Why Aren’t Disabled Stories Included in Abortion Ban Conversations?

Disabled people exist beyond a long list of inequitably impacted communities, but our needs are largely being ignored in the reproductive rights space.

Photo of sidewalk with wheelchair sign and caution tape
Because the reproductive health, rights, and justice spaces haven’t made physical spaces, events, and even social media spaces accessible for disabled people and chronically ill people to participate, the realities of disabled people accessing abortion aren't there. Cage Rivera/Rewire News Group illustration

Disabled people are inequitably impacted by abortion bans. It’s a fact. But the realities of disabled communities accessing abortion care in a post-Roe environment are not the stories we hear about or learn from. To be frank, they weren’t the stories we heard about or learned from before the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right abortion, either.

In a world that continues to be rocked by COVID-19’s long-term health impacts, why aren’t the stories of disabled people accessing abortion being told? Why aren’t disabled voices being centered in media coverage of the impact since the Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization?

These questions only led me to more questions. Is it because it’s hard to talk about the ways abortion bans disproportionately impact disabled communities when anti-abortion extremists are grabbing the bullhorn to try and lay claim over how abortion is ableist?

It could be that anti-abortion activists have made talking about disability and abortion at the same time, frankly, really challenging.

Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Freedom Fund, knows that anti-abortion extremists are certainly one piece of the puzzle.

“The other side acts like they own conversations about disability and abortion, and that only happens when you don’t have people at the table and people in leadership who can speak to that issue from the community,” Bertram Roberts said. “We’ve conceded the conversation around disability and abortion to the right.”

Because folks within the reproductive health, rights, and justice spaces haven’t made physical spaces, events, and social media spaces accessible for disabled people and chronically ill people to participate, the realities of disabled people accessing abortion aren’t there. They were never invited or given space to be there to begin with. And when their voices aren’t even present to be heard or included, it leaves much more space for the claims of anti-abortion extremists to take up space in the public dialogue around abortion access.

Anti-abortion extremists claim they are on the “right side” of disability rights because if abortion didn’t exist, no one with disabilities would be aborted. The fixation on the potential of “saving” the life of a disabled person completely overlooks the dilemma that neither side is centering the experiences and reproductive autonomy of disabled people when they get pregnant.

But anti-abortion extremists’ bad abortion takes haven’t stopped us from reclaiming spaces as storytellers and experts before.

Is it because of the chronic infantilization and desexualization plaguing public perception of disabled people?

“We have to start on the basic level”

Historically, disabled people have been infantilized and desexualized because of the social impacts of ableism. When an entire community of people who (spoiler alert) do have sex are metaphorically sterilized, it makes sense why disabled people’s realities aren’t centered in conversations about abortion—because for an abortion to be needed, sex has to happen first.

Bertram Roberts wishes the stories of disabled people were told more wholly, sex and all.

“Disabled people fuck,” Bertram Roberts said. “We fuck, we have kids, we have whole lives.”

Those whole lives Bertram Roberts describes are completely disrespected and erased by the internalized stigma and assumptions that communities, including those within the pro-abortion movement spaces, have about disabled people.

This resonated with Vilissa Thompson, a South Carolina-based social worker and writer.

“Folks aren’t thinking about disabled folks having this kind of need, in general,” Thompson said. “We have to start on the basic level on the ableism of people desexualizing disabled folks. This stripping of this part of disabled folks’ personhood is striking.”

As these narratives compound with our societal failure to provide meaningful resources and support to disabled people, often times when disabled people get pregnant, they’re choosing abortion because of the way our health-care systems perpetuate ableism. As a disabled person and as the executive director of a Southern abortion fund that gets calls from all over the state of Mississippi, this is no surprise to Bertram Roberts.

“Mississippi is a state that won’t even expand Medicaid, so we have hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have insurance,” Bertram Roberts said. “We have people—I can’t even count how many people—who call and need funding for abortion because they have high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic health issues, but they don’t have health care and you can’t just fix that in the first three months of pregnancy. You can’t just start caring for people when they start gestating a baby. That includes disabled people. We need to be treated justly when we’re pregnant.”

So where do we go from here?

How do the experiences of disabled communities stop getting erased from the narratives around reproductive and sexual health care?

For Rebecca Cokley, the Ford Foundation’s U.S. disability rights program officer and a person with multiple disabilities, it starts with taking a step back, observing where our internalized biases against disabled people come from, and following the lead of disability justice leaders’ messaging.

“I do really think it starts with the messaging,” Cokley said. “I think so often when people think about the need for people with disabilities to access abortion, it’s really grounded in a lack of society allowing us any sort of sense of bodily autonomy and also a sense of overprotectivism and paternalism.”

Just as we need to destigmatize all abortion care and emphasize how normal it is, including the normalcy of self-managed abortion, we should be hearing the normal abortion stories of disabled people.

“The idea is often that, ‘Of course people with disabilities who are pregnant would need to access abortion, no one would need to carry a child that could have what they have or of course people with disabilities need to access abortion, people like that are unfit to parent,’” Cokley said. “And it’s not ever grounded in, ‘Of course people with disabilities may need to access abortion. Because it’s Tuesday, and they want to have an abortion.’”

This issue around disabled people being unfit to parent is a personal one for Cokley, a mother of three. When she had her daughter in 2013, Cokley said, the anesthesiologist “openly advocated for my sterilization on the operating room table.”

“There’s such a history, whether it be in the medical industrial complex or in the court system of people with disabilities not having the basic right to make choices about their bodies,” Cokley said. “We can obviously reference the fact that Buck v. Bell is still precedent.” (In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that forced sterilization of ” the unfit” was completely legal. “The unfit” included people with intellectual disabilities. Almost a century later, violating the autonomy of disabled people is still protected by our nation’s highest court—yet another reason why we have to expedite expanding the Court, but I digress.)

The reproductive health, rights, and justice movements also need to make space for disabled people of all types to feel comfortable sharing that we’re disabled, have sex, get pregnant, parent, and have abortions, as it impacts how we should be treated when getting the care we need. This might look like analyzing in-clinic accessibility like having interpreters and accessible equipment and spaces.

“Some of that ignorance and omission fails to highlight what it means to be a disabled person trying to get any type of care,” Thompson said. “I know that for wheelchair users like myself, many facilities and clinics do not have examination tables that can accommodate us. Many of our doctors’ offices don’t even have an accessible weight scale for some of us, much less an examination table.”

Beyond in-clinic spaces, it also looks like considering whether or not disabled people feel safe even disclosing their disability status in abortion advocacy spaces.

This one resonates deeply with me. As someone with an invisible disability who can be mistaken as being able-bodied, my own internalized ableism often prevents me from even voicing that I have disabilities that impact how I show up at work, how I navigate space. My experience is not uncommon.

“As with most movements, unless it’s the disability rights movement, [we as disabled people are] often in the room but not recognized as being in the room,” Bertram Roberts said. “Quite a few folks who have invisible disabilities or chronic illnesses, but ableism keeps them from speaking out to be part of the community.”

Centering disabled people means applying a more intersectional analysis to the work all of us do. When we list communities that are impacted most by abortion bans, people are not limited to having one identity among the many. Oftentimes, people hold more than one identity that makes them all the more burdened by the -isms of our nation.

“One thing that folks should try to do is understand that these are intersecting identities,” Thompson said. “When we talk about Black folks, there are Black disabled folks. There are Black disabled folks who are queer. When we fail to have intersectional conversations about what these experiences mean for accessing abortion or other reproductive or sexual health resources, that matters too.”

“Even in disability narratives, the intersectional viewpoint matters tremendously as to how you’re treated when you’re looking for information or services whether it’s abortion, family planning information, becoming a parent and having these systems judge you when it comes to your competency,” Thompson added. “This is missing from the conversation so that we’re not just applying a blanket statement to disability and abortion or disability and reproductive health—we are understanding that we’re experiencing these systems very differently based on how we look or how we present.”

There’s a lot of work to do to completely incorporate, include, hear, and respond to the stories and realities of disabled people accessing and advocating for comprehensive reproductive health care. But perhaps all it takes is shedding internalized narratives around what it means to be autonomous and who deserves to be able to do so.