RLB, abortion rights and disability

Submitted by SJW on 10 March, 2020 - 5:13 Author: Pete Boggs

During the Labour leadership contest, Rebecca Long-Bailey answered a questionnaire from the Catholic church in her constituency, saying amongst other things that she personally disagreed with the different term limits for terminating a pregnancy when there is no disability (up to 24 weeks) compared to when there is (up to full-term). Whilst this alone does not make it clear if she personally wants term limits to be removed altogether or for them to be reduced to 24 weeks across the board, in the context of her other comments about abortion in the questionnaire the latter seems more likely.

After the outcry over these comments coming to the public attention, Long-Bailey clarified that this was only her personal opinion, and signed a list of pledges unequivocally opposing stricter limits on abortion. However, posing freer abortions and equality for disabled people as opposed has been a growing phenomenon, both from disability rights activists and from anti-abortionists.

In 2017, the Tory Lord Shinkwin, who has brittle bone syndrome, introduced a private member’s bill attempting to restrict abortion in the case of disability to 24 weeks. He said that at present “the diagnosis of disability carries a death sentence”, and referred to a “blatantly discriminatory eugenic agenda”. In 2014 the Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón attempted to introduce a law restricting abortions to cases of rape (up to 12 weeks) or grave risk to health (up to 22 weeks), citing the right to life of people with disabilities.

Similarly, the No campaign in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland prominently used images of children with Down syndrome on their billboards. Thankfully both laws fell, Ruiz-Gallardon was forced to resign after large protests, and the referendum passed.

Down syndrome

Much of the thinking and debate surrounding abortion and disability has centred around Down syndrome. Iceland has been portrayed as carrying out mass abortions of foetuses with Down syndrome, and there claims that no children with Down syndrome are now born in Iceland due to parents being encouraged to have abortions.

In reality the truth is more complicated. The tiny population and corresponding number births per year means that the figures as presented by the World Health Organisation are misleading when read out of context, and the birth rate of children with Down syndrome is only 10% below the average across the EU. Rather, it is merely the case that Iceland offers extensive prenatal tests and counselling for pregnant people.

Prenatal tests and the information given to prospective parents has also been a topic of consternation. Previously the main way of testing for genetic conditions such as Down syndrome was through amniocentesis which is invasive and carries a risk of miscarriage, but recently this has been replaced with non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), which instead takes blood samples from the pregnant person.

The campaign group Don’t Screen Us Out (DSUO) has campaigned against NIPT, as it enables more widespread testing, therefore identifying more people if their foetus has Down syndrome, allowing them to terminate the pregnancy. Again, DSUO condemns this practice as a form of eugenics, and seeks an overhaul of prenatal support provided by the NHS as a prerequisite to the implementation of NIPT.

On the basis of claims by campaigners like DSUO, there do seem to be problems with the information given to expecting parents about disability. Value-laden terms such as ‘risk’ rather than ‘chance’ are used for the likelihood of having a child with a disability, and out of date information tinged with ableism is often offered. For instance, parents are often told that children with Down syndrome have a very low life expectancy despite that no longer being the case.

Many of the calculations and decisions taken by society, the market, and the state undervalue the lives of disabled people, reducing them to a burden. This is a thoroughly wrongheaded view, but unfortunately goes beyond a simple matter of attitude. No matter the dedication and love shown by the parents, it often requires serious time, money, and effort to care for disabled children. This is made difficult under a system which overworks and underpays people whilst providing wholly inadequate welfare services.

In a society which fully valued and provided for everyone in it, people could have much more freedom in how they plan their family. Decisions made by pregnant people about their own bodily autonomy or their family are not comparable to eugenics. These individual decisions are based on that person taking shape of their own life, whereas eugenics is a programme at the level of a society to consciously shape the genetic stock: the history of eugenics is one of taking away reproductive freedoms, rather than granting them.

At the most simple level, the only justification needed for an abortion should be that someone who is pregnant wants to cease being pregnant. At no point should someone be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. The public debate over disability and abortion has largely taken place around the question of term limits; while these still exist it is difficult to extract these discussions from the broader question of reproductive freedom.

The disability activist Frances Ryan argues that thinking around disability and pregnancy is often a ‘black-and-white dichotomy’, counterposing the tragedy of having a disabled child to the evil of having an abortion. It is our job to fight for a world where neither of these acts are stigmatised. Socialists should unequivocally defend the equality of disabled people, and be unequivocally in favour of free access to abortion on demand.

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