have it and it will be disabled.




Deep breath.

Here’s why I am opposed to this section of the legislation, and it’s multipronged, so get ready. Prong one is that I believe that people need to be provided with as much information as possible about a given situation so that they can make informed choices based on all the available data. This means that if there is a fetal diagnosis, I think that a doctor needs to provide it, whether it is a genetic variation that means the pregnancy will probably not survive, or a heart anomaly that might require surgery after birth. I also think, however, that more than that needs to happen. Right now, the system is not very supportive of people who choose to carry pregnancies to term when there is a fetal diagnosis. It is often assumed that termination will be chosen.

People who receive a fetal diagnosis are provided with plenty of information about what it means for the pregnancy, but not a lot of information about what happens next, other than scaremongering about how much of a hardship it is to care for a disabled child. Lies about children with disabilities breaking up marriages. Horror stories. They are not provided with balanced and supportive information that informs them about how they could care for their child after the birth, the variance involved in diagnoses, the fact that sometimes a fetal diagnosis is wrong, that support is available. Despite best efforts on the part of the disability rights movement, many parents face a fetal diagnosis alone and terrified, and they never even get a chance to meet living people with the same condition; they’re told to terminate, not to research. Doctors tell parents of people like me that termination is the best option.

That’s not making an informed choice. That’s making a choice based on fear and misinformation, and it is wrong. I do not support that, and I do not think that anyone who supports reproductive rights should support that either. This is not decisionmaking, it’s ‘do what you’re told or you’ll get a defective baby.’

On to prong two: Not providing information about a fetal diagnosis can be dangerous for mother and child. There are some conditions which make a pregnancy high risk. Certain steps may need to be taken during the pregnancy to protect everyone involved, healthwise, and to prepare for the birth. If you are expecting a nondisabled child and you give birth to a child who needs immediate and critical medical attention, you are not going to be prepared. It is going to be traumatic. How do we know this? Because it happens every day; sometimes something isn’t diagnosed, sometimes complications during labor lead to issues requiring medical attention. It’s scary. Having information ahead of time to prepare? Makes it less scary.

Prong three, of course, is that doctors are required to take an oath to never do harm. Lying about a known fetal diagnosis would most definitely do harm to the parent and child. This law essentially violates the core ethics of medical practice.

Whether or not you think that aborting for disability is problematic, whether or not you think that abortion is wrong, whether or not you are troubled by narratives that suggest that abortion needs to be justified and certain kinds of abortions fit the bill, I hope you can agree that leaving people without critical information is wrong. It’s a wrong that could have real repercussions. For fertility, for the life of the child that will be born, for the health of the mother, for the stability of the family. People cannot make informed choices if they don’t have information, and a law basically stating that it’s ok to lie about critical medical information is, well. It’s wrong.

And so is saying that the biggest problem with this law is that expecting parents might not learn about their ‘defective’ children until it’s ‘too late.’