A friend sent me a link on the weekend to an article about from a Conservative blog that he likes, and it really got me thinking.
Content Warning: Abortion, Ableism, Infant Illness
Image Description: Zika concept graphic. A globe with a mosquito sitting on it, and the word “zika” in front of it in red block letters.
The article in question, The UN Wants to Battle the Zika Virus By Killing More Babies, is about the UN’s response to the Zika crisis in Centre and South America, in the face of encouragement by 5 of the countries in which Zika has emerged that women delay pregnancy by as much as two years. Since pregnancies tend to be unplanned in these countries, abortion legal only in certain circumstances (Colombia) or outright illegal (El Salvador) and birth control difficult to get, the UN’s recommendation is that if the governments really want women not to have babies, they need to rethink their stance on legal, accessible abortion, birth control, and sexual education.
My friend said,
“I suppose that you’re outraged by these ableist strategies?”
So I went off on a tare about my abortion beliefs, talking about how every woman should have access to sexual education, birth control, and abortion, and how if a woman chooses to have an abortion because the baby is disabled, it’s none of my business and not my place to judge. I also went on a bit about how if we want to talk about ableism and and abortion, maybe American pro-lifers could get as worked up about how it goes on in their own backyard every day and do something constructive to stop the circumstances that cause women to consider it instead of just talking about a reality that they don’t like. I finished with a bit of a rant about how if they were really concerned about the abortion of Zika-affected fetuses in Central and South America, they could either start adopting Zika-affected babies from the region so that they’re not aborted or they could start giving money toward research for a cure for Zika.
And he emailed back, “So I was wrong?”
And I emailed back,”It’s ableist as hell and it makes me sad.”
Firstly, because the link between Zika and microcephaly is still disputed. However, even with link that’s still not been proven solid, what’s strong enough to prompt the UN to finally recommend changes to women’s’ health policy that needed to be made anyway?
The fear of having a disabled child.
Zika and the Importance of Reproductive Options for Women
Of course, this conservative blog had more than a bit of pro-life spin to it. No one has suggested killing Zika-affected babies, but rather making reproductive options (not just abortion) more accessible in countries where Zika is an issue (same thing to many pro-life people, I realize, but there’s a distinction to me as a pro-choice person, and I’m not interested in arguing that here.) This was something that needed to be done anyway. All women should have access to reproductive information and options (my opinion).
And part of that, for me, is that it’s none of my business why a woman aborts her baby. So even if a woman’s reason is ableist as hell, there’s no reason that I should know (or want to know) unless she wanted me to. I do believe that abortion, even for ableist reasons, needs to be made and kept legal, available, accessible, for all women.
This is has been a tough place to get to. Some days it’s hard to stay there. It’s hard to sort out my feelings about abortion when I’m both an advocate for women’s reproductive rights and someone who intensely dislikes ableism. I think that some people can ask whether someone can have both orientations. Most days I think it’s possible. Some days it’s difficult.
Sometimes my mind my mind starts to fight with itself when I hear things like things from Paula Avila-Guillen of the US Centre for Reproductive Rights, speaking of Central and South America to The Guardian:
“In many rural areas men and women do not have easy access to contraceptives and many pregnancies, especially in teens, are the product of sexual violence and abuse,”
My fists clench as I think about how people everywhere need good sexual education, and access to birth control and reproduction options should have the options, including abortion. And yes, it’s especially important for women living in countries where the medical community has seen enough of Zika to declare its belief that the virus and microcephaly in infants are linked, where pregnancy can be difficult to avoid and where there are few if any no services for raising disabled children deserve to know, in light of these realities, about what Zika might do to a fetus. I’ve been to South America. I know that there are few if any government supports for disabled people and loved ones that care for them. I remember vividly seeing homeless people on the streets, legs paralyzed with no wheelchair, dragging themselves around as they begged for money.
But it should have happened long ago. The UN’s recommendation to these countries that governments become more open to the idea of improving reproductive rights for women should have come a long time ago, says the women’s rights advocate in me. That it’s come about because of the suspicion that Zika will cause disability in infants is ableism, pure and simple, says the disability advocate in me, who wishes that all lives and life experiences were valued equally and that all disabled people everywhere had the supports that they needed at all stages of
I believe that disabled babies deserve a chance too, which sounds like something the pro-life movement would like.
But I’m not pro-life, as much as I sound like it sometimes. And the UN has no monopoly on ableism.
Zika and Abortion Specifically
As of Feb 3, there have been 35 cases of Zika in the US, all of them caused by exposure to infected mosquitoes through travel. No pregnant women have been infected. There’s also some evidence to support the idea that Zika may be sexually transmitted.
A Zika-infected baby born with microcephaly in North America would theoretically have a better chance at a fulfilling life in a country like the United States or Canada, where more services are available (not enough, but more) than one born in Central or South America.
But should a fetus be diagnosed with Zika in the US, how welcome would it be? I found these comments at the end of only 2 articles about Zika:
- “EXCUSE ME???? What is unethical – and in fact IMMORAL – is to knowingly bring a severely mentally and physically disabled child into a world of SEVEN BILLION PEOPLE where we are RUNNING OUT OF EVERYTHING. Good God. Why is this even a question?”
- “My unborn deserved to live without stigma, stares, and the ability to be productive and not yelp and drool, and not be a 19 year old that had to have changed diapers, who could get married and have a family, pay ball, run……so I decided that termination was best for the both of us. I don’t regret that decision at all.”
- “Why would any woman knowingly allow a severely deformed-disabled child to be born? Would SHE want to be born in that condition?”
I hate comments like those. And yet, as someone who believes in a woman’s right to have an abortion, I would not say to the woman in the second comment, “Well, your reasons for having an abortion were wrong.” That’s not my right.
And for the record, I do share the concerns that women have brought up about Zika-infected fetuses in the US especially: that lawmakers will try to force women will to carry to term against their will without adding services to assist with raising them, that they’ll become another way to shame women (“You shouldn’t have traveled to that area”, “you should have been more careful with birth control”, “you shouldn’t be having sex right now”), and that they’ll be used to in general to chip away at the right to legal abortion in areas where it’s particularly contentious.
I will always fight for a woman’s right to have an abortion, regardless of her reason.
That doesn’t mean that I can’t be sad about the reason, because ableism makes me sad and angry.
There’s conflict. But where isn’t there conflict, right?
More about this later, probably.