Assault on Reproductive Justice Distorts Disability Rights Perspectives

In the past months, Ohio state legislators have introduced a bill that would criminalize abortions of those “seeking the abortion solely because” of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. While the bill ostensibly seeks to uphold the legitimate rights of people with Down Syndrome to live fruitful, meaningful, and self-directed lives, critics say that conservative pro-life legislators have co-opted the language of disability rights in order to forward their anti-abortion agenda.

Writing for Dame Magazine, Robin Marty elaborates:

” ‘This will put up a barrier between women and their health-care providers,’ Jaime Miracle, Deputy Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told DAME Magazine. ‘How do you define ‘knowingly’? What kind of standards are we setting? Are we turning doctors into inquisitors for every women who comes in seeking a termination? Do they have to question every woman on why they are getting an abortion?’

According to Miracle, like most abortion restrictions, this ban will disproportionately effect lower-income women, as those with financial means will be able to leave the Ohio to seek a termination in a state where it is still legal.  Ironically, at the same time, the state legislature is cutting health-care budgets, social-service budgets, and even homes for those with special needs. “Lower-income women who are going to need support services, especially to raise a child with challenges, are going to be the ones to fall through the cracks,’ she said.”

As Ohio legislators simultaneously defund services for people with disabilities while purporting to uphold disability rights through pro-life legislation, their agenda becomes more apparent. In an opinion piece for reproductive justice publication RH Reality Check, David Perry explored the supposed tension between disability rights and reproductive justice:

‘The tension between reproductive and disability rights that these kinds of bills seek to worsen is not a new problem; in fact, there has been a false choice between the two movements since the development of amniocentesis made disability-selection abortion possible. In 1991, for example, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “Abortion Issue Divides Advocates for the Disabled.” What’s changed, though, is the intensifying emphasis on Down syndrome in the anti-choice legal maneuvering. As prenatal tests become cheaper and available earlier, they are being used in more and more pregnancies. As a result, anti-choicers are using their alleged concerns for disability rights as a way to erode choice.’

Intersectional reproductive justice and disability rights group Generations Ahead rejected the supposed opposition of disability rights and reproductive rights in a statement titled The Unnecessary Opposition of Rights responding to a separate, but related, development.

These cases illustrate the convoluted legacy of eugenics thinking as it pertains to reproductive justice. While some may use the bitter history of American eugenics to support a pro-life agenda, reductively arguing that selective abortion is simply a new form of eugenics, others recognize that continued attempts to restrict the reproductive choices of women, especially women of color and/or low-income women, itself draws from racist and classist motivations that played out with devastating consequences when state eugenic sterilization laws were on the books across the US from the 1910s to 1970s. Disconnects amongst those advocating for women’s reproductive rights are similarly longstanding. In the 1910s, influential birth control advocate Margaret Sanger fought for the right for (some) women to access birth control and contraception, while collaborating with eugenicists crafting a legislative framework to deny those very rights to marginalized Black, Native American, immigrant, and/or low-income women and women with real or perceived disabilities through forced sterilization.

The continuing tensions and controversies highlight the need for the sort of intersectional reproductive justice lens pioneered by Black women’s health advocates during the 1990’s and beyond. As the foundational reproductive justice activist and thinker Loretta Ross has written on the emergence of a reproductive justice framework:

“Reproductive Justice is, in fact, a paradigm shift beyond demanding gender equality or attaching abortion rights to a broader reproductive health agenda. All of these concepts are, in fact, encompassed by the Reproductive Justice framework. RJ is an expansion of the theory of intersectionality developed by women of color and the practice of self-help from the Black women’s health movement to the reproductive rights movement, based on the application of the human rights framework to the United States. Reproductive justice is in essence an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose multiple communities experience a complex set of reproductive oppressions. It is based on the understanding that the impacts of race, class, gender and sexual identity oppressions are not additive but integrative, producing this paradigm of intersectionality. For each individual and each community, the effects will be different, but they share some of the basic characteristics of intersectionality – universality, simultaneity and interdependence.

Reproductive Justice is a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families and communities because reproductive justice seamlessly integrates those individual and group human rights particularly important to marginalized communities. We believe that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access. For example, a woman cannot make an individual decision about her body if she is part of a community whose human rights as a group are violated, such as through environmental dangers or insufficient quality health care. Reproductive justice addresses issues of population control, bodily self-determination, immigrants’ rights, economic and environmental justice, sovereignty, and militarism and criminal injustices that limit individual human rights because of group or community oppressions.”

 

 

 

 

Disability, Sexuality, and Stigma

Katherine Quarmby offers a critical framing of the stigma attached to sexuality and people with disabilities, both historically and today. The article draws on the work of Dr. Tom Shakespeare, author of the seminal The Sexual Politics of Disability. Eugenics’ hereditary ideas of “fit” and “unfit” bodies was crucial in creating the pervasive trope of “contamination” that Shakespeare identifies as one of four tropes surrounding sexuality and people with disabilities.

“Asexual, hypersexual, perverse and contaminated: these four damaging tropes from history combine to form a bitter legacy for disabled people.”

lead
Sofie Middernacht and Maarten Alexander/Mosaic, via The Atlantic

Read Quarmby’s article in full. 

See also: Sins Invalid, a national performance project that uses performance art as a platform to reframe conversations about sexuality and disability through an intersectional LGBTQ and people of color lens. 

Footage from November 20: “Return of the Unfit”

On November 20, 2014, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU hosted “Return of the Unfit: A Gathering to Locate, Challenge, & Exorcise Our Eugenic Ghosts” as part of the Haunted Files project.

Artists, activists, and academics joined forces to trace the lineages of American nativism, racism, and ableism through readings, performance, music, and analysis. The program featured scholar Awam Amkpa (NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis), poet and activist Sonia Guinansaca (New York State Youth Leadership Council and CultureStrike), historian and lawyer Paul A. Lombardo (Georgia State University), author and activist N. Ordover (American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism), writer Tommy “Teebs” Pico (absentMINDR), social justice activist and expert Loretta Ross (co-founder, SisterSong), scholar Dean Saranillio (NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis), composer and producer Sxip Shirey, and musician and educator/activist Sonny Singh (Red Baraat).

 

Perspectives on Disability, Ethics, and Self-Determination: Harriet McBryde Johnson (1957-2008)

harriet

Why are some lives valued (and protected) more than others? How is value and worth accorded based on normative, hierarchical understandings of ability?

In 2002, disability rights activist and attorney Harriet McBryde Johnson accepted an invitation to debate Princeton professor and moral philosopher Peter Singer at Princeton University. Singer, best known for his writings on animal rights/liberation theory, was (and remains) notorious amongst disability activists for his belief that parents should ethically be able to euthanize their disabled children during infancy so that they can be replaced by nondisabled babies who have a “greater chance at happiness.” Johnson, who used a motorized wheelchair due to neuromuscular disease, was a longtime advocate for disability rights, working alongside organizations such as Not Dead Yet.

In 2003, Johnson published an incredible, long-form account of her conversations with Singer in The New York Times Magazine. The account presents two fundamentally opposed worldviews: Singer’s “logics” of preference, quality of life, and devaluation of the life worth of people with disabilities (perhaps not dissimilar from eugenicists’ calls for “efficiency” and the “social good”), and Johnson’s call for self-determination and support for the potentially rich and fruitful lives of people with disabilities.

Read the full essay here. Selected excerpts are included below.

 

“It is a chilly Monday in late March, just less than a year ago. I am at Princeton University. My host is Prof. Peter Singer, often called — and not just by his book publicist — the most influential philosopher of our time. He is the man who wants me dead. No, that’s not at all fair. He wants to legalize the killing of certain babies who might come to be like me if allowed to live. He also says he believes that it should be lawful under some circumstances to kill, at any age, individuals with cognitive impairments so severe that he doesn’t consider them ”persons.” What does it take to be a person? Awareness of your own existence in time. The capacity to harbor preferences as to the future, including the preference for continuing to live.”

– – –

 “It is an interesting exchange. In the lecture hall that afternoon, Singer lays it all out. The ”illogic” of allowing abortion but not infanticide, of allowing withdrawal of life support but not active killing. Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.”

– – –

“In the discussion that follows, I argue that choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn’t offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality — dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden — are entirely curable. Singer, seated on my right, participates in the discussion but doesn’t dominate it. During the meal, I occasionally ask him to put things within my reach, and he competently complies.”

 

 

 

“Law and Order”: State Violence and People with Disabilities

Two recent news stories call attention to the inability of police officers and the criminal justice system to deal fairly and constructively with the disabled community.

Last night, two men with intellectual disabilities were executed after being found guilty of murder. Robert Wayne Holsey was executed by lethal injection in Georgia, after the state Supreme Coart rejected his lawyer’s argument that the state’s “unusually strict standard for judging mental disability violated the Constitution,” reports the New York Times. Holsey had an I.Q. of around 70, putting him on the borderline of the legal level of disability that would have made his execution illegal. In a similar case, Paul Goodwin was put to death in Missouri, after being convicted of murder. His IQ was said to be around 73, also on the precipice of a seemingly arbitrary borderline of legal disability.

In Maryland, a grand jury recently declined to indict a police officer involved in the death of 26-year-old Robert Ethan Saylor. Saylor, who has Down Syndrome, was killed in an altercation with police who were attempting to remove him from a movie theater. He was unarmed.

In August, the Twitter hashtag #disabilitysolidarity called attention to experiences of prejudice, intersectionality, and police discrimination faced by people with disabilities. The issues are especially pertinent for people of color with disabilities, who face multi-layered discrimination in their encounters with law enforcement. Participants highlighted the death of Kajieme Powell, a black man who was shot and killed by police officers in St. Louis this summer. Mental health advocates who watched video footage of the altercation said it was clear that Powell was dealing with an untreated or under-treated mental illness.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 2.22.00 PM


Read more:

How misunderstanding disability leads to police violence (The Atlantic, May 2014)

Police brutality’s hidden victims: the disabled (The Daily Beast, September 2014)

 

 

 

“The Marching Morons”

Marching Morons

Set hundreds of years in the future the 1951 C. M. Kornbluth short story “The Marching Morons” tells the story of an Earth overrun by the unintelligent. Just as eugenicist’s predicted, this future is the result of overbreeding by the “unfit” and the average IQ is just 45. The ever-shrinking elites are too small in number to overcome the enormity of the problem until John Barlow arrives from the past with a eugenics solution: the morons are convinced to migrate to Venus only to be euthanized in their spaceships!

The scientific eugenics movement may have declined in the 1930s and lost popular support following the revelations of Nazi atrocities during WWII, but eugenic ideas have continued to be reused in popular culture consistently. Check out the whole story here.

 

The Positive Work of “Positive Exposure”

Positive Exposure

“Positive Exposure utilizes photography and video to transform public perceptions of people living with genetic, physical and behavioral differences – from albinism to autism.  Our educational and advocacy programs reach around the globe to promote a more inclusive, compassionate world where differences are celebrated.

The statistics to support our work are staggering. With one out of five children  in the United States being born with a disability, the need for society to understand and respect children and adults living with genetic, physical and behavioral differences is critical.”

Check out more of photographer Rick Guidotti’s work on Positive Exposure’s website and watch his TED Talk below.

Image Credit: Rick Guidotti for Positive Exposure