Ohio Abortion Bill Stokes Old Tensions between Disability and Abortion Rights Advocates

Biopolitical Times
In the middle of an abortion protest are two signs being held. One is in the shape of a stop sign and reads, "Stop the war on women." The other, is shaped with feminine curves, and colored in pink. This sign reads, "Women's rights = Human rights."

The recent Ohio bill that would ban abortion based on a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome has triggered widespread comment.  In a state where 23 of 33 senators, 65 of 99 representatives, and the governor oppose abortion rights, and half of abortion clinics have closed in the past four years, it is likely to pass.

The bill also raises longstanding tensions between perspectives based in disability rights versus reproductive rights. As Sujatha Jesudason and Julia Epstein explain:

The disability rights movement is concerned about the number of pregnancies terminated solely because an expectant mother receives a diagnosis of a potential fetal disability. And the reproductive rights movement worries that any line of questioning concerning a woman’s prerogative to terminate her pregnancy will inevitably lead to undermining her decision-making autonomy.

Here, we examine how a selection of news articles and commentaries address – or ignore – this tension.

News coverage in The Economist is explicit on the point, arguing that “the bill scrambles some familiar positions.”

Abortion advocates are almost uniformly proponents of robust state funding for social services, including for the disabled. The anti-abortion lobby is generally staunchly conservative and opposed to anything that looks like a new entitlement. If the law goes through, as seems likely, women will be required by the state to give birth to their disabled child, but will not be able to count on much help from the state to raise it.

An article in The New York Times also mentions strains between advocates of disability rights and abortion rights, and notes in passing that the bill has the effect of “driv[ing] a wedge” between them. But the article mainly focuses on the fact that “some parents of children with Down syndrome [who] are strong proponents” of the bill, giving no indication that many disability rights advocates support abortion rights, and that many reproductive rights advocates are sympathetic to the disability rights perspective.

Several op-eds and commentaries explore these matters with far greater nuance and sensitivity. In a New York Times op-ed, Mark Lawrence Schrad presents his and his wife’s decision to have a daughter with Down syndrome as just that: a choice, despite medical and societal assumptions that they would opt to terminate the pregnancy. “[W]hen it comes to abortion and special needs,” he writes, “there is no easy answer – and the idea that these deeply personal ethical and social decisions could simply be legislated away is ridiculous.” Like The Economist piece, Schrad highlights the hypocrisy of abortion rights opponents who would both force women to have children for whom they may be unprepared and slash state support for those same families. Personal experience has driven Schrad to value reproductive choice, but he that believes for any choice to be meaningful, the necessary support systems must first be in place.

Writing in Bioethics Forum, philosophy and bioethics professor Bonnie Steinbeck stresses that the Ohio bill is unconstitutional and unenforceable, much like the authors above, but she also grapples with disability rights advocates’ concerns “that the choice of abortion in such cases is often based on ignorance about the kind of life the child could lead and discriminatory attitudes toward people with disabilities.” In addition, she notes, these attitudes may extend to people already living with disabilities, or even to the belief that because abortion is an option there is no need for the state to provide resources for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.  Steinbeck concludes with a call for Ohio legislators to direct their attention to “ensuring that all people with disabilities, Down syndrome or otherwise, get the resources and services they need.”

Judith Levine’s “Disability and the Politics of Abortion” in Seven Days explores more deeply the “tension between the ideals of the two movements” and the “ambivalence in the hearts of any of the people who hold those ideals.” As she points out, “many people straddle the two communities — pro-choice feminists who also fight for respect and rights for the disabled, and disability-rights activists who believe in unqualified reproductive freedom.” Levine quotes the late disability scholar Adrienne Asch, who was simultaneously fully committed to the right to choose abortion for any reason, and profoundly troubled by termination of pregnancies with particular children. “My moral opposition to prenatal testing and selective abortion flows from the conviction that life with disability is worth living,” Asch wrote. In a phone conversation, disability rights scholar and advocate Martha Saxton explained to Levine the “bind” that feminists with disabilities encounter: constant confrontation with their own mortality, when they wonder – in a “ridiculous hypothetical” – whether their mother would have chosen to abort them had testing been available. Saxton remains politically pro-choice and personally conflicted. "The challenge for reproductive-rights activists,” she said, “is not to identify with the fetus but to identify with women and with disabled people who are alive now — to fight for people living under this oppression, this idea that we would be better off being dead."

Levine notes that anti-choice activists have long portrayed the fetus as the ultimate innocent victim, and that adding disability to the imagery only completes this picture of perfect vulnerability. Their objective, she says, is not good policy, but “to gain strategic – and emotional – advantage. By portraying themselves as friends of the disabled unborn, they're vying for the sympathies of the already born disabled.” Levine argues that rather than allowing legislation to save fetuses with disabilities at the expense of their mother’s freedom, we should develop policies and technologies that make lives in all bodies – no matter what their abilities – worthwhile.

In January of this year, before the Ohio bill had been introduced, a similar legislative initiative in Indiana prompted David Perry, the father of a son with Down syndrome, to write a commentary in RH Reality Check entitled “Anti-Choice Legislators Try to Force Wedge between Reproductive, Disability Rights Activists.” Perry takes issue with the “faux advocacy for disability right” in which anti-choicers and the  “disability hierarchies” they invoke one-dimensionally label children with Down syndrome as “cute” “blessings” and “angels.” He supports what he calls the pro-information movement, which seeks to equip potential parents with accurate information free of bias.  He furthermore advocates for an intersectional approach to movement-building that would connect disability and reproductive rights activists. Perry endorses a coalition that acknowledges “a woman’s right to choose is inviolate” but warns that “before that choice, let’s make sure that it’s based on reality, not fear-mongering or misinformation.”

The tension between reproductive rights and disability rights activists stoked by Ohio legislators is not new.  One effort to address it was a series of cross-movement roundtable discussions sponsored by Generations Ahead, a public interest organization in existence from 2007 to 2012 that grew out of a Center for Genetics and Society program. Bridging the Divide, a report on the roundtable series, articulated a series of shared principles and values that, it concluded:

suggest a need to reframe the issues—a framing away from the right not to have children to a right to have children, and a framing away from creating a self-sufficient, productive individual to re-shaping society to provide for the needs of all people, regardless of gender, race, ability, sexual orientation, citizenship status and class. In pivoting away from more narrow agendas and principles to broader, more inclusive values, new political opportunities and new alliances are possible.

These recommendations have not yet been fully embraced by reproductive rights and disability rights advocates. But the legislators in Ohio would do well to remember the call for basic human dignity that inspires both the movements they seek to divide.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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