Less Than / More Than – My complicated thoughts on reproductive rights & feminist discussions

When I’m not being a student, I typically get temp jobs working in a variety of offices. Once things get settled, and folks realise I am married, they often start asking about kids. “Do you have kids? No? When are you having kids? It’s not too late, you know!”

This may seem like an opening for a post about being child-free, but it’s not.

I often put these questions off with flippancy or a shrug or just saying we’re not interested in having kids. In my experience, this will often have people leave the issue be.

Sometimes, though, people will hound and hound and hound.

“Oh, it’s different when they’re yours. But what about Don, what does he think of all of this? What about your parents? What about– what about– what about?” 1

Do you want to know the secret way of getting people to never again ask why you’re not having children?

At some point, drop into a conversation that your husband’s disability is genetic.

Without fail, that has stopped every single person who has asked and asked and asked about children, even when the “genetic” bomb isn’t dropped in a conversation about having children.

One of the reasons why the focus of abortion! abortion! abortion! whenever talking about reproductive rights really bothers me (and a lot of others) is because of the assumption that people like Don & I shouldn’t have children (because – oh no! – the child likely will have Marfan’s just like Don! And everyone knows people like Don are a burden on the system/have miserable lives/are never happy/can never be married/are all the same/should be stopped/are just an example for the rest of us). When people focus on reproductive rights only involving abortion, they neglect that, for people like us, the pushback is to not have children. Don’t burden the system. Think of the children – and don’t have any.

I’ve seen similar conversations play out around the feminist blogosphere. 2 When older women have children, there is always a sudden upswing in “BUT THE CHILD MIGHT HAVE A DISABILITY!” (Yes, the child might. And the child might fall out of a tree and land wrong. Or the child might grow up to be the next Stephen Harper and prorogue Canadian government. WHO KNOWS!) “Think of the children!”

The same fears are reflected when discussing women with disabilities having children (with bonus “but how will she care for the child?”), or when parents forcibly sterilize their disabled daughters.

This pains me, perhaps especially as someone who doesn’t want children. It pains many other women who, for a variety of reasons, are discouraged or outright prevented from having children they want. That, in North America, these women are overwhelmingly women of colour, lower class, disabled, queer – that they’re often women who have been institutionalised in some way, be it a “medical” institution or a “criminal” one – is not a coincidence.

In my experience, marginalized voices who speak out about this disparity between on-line feminist discussions of abortion and on-line feminist discussions from a broader reproductive justice framework 3 are often shouted down, or ignored. We’re told our issues are “special circumstances”, or “pet projects” or “in the minority” or “don’t apply to as many people” or … Well, basically everything feminists in general are told when they talk about issues that are “special circumstances” that don’t apply to enough people (read: men) to count.

Frankly, I end up not knowing where to go from here. Do we, who are limited on spoons or forks or energy or time, keep trying to push for more mainstream feminist discussion on these issues? Do we form our own spaces, our own groups, and have our own discussions? Do we write blog posts that seem to dwindle down, rather than lead us all into the future?

I don’t know. I know and respect people who have made each of those choices, and still others that I haven’t mentioned. But I don’t know what the right one is.

Maybe they all are.

  1. Everything in quotation marks in this post is a paraphrase.
  2. I have decided not to link to specific examples, because it’s a general attitude I’m talking about here. And also, who wants to start a blog-war? Not I, said the Anna.
  3. FREE Halifax: Feminists for Reproductive Justice & Equality. We meet every other Tuesday for teach-ins & movies about Reproductive Justice. Look for us on Facebook.

29 Comments

  1. I am pro-reproductive CHOICE. As in _everyone_ should have the choice of whether or not to bear and raise children.

  2. When I point out that a parent can do everything right and still end up raising a disabled child, people reply “well, that’s different“. No, it isn’t. There’s still a parent and a child; the job is to raise a child to be the best person they can possibly be. Disability (whether parent, child, or both) may change how the child is raised, but the end goal is still the same: an adult who is the best person they can manage to be.

  3. “Or the child might grow up to be the next Stephen Harper and prorogue Canadian government.”

    I couldn’t help it. That made me laugh.

    I suppose the ‘don’t have kids’ argument in cases like yours is only natural. As a culture, we’re often focused on helping children grow up to be all they can, so to deliberately bring a child into the world with (what we perceive as) a disadvantage seems really selfish, and I suppose it is. Still, I can see the implied insult–your genes are inferior, we don’t want more people like you, the next generation would be better served if you don’t add to it, etc.

    Reproductive rights are a tricky area in the best of circumstances, because you’re talking about not only the rights of the (potential) parents, but also those of any children that they may have. As I see it, there’s no real right answer, only judgement calls, and being such a personal issue, we need to be able to trust others to make those calls because it is absolutely not our place to make them for them. Even if the choice made isn’t one we agree with, we need to respect it, because no one will know the future until it gets here.

  4. Jayn, did I misread your comment, or did you really comment on a post about the problematic nature of responses like yours by leaving a response saying that it’s natural for people to think my husband and I shouldn’t have kids because it’s letting children down to let them be born with a disability?

    [edited to add “because”]

  5. Natural, but not right…..My apologies….I’ll shut up now……

  6. There’s a lot to think about in this post. One of my disabling conditions is genetic, and I’ve got the message quite clearly that the fact that I would like to have children is selfish, irresponsible, reckless. It doesn’t matter, it’s never going to happen. Watching my friends and siblings beginning to have kids, it’s been difficult. And everyone assumes that because I’m so messed up, I never even think about wanting that kind of thing.

    It’s hard to read reproductive choice issues in the general feminist online communities, because while I am pro-choice, I am also pro-disability rights. And the two seem to clash way too much for me to be comfortable participating in discussions, particularly after the Ashley X treatment. And I know that my issues are niche issues, that we’re a minority. But constantly hearing “but we’re not talking about you!” is frustrating. I know they’re not talking about me or women like me. They never are.

  7. As I have pointed out numerous times concerning older moms (1) yes, mom might die while the child is young, and so could any 20-year-old mother. Continued existence is not a guarantee. (2) yes, the child might be disabled, and that’s hardly the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. Disabled people lead productive, happy lives just like everyone else. Don’t project your own fear of disability/bigotry towards the disabled onto someone else’s reproductive choices.

  8. I know what you are talking about. As a woman with disabilities, I long ago decided that I don’t really want biological children. This is for many reasons but my disabilities are a contributing factor. I have invisible disabilities, so when ever children come up and I mention I don’t want biological children, I get asked about why not. Of all my reasons for not having children, saying “I don’t want to pass on my disabilities” shuts the asker up the fastest.

    I want to make it clear, I do not think it is selfish or bad or wrong for people with disabilities to have kids. It just isn’t the right choice for me, for many reasons. I think each person disabled or not, gets to make the child choice for him or her self.

    I also can understand why a woman might decide she can’t have a child with disabilities. Some of those reasons are likely rooted in ablism. But I have to respect that that woman is an adult and, even if her views are problematic, she has the right to make that choice. Education about ablism is the best and I think only thing that can be done.

  9. Great post. I’d note that the exact same issue comes up in discussions of fetal viability. (“An infant who is premature by x weeks will most likely end up being disabled, oh no!”)

    I’m unsure about kids myself, but because my partner and I are both autistic I have gotten some of the ableism discussed here, and I imagine we’ll get more if we ever talk more seriously about having kids. “Maybe you could consider adoption!” Ugh.

    And that doesn’t even get into my fears about what will happen if we do have a (biological) child who is (GASP) autistic.

    This kind of ableism is not natural, and has everything to do with which lives are considered valuable.

  10. A great post with a lot of food for thought, thank you.

    I’m childfree and bipolar, and yes, I have thought about these things. I am glad that you are raising these points for consideration, because this isn’t something I’ve really seen talked about anywhere else.

  11. I’m absolutely sure that all of my ‘issues’ are hereditary, what’s more, I’m almost 100% sure that if I have children any one of those children will have at least a few, if not all, of those issues too. That is not the reason we don’t want to/can’t have children.

    I’m afraid to say it (because of frightening reactions I have had to this previously) but I’m going to do it anyway: If I ever have children I WANT them to be autistic too. I want them to be like me in that way, the same way that me and my brothers were so recognisable and understandable to my own mom.

  12. The ableist arguments about people with heritable disabilities not having children always remind me of the forced-birther emails my grandma forwards me where a disabled/poor/etc. woman considering abortion is surprised to discover she just aborted Beethoven/Jesus/whomever. Aside from the usual lack of historical fact in these examples, and the fact that nobody ever just aborted Hitler or Pol Pot – there is a nugget of worth in there. I’m (obviously, forced-birther reference) pro-choice, and know that these examples fail because if said person was never born, we’d never know it and it wouldn’t matter (I also usually just write back a snarky “God aborts Beethoven every time a woman miscarries”). But the truth of the matter is that there is always the possibility that a disabled child could be the next Stephen Hawking or Temple Grandin. You wanna play moralize-about-chance – let’s play.

    There’s a great story in this Tony Robbins book my brother gave me (I know, I know…) about two brothers born to a drug-addicted criminal, in jail for most of their childhoods for armed robbery. One followed in his father’s footsteps, the other became a successful businessman and celebrated humanitarian. When asked individually why they turned out the way they did, both gave the answer: “With a father like that, how could I have turned out any differently?”. What a person will contribute, and how they’ll feel about their own life, is so unpredictable, so subject to the smallest chance events, that it’s useless to argue for anything other than personal choice. I think too many people conflate that feeling of “I don’t agree with their decision/ I wouldn’t make it” with “I have the right to mandate their decision”. If you (the societal you) don’t believe a particular person would make a good parent, go ahead and purse your lips and shut your mouth. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had a friend or family member make a decision for themselves or their children that I thought was a poor decision, only to witness later that the world did not end because of it, even when the bad thing I ‘predicted’ would happen as a result did – it’s seldom as bad as we think it will be (or more accurately, it’s as bad as we think it will be about as often as it turns out as awesome as we hope it will be).

  13. This is a really heavy post and it’s something that’s always concerned me. Of course it’s nothing new to say that the feminist blogsphere isn’t exactly educated about disability rights, but there is a particular sensitivity when it comes to abortion, like if we aren’t 100% on the bus then we’re off the bus. There’s got to be a way to re-frame this debate so that we include both the idea that abortion should be an option for every pregnancy, while also stressing that we should provide the support to bring wanted pregnancies to birth and beyond. Which would require de-stigmatizing disabilities both in children and in adults who want to bear a child. It IS a crucial intersection – every pregnancy that comes to term should be a wanted child, but a disability shouldn’t automatically make a child unwanted or make a parent unfit.

    I say “reframe the debate” because I think most non-disabled feminists really do believe that reproductive rights is about more than abortion, but are sort of driven to talking constantly about the most contentious aspect.

  14. As someone who was told as a teenager ‘you probably shouldn’t have children’, I can fully relate to this. And my disability isn’t genetic.

  15. thank you for this post…I have thought about such questions/issues and have not yet arrived in a place from which I can articulate anything well.
    It is nice to know that I’m not alone in this either.

  16. Yes, thank you for this, Anna.

    I’m autistic, and depressed, with a notable family history of depression. I do not want children, only partly because I think my disabilities might interfere with my ability to be a good parent. (Also, like Norah, *IF* I wanted a child at all, I think I’d probably do best with an autistic child — at least that way, I’d have some chance that my own childhood experiences might be even a little bit relevant!) But, for me, most of the reasons are ethical/philosophical or just plain preference: I’m an introvert. I’m happy alone. Having someone I’d be responsible for every hour of every day really doesn’t sound like anything I’d want to sign up for.

    So, really, the effect my disabilities have on my desire not to have children is inseparable from the effect of all the other aspects of who I am.

  17. It’s easy to pass judgment on people until, of course, you get to know them and understand their situation. We have been raised in a Paternalistic system and thus it would be unsurprising that we ourselves didn’t reach for Paternalistic responses that sound satisfying, tidy, and neat, until, of course, the complexity of each individual case is examined.

  18. I guess this whole issue is a little too close for comfort for me, so I don’t know how to comment, really. Except to say that I’m glad there’s a place where this is being discussed, because it often feels like I am one of the only ones who has to think about this kind of stuff.

  19. Excellent post! Though neither my partner or I wish to have any children, we have nevertheless experienced this sort of ableism, before we reveal we don’t actually want any kids. It’s no secret among most of our friends and acquaintences that I have both borderline personality and bipolar disorder, as well as anorexia and a few seperate anxiety disorders, and also that my partner has schizophrenia. We’ve encountered people telling us we probably shouldn’t have kids, people asking us if we “really wanted to do that to the children,” etc. It is absolutely infuriating. God forbid we should bring a child who may develop a mental ilness into the world. Implying that my and my partner’s disabilities are such abominations that we shouldn’t dare take the chance of passing them on sends me into a rant that while may not change anyone’s views, I hope at least makes them give what they’ve said some serious thought. As I ask them, “If our mental illnesses have made us such pathetic, hopeless creatures, why are you friends with us?” That usually does the trick!

  20. Great post. I do want children and I do want to adopt. I even have a preference for *gasp* disabled children. In my personal situation, I know I could be a good mother if I adopted, but not if I go through with pregnancy.

    Of course, there are many issues with ableism and adoption, such as children with disabilities be on separate listings and costing less to adopt. My parents got a discount on me becuase I was a black girl who they thought would have intellectual disabilities.

  21. I can’t believe one of the first replies said it would be selfish to knowingly bring a disabled child into the world and made it sound like being disabled makes it less possible to be all you can be.

    I am from a family that flat out lacks members without disability or chronic illness. Well okay maybe a couple. It insults my whole extended family to act like we shouldn’t have existed, selfish of us to reproduce, etc. Reminds me of the eugenic fit family contests.

    I have been told I shouldn’t reproduce because there might be more like me (WTF) or because I am supposedly too severely disabled to raise a child (er, no). I bet lots of people are relieved to hear I medically wouldn’t survive pregnancy and seem to have spontaneously quit menstruating. (Then I won’t make more of me, the horror!)

    If people don’t realize how offensive this is… I have no words.

  22. I don’t believe I have any right to make any comments about who would/would not be a great parent, anymore than I have any right to make any comments about who should/should not be born. I believe strongly that as a society, we owe it to all of us to make sure that all families have access to the support they need to function the best they can, that all people have access to the support they need to at least try to meet their goals.

    I believe that parents or potential parents who have disabilities are pretty well aware of their own abilities, their own strengths and weaknesses, and I trust them to make thoughtful choices. I believe that parents or potential parents who don’t have disabilities are also pretty well aware of their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, and I trust them to make thoughtful choices. I trust people to make thoughtful choices, even when they’re young, poor, or pregnant, and even when their choices are not the choices I would make for myself or my family.

    And I believe that as a society, we need to be better at looking out for each other so that when parents, families, and people do find themselves struggling with the choices they’ve made, they have easy access to the support and help they need.

  23. Applying the word ‘selfish’ to decisions to have or not have children always boggles me. Personal choices are by their very nature selfish. It’s no more or less selfish to have children than it is to not have them, no matter the reason. No matter how much more care my children would or would not require, surely that affects myself and my partner/s far more than anyone else?

    The fact that people’s BABY BABY BABY gets stopped cold as soon as the reason (25 to 50% chance of schizophrenia, at least according to what I read about it as a teenie) is mentioned drives me up the wall. Because it’s never ‘oh, fair enough’ in a ‘you’ve thought about it and made a personal choice’ way, it’s always in a ‘well OBVIOUSLY, because ooga booga booga I watch too much TV’, accompanied with the assumption that diagnosis = flat no, which is very much not the case. Shut up, crap people, my nanna did better job than most people who didn’t have auditory and/or visual hallucinations every day, so clearly that wasn’t an issue for her. The fact I want to avoid having a tiny human in my care in the early stages if I can doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, it just means I don’t want to. Because I’m SELFISH >:(

    Also, seconding the ‘please universe, if I have children let them be ASD’. Mostly because that the idea of my child giving me that look because I took something literally or forgot to look their friends’ parents in the eye would be so much worse than getting it from strangers, or even partners. 🙁 I’m unlikely to have kids anyway, but still.

    Sorry if this is tl;dr. I JUST HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS, OKAY 🙁

  24. The problems you outline here are exactly why I’m having inner conflict about whether or not I want children of my own. An ex of mine constantly hammered on the idea of having abortion accessible to all because of PWD who could pass their “life-long suffering” and “defective genes” to “innocent children”. The irony being? Said person was a PWD. I wound up getting sucked into it and backed up their points like a warhammer, proclaiming myself as child-free because they were for their reasons.

    Now I’m struggling to get that poisonous experience and the poisonous words out of my head. I keep thinking to myself that maybe I do want kids, but their arguments keep ringing in my head. It haunts me as I try to fight it and sometimes I feel like there’s no hope in defeating the thoughts.

    Thank you for posting this. It might help me defeat those inner demons that are left over from the past.

  25. I’ll third (fourth?) the wanting autistic children, whether through adoption or natural means. I really feel that I could be a particularly understanding parent of such a child. Having grown up with loving and well-meaning non-spectrum parents who made some mistakes, I’d really want to do right by an autistic child. But if I do have a non-spectrum child I’m sure I would love hir just as much. I don’t want to feel like I’m ordering a child in a way which ableist people expect a “perfect” child.

  26. I am 31 years old and don’t want to have children. My reasons for not wanting to have children are personal (and frankly rather mundane, along the lines of “there are a million other things I’d rather be doing with my time”).

    In any case, it amazes me just how many people seem to think my reproductive status is somehow their business. Several years ago (when I was in my mid-20s) a co-worker said something to me like “you’d better have kids soon, if you wait too long they’re going to come out deformed!” It wasn’t until later on that the utter bizarritude of that statement really hit me…not just the assumption that it was okay to tell me what I ought to be doing with my uterus and when, but the ableism and ageism.

    And then at the same time, I’ve noticed that as soon as someone finds out you’re disabled in some way (I’m on the autistic spectrum and also have a history of thyroid issues and hypermobility), they act like you’re doing some great noble thing by not reproducing. Just…ugh. It’s like no matter what I’m going to get condescending lectures from someone!

  27. When I became ill with bipolar disorder, which my mother also suffered from, my family stopped asking me about marriage and children, and I expected the rest of the world to do the same. Strangely enough, though I’m still torn over having biological children (or any children at all) myself, I’ve found the most support for my right to reproductive freedom among medical professionals, including several psychiatrists, my gynecologist, and obstetricians I have worked with. I cried in my car after an appointment with my gynecologist where she explained that an IUD would be reversible “if, say, you met someone and wanted to have kids in a year or two.” It’s very difficult for me not to feel that I’m somehow barred from partnership and from having children, and not only because pregnancy would be difficult and I might pass on a predisposition to my illness, but simply because I’ve been labeled, and accepted the label of “mentally ill,” which, among the stigma-indoctrinated masses, calls into question my ability to do many things including maintain a long-term relationship and parent.

  28. I am from a family that flat out lacks members without disability or chronic illness. Well okay maybe a couple. It insults my whole extended family to act like we shouldn’t have existed, selfish of us to reproduce, etc. Reminds me of the eugenic fit family contests.

    Yes yes yes. I think this might ultimately be the most insulting part of the whole, “Of COURSE you can’t have kids!” thing, especially for couples that don’t want to have kids. “Of COURSE you don’t want to bring a child into this world with crippling scoliosis” is really, really close to “You have crippling scoliosis and shouldn’t have been born.”

  29. I feel very divided on this issue. On one hand, I recoil from the idea of telling anyone they shouldn’t reproduce. I know enough about the history of eugenics to know the problems with that.

    On the other hand, I suffer from a genetic disability that has made much of my life very, very difficult. It’s painful both mentally and physically ALL THE TIME, and many of my dreams have been stripped from me. I’ve discovered recently that pregnancy would not be wise for me as I could get very sick or die (or the baby could) but honestly, I wouldn’t do it even if I could. I have already asked my doctor dozens of times for sterilization options. I can’t let a mistake put another child in the position I have been in all my life. I will never, ever willingly make another person go through what I have gone through. Maybe I’ll adopt one day if I progress to the point where I can properly take care of myself (my ability to take care of a child absolutely MUST come before my desire for one) and another person, but that day is not today, nor is it likely to be in my near future.

    I feel awkward saying ‘everyone should be able to have a children, but I think it would be morally wrong and also selfish for me to have one’ because what is that really saying? I don’t know. All I know is how often I truly wished my mother had just adopted instead of having me. No child should ever think that…