My My, How Perceptions Change: Disability and Who Is ‘Allowed’ To Have Children

I wrote recently about the substantial pressure I experience to have children. There’s something I left out of that post, though, and that’s what happens when disability gets added to the mix. There’s a reason for this: I felt that it deserved its own separate post. This is because decisions about having children are complicated by a factor of approximately 11 billion as soon as disability is factored into the discussion.

These are the facts. Women with disabilities have been repeatedly discouraged from having children, throughout history. People went to great lengths to ensure that disabled women did not reproduce, and that when they did, their children were taken away from them. Historically, women with disabilities weren’t considered marriage material, and single women risked having their children taken away by male guardians. Disabled women were locked up and hidden away from society, first at home and later in institutions.

As soon as the technology to prevent people from reproducing became available, it was abused to ensure that people with disabilities didn’t have children. Men and women were forcibly sterilised in scores, both within the framework of official government eugenics programs and on order of their family members, their ‘caregivers.’ Forcible sterilisation of people with disabilities persists to this day, with sterilisation being recommended as a routine procedure to family members placing people in institutions.

The social attitudes are clear: People with disabilities should not reproduce. Because they are incapable of having or caring for children, and if they have genetic disabilities, those disabilities might be passed on. This despite the fact that there is ample evidence to the contrary; disabled parents are out and about, parenting, all over the world. Disabled women and men are no better or worse parents than nondisabled people. They’re just human beings, like everyone else. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they fuck up, but it has nothing to do with their disabilities.

When people pester me about children and I explain that having children is not something I personally want to do, I am repeatedly pressured. I am a person with ‘nonevident’ disabilities. I am not read as disabled, by most people, despite the fact that some of my disabilities are, I think, pretty obvious. People communicate with me ‘as one nondisabled person to another’ and they are often unnerved and upset when I pull the rug out from under them and inform them that their assumptions were actually erroneous.

As soon as I out myself as a personal with mental illnesses in particular, an about face occurs. People go from demanding to know why I don’t have children to assuming that, ‘well, of course! Why would someone like you have children?’ Indeed, sometimes they trip over themselves to ask when I’m being sterilised, because obviously I wouldn’t want to run even the faintest risk of contributing genetic material to a child, let alone raising one.

Writing about this at FWD/Forward in January, Anna talked about how the structure of the ‘when are you having children’ conversation changes as soon as disability enters the framework. Likewise, Tasha Fierce recently wrote about an interaction where it was assumed that she would be getting a hysterectomy, a highly invasive medical procedure, to treat a menstrual problem and because of course she wouldn’t be having children, so why would she need a uterus?

It is automatically assumed that mental illness means unfit parent, so obviously people with mental illnesses wouldn’t consider having children. Their children would just be taken away, right? And this means that people with mental illness who do not want to have children for reasons that are completely not anyone else’s business are lauded as being ‘brave’ for ‘making the right choice.’

Make no mistake, choosing not to have children is the right choice for me. But it’s not because of any of my disabilities. It’s because of reasons that, well, aren’t your business. It’s a solid choice that I am very comfortable with. But, conversely, having children is the right choice for a lot of disabled women, including women with mental illness who are raising children just fine, thank you very much.

It is assumed that all mental illnesses are controlled with medications, and that all medications used to treat mental illness are teratogenic, which means that in order to have children, people with mental illness have to go off their meds. Oogity boogity! OH NOES! Obviously, no one would want to do that, so participating in a pregnancy can’t possibly be an option for people with mental illness, because everyone knows we explode when we go off our medications.

Oh, wait, it turns out, not everyone with mental illness uses medications? Well then. It would still be bad for us to participate in a pregnancy because our genes are tainted. And, besides, everyone knows that we are a danger to children, and so cannot be trusted to be parents.

I say these things flippantly because it is the only way I can deal with the heartbreak that is social attitudes about parents with mental illness. Mental illness is painted as a tragedy, point blank, and it is assumed that all children of mentally ill parents are, in turn, tragedies of their own.

And that’s why I have difficulty with these conversations, about parenting and not parenting, when it is automatically assumed that people like me aren’t parents, can never be parents, should not be parents, even if we want to be. People with mental illness are confronted with a serious set of obstacles as soon as they decide to participate in a pregnancy, from declarations that they ‘shouldn’t breed[1. Oh, how I wish people did not actually say this.]’ to ‘care providers’ who are completely unsupportive of their choice to decide to have children.

It would be nice if we could approach children from a neutral position, where it was assumed that every individual was making a conscious choice about them, but until then, this dichotomy that all nondisabled people want/have/need children and all disabled people shouldn’t/can’t/don’t have children needs to be run through a woodchipper, pronto.