Where Feminism Meets Disability Rights Pt 2: Examining Reproductive Justice

Here’s a question for all my fellow advocates out there: what exactly is reproductive justice?

The reproductive justice movement has been evolving steadily over the years.  Just about every organization I have looked at defines reproductive justice as “the physical, mental, social, political and economic well-being of women and girls based on the protection” of their reproductive/human rights.  The movement is bigger than simply the pro-choice movement, or efforts to secure access to contraception; the modern reproductive justice movement is one of the subsets of feminism that has most actively moved towards intersectionality and inclusivity.

What does this mean?  For starters, it means lending credence to non-white, non-cis, non-hetero, and dis-abled voices, and giving those voices the place they deserve in the dialogue about reproductive rights.  It means recognizing that the experiences of white, straight, cis, middle class, able-bodied women are not the only experiences relevant to the discussion of reproductive health and rights, and that if we truly want rights, if we truly want justice, we have to look at a much larger picture.

In researching the intersection of reproductive justice and disability rights, two main themes occurred.  The first was that there has been substantial discourse around whether a pregnant person should be able to, or even just should, abort a fetus likely to be born with a disability.  I am not talking about whether or not, say, a fetus almost certain to have Tay Sachs disease (which is incurable and results in a very short, very painful life) should be aborted-~-that is a moral decision that parents have to make for themselves.  I am talking about a discourse around whether or not parents should abort just because the fetus is likely to be born with a disability. This sort of eugenicist narrative has done nothing to help currently-living disabled people, who live with discrimination and added obstacles, and has also led to the pressuring of pregnant people into having abortions they might otherwise not have wanted, simply because their child would have had a disability.  In case this is unclear, for true reproductive justice to exist, pregnant people need to be able to make decisions about their bodies and their health free from pressure or coersion, problems which reproductive justice advocates have been fighting against for years.

That said, reproductive justice advocates need to do a better job of fighting this coercion by ceasing to use ableist rhetoric in order to advance access to abortion.  RH Reality Check published an excellent article, linked later in this piece, discussing how discourse around “fetal abnormalities” in order to push for greater access to abortion only further stigmatizes disabilities and dehumanizes disabled people, which is definitively harmful.  The movement itself needs to shift towards rhetoric which highlights the fact that there can be complications later in pregnancy, or that some diagnoses, which may come later, may indicate that a fetus is not viable (my Tay Sachs example falls into this category).  More inclusive rhetoric is going to get the movement further, and do more to promote disability rights.

The second major theme revolved around disabled people’s access to reproductive health care and options.  A large part of the problem has been the fact that reproductive justice advocates and healthcare professionals alike ignored, for a long time, the sexualities and sexual desires, needs, and situations of disabled people.  The idealized image of what is “sexy” or “sexual” in most countries is almost invariably based around able-bodied persons, such that disabled people may even internalize the idea that they are not sexy, or are less worthy of sexual relationships.  The reality is that individuals with physical and mental disabilities may still desire sex, and may still pursue sexual relationships, just like able-bodied and neurotypical individuals, and when doctors fail to recognize this, they generally fail to give the correct treatment and advice.

The reality is that there are special issues that may be related to a disabled person’s ability to engage in safe sex.  For example, individuals with Spina Bfida are allergic to latex, and need to be able to access non-latex condoms and dental dams in order to practice safe sex.  Individuals with circulatory issues may be cautioned against taking the pill, but in turn, this means they need a different contraceptive option that works for them.  Doctors need to be trained with the necessary awareness to guide disabled people through the process of accessing contraception and other reproductive healthcare, rather than just ignoring these standing needs.

There are further access issues that exist at this intersection of reproductive health and disability, however, issues that the pro-choice movement has not adequately addressed.  For example, the pro-choice movement has done a poor job of articulating how abortion restrictions, and the closing of clinics, might make access difficult not only for low-income women who cannot necessarily afford to make the trip to a remaining clinic, but for those with limited mobility.  The pro-choice movement has also done a sub-par job in discussing how certain pre-existing conditions might make an abortion more complicated and more expensive, thereby making it more difficult to access.  I would be remiss if I published an article on reproductive justice and disability rights and did not mention that disabled persons are substantially more likely to be sexually assaulted and more likely to experience domestic or other intimate partner violence than their non-disabled counterparts.  I won’t pretend that simply mentioning this and linking you to information is enough-~-the issue deserves at least a full post unto itself-~-but I am mentioning it here because these statistics indicate a potentially greater need for disabled persons to access contraception and abortion services, in order to protect themselves and to regain control over their bodily autonomy.

We are not talking about these issues nearly enough.

I would also be remiss if I did not talk about the ways in which disabled persons with the ability to get pregnant have had their bodily autonomy diminished in the guise of reproductive health.  In particular, the history of sterilizing disabled women should be discussed if we are going to talk about reproductive justice and disability rights.  Between the 1940’s and 1970’s in the United States, 28 states adopted Eugenics Sterilization Laws which resulted in the sterilization of over 200,000 women, primarily women with disabilities.  These laws were promoted using ableist rhetoric which painted disabled women as unfit for procreation and as incompetent mothers.  To this day, disabled women are at risk for coercive sterilization or abortion, or the loss of custody if they do have a child.

If the feminist movement truly wants to pursue reproductive justice, these issues need to be better acknowledged, and better addressed.  Mainstream feminism needs to do more to elevate the voices of disabled people, and to address their potentially unique problems and concerns-~-from access to contraception to inadequate sensitivity from doctors to additional barriers to accessing abortions to reduced bodily autonomy due to coercion, there are a number of pressing reproductive justice issues facing the disabled community.  Reproductive justice advocates can and must do better with regards to disability rights, beginning with a recognition of our failures, and moving towards a more truly intersectional discussion of reproductive rights.


~ by Randi Saunders on December 22, 2014.

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