Abortion foes should not use people with disabilities as props

With the constant attacks on reproductive rights, it is easy to feel your blood boil every time another right-wing, anti-choice message comes your way.

The phrases and anecdotes used to support the argument against legal abortion get under my skin so much that I often refuse to talk about the issue.

But during the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, I immediately wanted to engage when Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., made a very subtle reference to abortion, while positioning herself and the GOP as allies of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers said: “Three days after we gave birth to our son, Cole, we got news no parent expects. Cole was diagnosed with Down syndrome. The doctors told us he could have endless complications, heart defects, even early Alzheimer’s. They told us all the problems. But when we looked at our son, we saw only possibilities. We saw a gift from God.”

Immediately, I knew what Rep. McMorris Rodgers was doing.

It is a frequent tactic used by anti-choice advocates against abortion, as often, women who are told before giving birth that their child will have Down syndrome or another disability choose to obtain an abortion. Disability advocates like myself understand why many would immediately recoil and be alarmed or ashamed by that. However, this anti-choice tactic is especially rich coming from a political party which is anything but an ally of people with disabilities.

The tactic boils down to, essentially, using a person with a disability as a prop for the anti-choice argument – a position that would actually have the most negative impacts on those very individuals.

For the past four years, I have been employed as a direct-support provider for a teen with autism. The organization I work for also provides services to many adults with autism and other developmental and physical disabilities.

The individuals who live in these homes vary in their intellectual and developmental capabilities and have different levels of ability in communication, daily living, and social interaction. Some have very strong support systems that work with them toward their independence – others do not. Most spend their days at work – some making a living wage, others making sub-minimum wage.

The people who work with these individuals undergo many, many hours of training and background checks to be fully qualified. Some of the issues brought up during these trainings got me to thinking about how delicate the rights of some of these individuals are – and how easily they can be violated.

When going over the types of observations staff need to make to ensure the health and safety of the individuals we serve, we were told that one particular area we need to focus on, for women, is their menstrual cycle, and whether it is “normal.” This is especially delicate, the instructor told us, because these women are vulnerable to sexual and emotional abuse and, therefore, have a high risk of unplanned pregnancy. Furthermore, women who become pregnant may have a difficult time expressing this due to their disabilities.

People often think of autistic individuals as being completely shut out from the “real world.” Because many are non-verbal, and because all have difficulty communicating their feelings or emotions, many people think that they don’t actually have feelings or emotions.

Similarly, non-disabled people often de-sexualize people with disabilities and fail to see them as living, sexual beings just like people without disabilities. Women with disabilities are more susceptible to abuse and being taken advantage of. They may easily be denied access to proper sexual education, reproductive health care, and even their own income, particularly if they must rely on caregivers for these things.

A study by The ARC, a disability rights organization, demonstrates the rates of sexual abuse among people with disabilities and the risk factors and effects. The report states:

“Studies consistently demonstrate that people with intellectual disabilities are sexually victimized more often than others who do not have a disability (Furey, 1994). For example, one study reported that 25 percent of girls and women with intellectual disabilities who were referred for birth control had a history of sexual violence (Sobsey, 1994). Other studies suggest that 49 percent of people with intellectual disabilities will experience 10 or more sexually abusive incidents (Sobsey & Doe, 1991).”

The voices of the anti-choice movement such as Rick Santorum, or Rep. Morris Rodgers, often trot out people with Down syndrome or other disabilities as props to support their argument that abortion is an oppressive practice against people with disabilities.

But not only are women with disabilities more likely than non-disabled women to be sexually abused, they also are more likely to lack access to reproductive health care or even the means to take care of a child.

I’m sure Rep. McMorris Rodgers loves her child dearly, and am happy to see that he is living a full and healthy life. However, many people with disabilities do not have such strong support systems. Not only does the war on proper sexual education and reproductive rights hurt all young women, it is especially harmful to women who are vulnerable to the violation of their rights and already lack many options.

Furthermore, women with disabilities are also vulnerable to forced sterilization and eugenicist practices that deprive them of their choice to have a child. Therefore, using people with disabilities to promote an anti-choice argument is especially ironic coming from people like Rick Santorum who  voted against ratification of the United Nations Disabilities Treaty, or Rep. McMorris Rodgers who supported the Ryan budget which would have severely cut vital social programs, negatively impacting people with disabilities who often rely on Medicaid, SNAP, and Social Security benefits simply to stay out of poverty.

It is vital that we dig deep and look past the right-wing rhetoric, to see the real impacts that anti-choice policies have. Furthermore, it reminds all of us who consider ourselves allies and advocates that the voices of the most marginalized must be brought to the center in order to achieve a more just society.

Courtney Hayes is a direct-support provider for people with disabilities, as well as a student, Young Activist United-St. Louis leader, and youth and student co-chair of St. Louis Jobs with Justice.

Photo: Melissa Brewer CC 2.0