How the Pro-Choice Movement Excludes People With Disabilities

If we in the pro-choice movement don't start paying serious attention to the ways in which our own practices contribute to the dehumanization of people with disabilities, we can’t keep claiming to operate under a reproductive justice framework at all.

If we in the pro-choice movement don't start paying serious attention to the ways in which our own practices contribute to the dehumanization of people with disabilities, we can’t keep claiming to operate under a reproductive justice framework at all. Shutterstock

In a piece for Rewire last month, Erin Matson highlighted anti-abortion groups’ false advocacy for people with disabilities. As Matson put it, it’s “well past time” for feminists to more robustly utilize a disability rights lens so anti-choicers can’t continue to monopolize the discourse.

It’s true that, for political reasons, we can’t afford for those on the other side to be the only ones talking about this issue. But I’ll go a step further: If we in the pro-choice movement don’t start paying serious attention to the ways in which our own practices contribute to the dehumanization of people with disabilities, we can’t claim to operate under a reproductive justice framework at all.

As Matson wrote, such a framework pushes people at the margins “to the center of analysis and activism.” For the most part, however, the reproductive rights movement has failed to publicly connect insidious abortion legislation with its effects on people with disabilities. In Texas, for instance, abortion advocates have heavily promoted discourse about how HB 2 has affected poor, rural women of color, especially in the Rio Grande Valley. Such rhetoric is certainly legitimate and worthy of attention. However, feminists have said little about how a pregnant person with mobility issues might have a more difficult time reaching their nearest abortion clinic; how a person with a chronic condition may have a more expensive abortion because of medical complications; or how a pregnant person with mental illness might have to choose their medications over their pregnancy. Though these issues have always existed, restrictive abortion legislation like HB 2 exacerbates the situation by closing clinics, thus forcing patients to travel long distances, pay higher costs for their procedure, or both. And the narrative surrounding HB 2 is just one example; when it comes to restrictive laws’ impact on people who need reproductive health care, those with disabilities are repeatedly left out of the picture.

At the same time, the kinds of disability-related rhetoric that have made it into public awareness ultimately do more harm than good. The most common example of the pro-choice movement’s ableism lies in many activists’ decision to call attention to “fetal abnormalities,” particularly when explaining the necessity of legal later abortions. Abortion advocates frequently remind the public that such “abnormalities”—conditions that could manifest as disabilities after a fetus is born—are usually not discovered until the 20-week mark of pregnancy or later.

This strategy attempts to justify later abortions to anti-choicers by trading on the rhetoric that some abortions—of fetuses with “abnormalities”—are inarguably necessary. Rather than reasoning that all abortions should be equally accessible no matter what, many pro-choice advocates lean on the argument that of course people, including anti-choicers, would opt out of having a disabled child if they had the means. Thus, later abortions should be legal.

And this plan often does work. The text of HB 2, Texas’ aforementioned omnibus anti-abortion bill, explains that the 20-week ban does not apply to fetuses “with severe fetal abnormalities.” The fetal abnormality exception has been publicly supported both by Wendy Davis and her gubernatorial opponent Greg Abbott, suggesting, again, that even anti-abortion politicians seem to relax their positions when confronted with the idea of a fetus with severe disabilities.

But I have a problem with the idea that certain fetuses are more available for abortion because of their apparently disabled futures. When people who aren’t usually pro-choice (like most Texas legislators) start making exceptions for fetuses with “abnormalities” in the same way that feminists do, I get nervous. I have to conclude that the rhetorical choice to justify abortion this way sacrifices the humanity of all people with disabilities on the altar of feminism.

The “fetal abnormalities” argument actually does devalue the lives of real people. When we rely on that stance, we’re trading on discourse that says, “No one would want to live if they had disabilities like those,” or “No one would want to take care of children with those kinds of disabilities.” What does that say about the people who are living with disabilities like those? That they should have never been born?

Of course, feminists’ most commonly invoked “fetal abnormalities” are the fatal kinds. And no one should have to carry a non-viable fetus to term if they don’t want to, which is one reason later abortions should always be available. Yet only giving examples of non-viable fetuses as representatives of those with “abnormalities” obscures the breadth of people’s reasons for obtaining later abortions. In a world where the majority of fetuses diagnosed with non-fatal Klinefelter, Turner, and Down Syndromes are terminated, for instance, we can’t afford to pretend that later abortions happen only for reasons that make us feel comfortable.

It would be better to use specific examples, such as, “We need legal later abortions because sometimes fetuses are not viable,” or “We need legal later abortions because people get medical diagnoses without the resources to make sense of them,” rather than, “We need later abortions because sometimes fetuses are abnormal.” The latter is just too broad for its impact to be anything but dangerous.

By marginalizing people who are already excluded by systems of able-bodied privilege in this way, the feminist movement is working in opposition to a reproductive justice framework. At the same time, as a young, queer, poor mother of color who has experienced disabilities and sometimes still does, I understand the fear of giving birth to a baby with disabilities. It is incredibly difficult to raise children with disabilities in a neoliberal, capitalist society that creates obstructions to accessibility for them and those who support them. I can never condemn anyone who has been in the position of having to make that decision.

So I’m not interested in criticizing individual choices. Rather, I’m calling attention to the (supposedly) feminist discourse that reproduces stereotypes about people with disabilities, in turn reinforcing the barriers to rights they already confront. My focus is on those who shape the debate: media outlets, organizations, corporations, and people who are trying to change the culture around abortion. Because if we’re truly interested in crafting a just movement, we have to stop emphasizing narratives that implicitly encourage the abortions of fetuses with disabilities.

For example, as the president of Fund Texas Choice, a nonprofit organization that funds abortion travel for low-income Texans, I have a responsibility to use words with care. The truth is, I’ve used ableist terminology in fundraising campaigns before. In my experience, donors more frequently contribute to a client’s travel if their story is extreme; buzzwords like “fetal abnormalities” instantly place an abortion story into that category.

Lately, though, I’ve realized that making the money flow more quickly in this way isn’t just unethical—it’s a bad long-term strategy. Promoting “compelling” stories only hurts our ability to fight for the “boring” ones, too: the people who need abortions because they just don’t want to carry a fetus, give birth to a baby, or raise a child. As Merritt Tierce reminds us in the New York Times, “We have to stop categorizing abortions as justified or unjustified.”

By contributing to society’s hunger for a “compelling” abortion story, we’re reinforcing the idea that abortion is an exceptional right, not a human right, and that only certain kinds of “undesirable” pregnancies fit into that exception.

When it comes to justifying the legal necessity of later abortions, we should shift our focus to the other dangers of outlawing those procedures. For example, the high cost of abortions, especially when compounded by travel expenses, can mean that it takes time for a person living in poverty to save up enough money for the procedure. Of course, by the time they have amassed that money, they’re several more weeks along, and their procedure costs even more. Emphasizing this narrative brings attention to the difficulties of abortion access for poor people in a country that has expressly prohibited, via the Hyde Amendment, the expenditure of federal funds such as Medicaid for abortion. This new focus sets the stage for anti-Hyde Amendment activism. In other words, intentionally not talking about fetuses with disabilities is strategic, beneficial, and powerful.

Another way feminism can do better at centering a variety of needs is by supporting the leadership of people with disabilities. Having diverse people in charge means that ableist rhetoric will be more easily spotted, public events will become more accessible by necessity, and disability rights issues will become more intensely integrated into our reproductive rights work overall.

In addition, we also need to actively educate ourselves on disability rights issues and boost campaigns started by those within the community. For example, in the wake of the #SolidarityIsForTheAbleBodied movement started by Neal Carter last year, feminists should have learned that being more attentive to the intersections between disability and race, class, sexuality, and gender requires work. Rather than expecting people with disabilities to do the educating on demand, it’s time for abled people in the pro-choice movement to start reading.

All I ask is that feminists acknowledge the systemic pressures felt by pregnant people whose fetuses have been diagnosed with a disability. I want to open up space for individuals to come forward and talk about their abortions without censorship. But if we don’t encourage a variety of narratives, we are contributing to the idea that certain abortions are justified and others aren’t. Until feminists begin to openly recognize and work against this argument, people with disabilities and those who care about them will continue to be alienated by pro-choice rhetoric. If feminists are going to claim to use a reproductive justice lens, we had better stop marginalizing the very people whose lives we’re claiming to save.

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include the name of the creator of the #SolidarityIsForTheAbleBodied Twitter movement.