As a Disabled Woman, My Abortion Wasn't Questioned, but My Pregnancy Was
Nicole Lee talks about the stereotypes and discrimination women with disability face as parents.
Content Warning: Mentions abortion, sterilisation, child removal.
Women’s reproductive rights are a tough enough topic for any female-identifying person in the 21st century. For the disability community though, they raise a whole different set of issues.
Women with disabilities and reproductive rights haven’t always gone hand in hand. For many of us, our bodies have been abused by people around us. From intimate partners to careless support workers and the medical profession, we’ve had our motherhood dissected, stripped bare, doubted, and questioned.
I’ve experienced this all too personally.
Although my voice is new to this space, disabled women have been talking about it, writing about it, and campaigning about it for years. “It is the lack of education, social services, and support for families and doctors alike that we should be addressing, not the state of women’s bodies,” the late activist Stella Young wrote in an article back in 2013. More recently in 2018, Eliza Hull produced a series called “We’ve got this parenting” for ABC’s Radio National in Australia. It explores the difficulties, stigmas, and stereotypes faced by people with disabilities when parenting—including when their choice to parent is taken away.
For me, the past 20 years have been very long. I have a spinal cord injury that I acquired at a young age, and as such I navigate the world using a wheelchair. Like many women with disabilities, I’ve faced more than my fair share of adversity, especially during my adult years. My womanhood has borne the brunt of it: I’ve had two children, an abortion, and a full hysterectomy all before I hit 30. But the worst part of it has been the sheer lack of awareness surrounding the deprivation of body autonomy and reproductive rights for disabled women.
I was about 22 when I attended a clinic for a termination. I already had one child, so this was a difficult decision. I expected to be offered counselling and treated with empathy and concern. But oddly, no one blinked an eye. No counselling. No questions. Further to this, no support was offered afterward.
As a disabled woman, to the outside world my choice to end a pregnancy was seen unquestionably as the “right” decision. This view potentially stems from fears around passing on genetic disorders. It’s a fear that has its origins deeply rooted in eugenics, and what is subjectively deemed as whether or not a disabled person can live “a good life.” Or it could have come from the unwittingly negative views that surround our bodies, and our ability to adapt or cope with motherhood. In other words: People seem to think that being pregnant was going to be too hard for me. I still don’t understand why this would negate the need for support, and at the time I felt alone and confused; I honestly couldn’t process this reasoning completely.
However, I reflect back on it now and realise how vastly unsupported I was in contrast to other non-disabled women at the clinic. My abortion was viewed as uncomplicated and unemotional in comparison to others. I felt like I didn’t matter—that my choice wasn’t just as difficult as the other women around me. No kind words from the nurses, no checking in to see how I was coping. Nothing. Silence.
When you live in a world that dismisses the sexuality and sexual needs of disabled people, the way I was treated shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. But remember, I was only 22. I was perhaps still too idealistic.
Flash forward a few years, and I was ready to have my second baby. As I was only 18 when I had my first child, I thought all the negative attitudes would be behind me. I’d already proved myself to be a competent parent who has a disability, after all, and my oldest was happy and healthy.
I was excited and my family was supportive—my child would get to have a sibling! I personally felt I was put on this earth to mother. Being pregnant, nurturing a baby, and raising my family was intrinsically natural to me.
Imagine you are about to welcome your second child into the world, and everyone is expecting you to fail.
Disappointingly, this decision wasn’t always welcomed with open arms. Questions like “How are you going to cope being pregnant?” seemed oddly placed to the very pregnant (and entirely “coping”) woman in front them. The question “How are you going to take care of a newborn baby?” swiftly followed it up.
Not only did this hurt, it also terrified me. My motherhood was now in the firing line. Imagine you are about to welcome your second child into the world, and everyone is expecting you to fail. This is vastly different to how other women are treated. It was certainly vastly different to how my older (able-bodied) sister was treated while pregnant: I wasn’t showered with congratulations from shop assistants when shopping for baby gear the way my sister was. People outside of my immediate family and circle of friends simply couldn’t see past my disability.
It was also so utterly different to how I was treated when terminating a pregnancy. Why wasn’t I asked about my ability to cope after having an abortion? Why was no one concerned about my welfare then?
Despite all of this, I’m still one of the lucky ones. I was able to have my children. I was allowed to make my own choices, irrespective of others’ perceptions of my ability and judgement. For so many other disabled women, their choices were revoked. Pregnancies have been forcibly terminated, babies and children taken away, and women and girls sterilised against their will. In some countries (including my native Australia), forced sterilization of disabled women still happens. In 2019, we are still actively denying disabled women the right to even contemplate if motherhood is for them.
When I put out that tweet, I wanted people to see us. I wanted people to understand how illogical it was: to doubt a disabled woman’s right to give birth to a child, but not to abort one.
Most importantly I wanted everyone, including other feminists, to understand us. To hear how differently disabled women’s agency is treated in regards to reproductive rights. When you see “her body, her choice,”I want women to know that “our” choices over “our” bodies are routinely questioned and denied. I wanted everyone to step back from the debate around abortion and not forget to fight for the reproductive rights of all women.
It feels like we’re on the verge of breaking through outdated ableist attitudes. People are starting to listen. We’ve finally had a gear shift.
You can either start to see the barriers we face and help break them down, or you can continue to be part of the structure that holds them in place. I’m asking you to include us in the conversations. Elevate our stories. Make space for us beside you. And back us when we call out ableist language and attitudes.
I’ll leave you with a quote. Originally said by feminist Flavia Dzodan and re-used by Australian disability activist Sam Conner, “Your feminism is intersectional, or it’s bulls**t.”
The choice to start seeing and including us is up to you.