Diversity, equality, and abortion access: the best of friends.

May 16, 2007 at 9:42 am (feminism, proclamations)

I want to take a shot at answering a really tough question raised by The New York Times but more importantly my aunt in relation to all this recent business about prenatal screenings, Down syndrome, and abortion. The situation: doctors are now recommending that all women be screened for Down syndrome and other conditions during pregnancy (in the past, only older mothers, who are at higher risk, have been screened). Finding out relatively early in pregnancy that a fetus has a condition like Down syndrome opens up all kinds of possibilities, some of which are undeniably positive, like giving parents the opportunity to prepare to cope with their child’s needs. On an arguably less uplifting end of the spectrum is, of course, the very real possibility that women will choose to terminate these pregnancies; in fact, about 90% do. Parents of kids with Down syndrome are understandably distressed by this (fewer Down syndrome patients means fewer programs, less research, and maybe even fewer opportunities for friends with similar situations) and are taking action by talking to doctors, and offering themselves are resources to pregnant women who have received a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Okay, Stephanie’s question:

If one is pro-choice, does that mean pro-choice regardless of how and why the choice to terminate is made?

I think: yes! And yet, also, NO.

Being pro-choice means recognizing that the best person to make choices about a given pregnancy is, duh, the pregnant woman. It means being committed to making sure that all pregnant women get to make their own choices, and standing by their right to make them — whatever they may be — whether you yourself would make the same choice or not. So, on a purely legal level, yes, being pro-choice absolutely means supporting the choice to terminate (or not) regardless of the circumstances. That can sometimes mean standing by all kinds of disturbing, debatable, and decidedly unfeminist choices, from ability-selective abortion to sex-selective abortion. I think it also means trusting women in general enough to figure that these situations are going to be the minority.

In the case of sex-selective abortion, feminists are, of course, upset about the termination of female fetuses because parents want sons. Femicide is obviously part of women’s oppression. The way to stop it, however, is not by continuing to oppress women by denying them abortion access; it is to fervently support women’s liberation and everything that comes with it, from abortion to education, with the hope that, as the patriarchy slowly, SLOWLY comes undone, sex-selective abortion will go with it. And I believe it will.

The Down syndrome situation is parallel. I don’t think it’s okay to select for an able-bodied fetus, but the reason women do it is not because women are cold-hearted and must be prevented from killing their young. It is because our current systems devalue minds and bodies that differ from the supposed norm, and make it hard (financially, socially, and otherwise) to rear children who have such differences. The way to stop the abortion of Down’s fetuses isn’t to stop women from having the abortions — that’s coming in way to late in the game. We need to start at the beginning, making raising kids with disabilities a realistic option for women of every class. That means creating better support systems, and undoing the stigma and anxiety surrounding disability in our culture.

Stephanie also says:

And so, the article notes, two traditional “liberal values” – right to choose and tolerance for difference – are on a collision course. . . . With all our recent innovations in reproductive technologies, we’re already embarking on our brave new world. Do we need to come to a better consensus on how we should people it? And if so, how? This is a straightforward issue for the pro-life community. For those who are pro-choice, the issues are decidedly murkier.

The issues maybe be murkier, but not by much. The liberal “brave new world” looks a lot less like Huxley’s than the “pro-life” one does. Giving women the right to terminate pregnancies for any reason doesn’t mean they will exercise it. “Tolerance for difference” needs to become delight in difference. When our culture values people of all abilities, granting equality and full participation to everyone, the option of abortion based on sex, disability, or anything else, will be exercised infrequently enough that no class of people will be bred out of the population.

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2 Comments

  1. mommasteph said,

    ” “Tolerance for difference” needs to become delight in difference.”

    Yes, yes, you’re right, well put.

    And it’s interesting on the sex-selection front – early screening for gender is controversial for that reason, but are you going to continue to ban tests just based on what a woman might do with the results? I agree it’s much better to fight the systems that make having a girl baby a handicap in some societies.

    As for this:

    “Giving women the right to terminate pregnancies for any reason doesn’t mean they will exercise it. ”

    I don’t know. I can see a society in 100 years or less where getting rid of all but the “perfect” baby is the norm. I think a lot depends on how we talk about genetic screening and all the related issues, how we hash the topic out in the public and political forum. But oddly, there’s not much talk out there, which feels like a creepy silence to me. These are hard issues and unpleasant ones. But if we don’t confront them, we could slip into practicing eugenics, and perhaps we already are, regarding the Down syndrom numbers, parents feeling pressured to terminate Down fetuses, etc.

    Thanks for taking up the topic here.

  2. Daisy said,

    think a lot depends on how we talk about genetic screening and all the related issues, how we hash the topic out in the public and political forum. But oddly, there’s not much talk out there, which feels like a creepy silence to me.

    Agreed.

    These are hard issues and unpleasant ones. But if we don’t confront them, we could slip into practicing eugenics, and perhaps we already are, regarding the Down syndrom numbers, parents feeling pressured to terminate Down fetuses, etc.

    Completely true. I’d love to see large-scale campaigns (like the ones that are starting to crop up) combatting myths about disability, and parents and families speaking about their experiences, and the government doing a better job in terms of heathcare, support systems, education… I just don’t think “Is it okay for women to abort Down’s fetuses?” is the right question to be asking. The question to ask is, “Why the heck do women feel like they need to abort planned and wanted pregnancies? How can we make it possible for them to raise the kids they want to have?”

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