At The Intersection: Down’s Syndrome & Abortion

Picture of a girl with Down’s Syndrome

There has been a lot said over the past 48 hours about Downs Syndrome, prenatal screening and abortion thanks in large part to some tweets sent out by Richard Dawkins:

Whilst many of us naturally baulk at such words we must remember that in the UK prenatal screening for Down’s Syndrome is common place. With an overwhelming majority of the people who are told they are pregnant with a foetus with Down’s Syndrome choosing to terminate and many will then go on to try again. This is something that is worthy of discussion. It doesn’t take much research to realise that many people with Down’s Syndrome live perfectly healthy & happy lives. So why do so many make the choice to terminate?

When you listen to the reasons people give to that question they normally fit one of two themes:

  1. I want to minimise suffering of the child (because I know my child will be bullied, marginalised and excluded and/or because I have picked up the idea that living with an impairment is automatically physically miserable – especially for female children who will be judged heavily on physical appearance)
  2. I want to minimise my/our suffering (because of issues surrounding a lack of care & support – which can be social, physical, emotional & financial as well as the pressures placed on women specifically to be ideal mothers)

Though I personally believe they are all symptomatic of institutionalised disablism  (ableism to any US readers) and sexism.

The desire to minimise the child’s suffering comes from one of two place normally; the flawed assumption that a child with Down’s Syndrome will live a life of physical suffering which tends to stem from poor medical advice or poor understanding of the condition. That and the knowledge that our society, today, treats disabled people really badly. As it stands people know that a child who looks a bit different to others will be bullied, that there are far too many people who find disability so uncomfortable that they will exclude disabled people, and they know that there are far too many that judge an individuals worth on physical appearance and/or educational and financial attainment alone (as Dawkins showed later in his tweets).

People also realise that we, as a society don’t provide the necessary support that parents and disabled individuals require. Cash strapped councils provide little in the way of funding or time for personal care or respite, the government provides very little in the way of financial recompense for caring and pushes an idealised model of family life that is unobtainable if one/the only parent is a carer. Women know that they are most likely to be the ones that give up work to care for a disabled child when society refuses to help, which is a big ask for many. A lack of free equipment from the NHS coupled with extortionate charges by private companies means that everyday costs increase massively. There is little emotional support available as families, friends, employers & communities are not always understanding (especially when termination was an option that wasn’t taken) and the precious few services available to provide support are closed or under threat. Social care for adults is abysmal and many know that disabled young adults will be left to live at home instead of being able to develop independently.

All of this is symptomatic of institutionalised disablism. In a non-institutionally disablist society people with impairments like Down’s Syndrome wouldn’t be disabled by peoples attitudes, negative stereotypes, a lack of support and poverty. Parents would be able to get all the support they require without suffering socially, emotionally, financially or physically.

This is an area that needs to be looked at critically but it’s thought of as a difficult area to look at because it sits right at the intersection between the womens rights movement & the disabled peoples rights movement. It’s also often polarised by quickly becoming framed as a either/or argument. Where people are either “pro-choice & anti-disabled people” or “anti-choice & pro-disabled people”. I don’t believe it is an either/or situation. I firmly believe you can be pro-choice and at the same time understand that negative stereotypes and societal norms can effect those choices and want to work against those. I’d never get angry with someone for making a choice that society pressures them into (choosing the path of least resistance). Instead I get angry with a society that covertly and overtly pushes a “right choice” which is both a symptom of, and part of, perpetuating inequality. Feminists will happily agree that sex-selective abortions are almost always a symptom of living in a sexist society and continue to challenge sexism whilst being pro-choice. This is no different in principle. The main reason people, feminists and disabled people’s rights campaigners alike, seem to think it’s different is because it deals with a different form of oppression to the one they are used to dealing with. I’ve met plenty of feminists who know very little about disability and are firmly rooted in the problematic medical model, and I’ve met plenty of disability rights campaigners who honestly can’t see the women aren’t treated equally to men. This is one of a multitude of reasons why an intersectional approach is necessary.

It would be really great if we could use this wave of interest to open up a more of a dialogue about the effect of institutional sexism and disablism on the choices we make and how it can serve to perpetuate inequality. I like to think it’d be more helpful to both causes than simply calling Dawkins a prat and moving on.

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