In March of 2013, North Dakota signed into law the illegality of abortion based solely on a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.
As the warring factions of “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” exploded on the internet, I sat holding my four month baby who just happened to have Down syndrome.
At the time, I felt conflicted as I think many parents did at the abstractions of these philosophical arguments. One part of me furiously fought against prejudice against my child, and couldn’t help but see the ableism in so many pro-choice arguments. Ugly words about being ‘drains on society,’ ‘lumps’ that ruined their parent’s life, and who would even want to bring a child with a disability into the world where they suffered?
I read these often in tears as I nursed my beautiful baby who by no means suffered and was by no means unwanted by us. Most of the people who wrote these things had zero experience with people with disabilities and I knew their comments came from misinformation.
On the other side, I read comment after comment bent on saving the fetuses filled with language about special miracles and lessons sent from “God.” I rejected those ideas as well reading in them pity and resignation as opposed to actual acceptance. I felt alienated from both sides of the debate. I’ve been pro-choice since I turned 19, and I remained so, even in my alienation, but I also felt angry at the way my child’s body stood unrecognized as valuable in their conversations.
Now Missouri legislators have passed a similar law posed to go into effect in August of this year. Coupled with the Zikra Virus scare, I once again find my child’s body being used as metaphorical battleground for both sides of the abortion debate. I remain firmly pro-choice in both cases and I want to outline why I remain this way, but I also want to use this outline as a reminder to both groups that my child is not up for grabs in this controversy. My child’s humanity should not be questioned as either worthy of life or as an inspiration of overcoming suffering.
When I found out my fetus had Down’s syndrome, I faced a decision that many women face every day. For me, it was the first time my pro-choice convictions came into play in un-abstract way. I choose to not abort. I made this choice for many reasons. Months before my amniocentesis , my first trimester blood results showed an elevated risk for Tri. 21 and Tri. 18. My husband and I discussed what we should do, and we both did a lot of research. We wrote to various Down’s syndrome organizations, as well read blogs by parents living with children who had Down’s syndrome. In the end, we decided we would for sure not abort based on Down’s syndrome. We felt informed enough to be reasonably sure that even with potential health issues that our child would live a quality life. We also believed personally that people with disabilities were inherently valuable in their humanity. We were not sure about Tri. 18 and we decided ultimately that we needed to know more before we could make a firm decision. Not that this matters because what it came to down to is it was our “choice.”
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Too often in both the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps, the assumption is that choice is unequivocally equals abortion. However I suggest that we need to remember that choice also means choosing to not abort. After all what it comes down to is that I as a woman have a right to choose what to do with my body and that means sometimes I choose to carry a fetus to birth regardless of said fetus’s diagnosis or lack thereof.
In this decision I felt utterly abandoned by both sides. In the pro-choice camps, I didn’t represent the woman rejecting a life of burden, and on the pro-life side, no one cared what became of my child or me since I choose to carry to birth.
I felt incredibly resentful of the pro-lifers who seemed so eager to use my story, but who had no use for my emotional well-being after I made, in their mind, the final choice. It’s not as if my story ended at the moment of choice. It continued on, and I sunk into a deep depression during the last few months of my pregnancy. I sobbed daily, had nightmares, worried that the fetus I carried deserved a better mother, and frankly, there was no one from these clamoring camps there to support me. From one side, I made a poor choice, and from the other side, I made the right choice and they moved onto other women.
In the end I remained prochoice because I believe that the effort to restrict abortion is not the right fight. It does nothing to address the ableism rooted in our society. Forcing women to carry fetuses with disabilities is not going to miraculously create mothers who love them. We need better social programs. How can we ask a woman to bear a child that might have profound heart defects to carry to term when we don’t even offer decent health care? Reasonably priced therapies?
We live in a society that does not create meaningful work for those with disabilities. When work is offered it is often work scuffled off to sheltered workshops where people are paid below minimum wage. We deny quality of life by making marriage for people with disabilities financially disastrous. We don’t support the building of community houses and don’t lend our voices to protest the neighborhoods who don’t want people with disabilities.
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And I ask where are the pro-life people when calls come to slash SSI? Where are they when the police murder people with disabilities? Some, but not many, speak up, but I hear a lot of silence in those quarters and watch as they support candidates who actively work to make my child’s life harder.
All the money and resources used to push anti selective abortion laws hits me as wasted resources. I can’t help but think better ways to use this money. I imagine all this money and energy into going into pro-information programs such as Lettercase and Down’s syndrome pregnancy, two programs that offer yes, information on abortion, but they also provide updated statistics on living with Down’s syndrome. Both resources helped me to make an informed decision, and offered me hope for a fetus I desperately wanted to keep.
What would happen, I wonder, if we all joined forces to create laws that made providing up-to-date information mandatory? Could we reshape society by working to fund group homes, and special apartments in the middle of residential neighborhoods so that people would live among those with intellectual disabilities and come to see them as fellow humans? What if we pushed to make it illegal to pay people with disabilities pennies? I suspect that if we fueled our efforts to make society a better place that what we could offer women facing a difficult choice is a better place from which to make that choice.
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In the end, I want a world in which making a choice to abort has less to do with ableism and sexism. I am not convinced that outlawing selective abortion is going to get us to that better world. I suspect it is only going to create resentment. I also suspect that it does nothing to address the deeper systemic structures of either ableism or sexism. We can only do address those issues through the hard work of demanding more from our leaders and from others around us. That means calling out everyone, even fellow liberals and leftists, on ableist language. It means challenging anyone who suggests those with disability are not inherently human and as worthy of respect as the able bodied and neurotypical. It’s a big demand for sure but I personally would rather demand big than ask that another group of marginalized people be restricted.
How can I ask for respect for my daughter if I ask for it by disrespecting another body? My child’s value does not lie in her symbolic value to a political cause. Her value lies in the simple fact of her humanity.
[Feature Image: Black and white photo of a person with their arms stretched out in front of them as an infant rests in their hands. The infant’s arms are outstretched laying across the adult’s adult. The adult is wearing a black tank top and necklace with charm at the center. Flickr: Julien Ducenne ]
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