It’s Always More Complicated: The “Justified” Abortion

[Trigger warning for “disabled child = burden” narrative.]

Last night I was reading several pro-choice tumblrs, one of which had linked to “The Choice“.

What makes us human? When is a life worth living? Worth ending? How much suffering is bearable? Is avoiding suffering brave or is it cowardice? When is abortion justified?

Should Fred be born, my wife would never return to work. My daughters would always come second. Some basic research online and asking friends in health roles showed a high chance of divorce before my son was a teenager, the stress of care literally tearing our family apart. Every news article we read showed little or no government support, with charities closing their doors. The doctors were encouraging about support; the real life carers we spoke to, not so much.

I’d never support killing a born child on any grounds. Yet here I was, suggesting death for a child almost born. I may not be a good man, but I’m a husband and a father. Had we not known, I’d be living with Fred’s condition today; but we take the tests so we can act on the information received.

So, let a bad man say the words that will condemn me: Fred’s life would have been less than human. It would have been filled with love, yes, but mostly loneliness, confusion, pain and frustration. The risk to my marriage and the welfare of my daughters was too much. I chose to minimise suffering. For my wife, for my daughters, for myself and most of all for Fred, I chose abortion. It was a choice of love.

I have complex reactions to this that are not really easy to talk about, but the one thing I do want to make clear:

Abortions do not need to be justified.

I know there are strong political and advocacy reasons why stories like these – the so-called “justified” abortion – are told whenever people talk about abortion and the law. They are “good” abortion stories, with the happy family, the desperately wanted child, the “horrors” for everyone had the abortion not been performed.

I struggle with these sorts of stories because I don’t know a way to talk about them. I want to talk about the way that disability is discussed in them – always, always, as horrible, as tearing families apart. And yet, these are people’s lives. I don’t think in any way they made a “wrong” or “bad” choice, or a “brave” one, either. They made the “right” choice, in that it was the “right” choice for their family, and I fear that talking about the language used is abusive. You’ve shared your painful story, your very personal story, and I want to now talk about disability and how it’s used to score points in the so-called abortion debate.

And yet, I desperately do.

I deeply resent the way anti-choice advocates point at people with disabilities and talk about how they’ll all be eliminated if we allow abortion-on-demand. The sheer amount of hate directed at Don when he goes to pro-choice rallies by the anti-choice contingent, because they see him as a traitor to their cause, is amazing to me.[1. Of course, they direct more at any pregnant pro-choice women – there’s a video clip from Toronto last year with someone telling a pregnant woman “I hope your child kills you”.]

I don’t see these same people at protests and demonstrations about making Halifax an accessible city. I don’t see them at demonstrations about improving health care options. I don’t see them doing anything for people with disabilities except using them as pawns, and I loathe them for it.

And yet, many pro-choice advocates also use people with disabilities as pawns in these so-called debates. They hold up stories of fetal abnormalities as “justified abortion”, as the acceptable test-case, the one they know the general public is likely to agree with. I see no analysis, no discussion, of the ableist nature of this narrative. It’s an acceptable justified abortion because the fetus was abnormal, and who wants a broken child that’s going to ruin everyone’s life?

All abortions are justified.

It troubles me so much that it’s only the “abnormal” fetuses that are okay to use as abortion stories.

[Originally published on my tumblr]

[Note: Things we are not going to do in this thread: Debate whether or not abortion is “okay”. Publish shaming comments towards women who have abortions. Talk about people with disabilities as burdens. Discuss individual actions as though they occur in a complete vacuum and are not influenced by societal attitudes and pressures.]

16 thoughts on “It’s Always More Complicated: The “Justified” Abortion

  1. Well said! I hate both the attitude that abortions must be justified AND the attitude that PWDs are a burden. Thank you for a well-written piece on a difficult and contentious topic.

  2. This is one of those topics where I feel like there are two constructed and opposing sides to an argument that doesn’t feel right. That is, people with disabilities are people, with hopes, dreams, and people who love us. While it’s not always easy to raise a disabled child or be disabled in a culture that doesn’t enjoy accomodating the not-so-typically-abled (I’m from the US, northeast, perspective-wise), I find it offensive to the max when people talk about disability as this monumental burden. “Burden,” after all, is a bad thing; how can people be bad things by virtue of their various kinds of and levels of abilities?

    And so to hear people talk about how we NEED abortion, because otherwise we’ll all have to raise children with trisomy 21 (because, you know, those obnoxious feminists keep having kids late in life because they want to have “careers!”), isn’t okay with me. It hurts just to hear it. But at the same time, I also firmly believe that women should be in charge of their bodies and their lives; insisting that a woman give birth because her reason isn’t good enough doesn’t fly with me.

    I think that this constructed debate leaves out that fundamental issue of choice and women’s autonomy. That is, if you stop trying to think of situations where abortion is “justified,” the sides of the argument make less sense. You choice what is best for yourself; no one should give you a verdict saying whether or not you were justified in getting an abortion or not.

  3. This is a really good post. Thought-provoking.

    Like you, I’m not sure how to respond. I know certain parts of the language used to express this are abhorrant – in particular, “less than human” and the suggestion that this abortion is justified because of Fred’s (not sure how I feel about that, either) disability – implying that other abortions are not.

    And I don’t know exactly how to respond to the rest of the language, colored by those fairly awful choices in words and reasoning.
    .-= RMJ´s last blog ..Sarah Palin is a feminist, actually – because she works against women. =-.

  4. Thank you fo rthis, Anna. I am a former pro-lifer, and the disabled fetus pro-choice argument is one of the hardest hurdles for me to take in becoming pro-choice. I want to think of abortion as a woman’s right to do with her body as she sees fit, but the arguments about some fetuses being less than others, always make me cringe.

  5. Very well said, Anna. Thank you for this.

    I don’t mean to derail (please feel free to delete if that’s the case!) but it also really bothered me that he talked about abortion as his choice, something he did, something that reflects on his goodness as a man. Never we — or she. Of course, in the case of a committed couple in a nonabusive relationship, I think a woman’s partner should be an important part of a decision to abort, but I’m very uncomfortable with this being framed strictly as his decision. Was he trying to keep what he saw as the moral burden and/or anti-abortion shaming off his wife by framing the story that way, I wonder, or was it really decision that he made and she acquiesced in? “For my wife…I chose abortion” is giving me the intense shudders. This may be a stretch, but I wonder if it’s another way abortion is seen as “justified” — when it’s a man making the decision.

  6. What a disgusting post. It’s fine that they chose to have an abortion but referring to anyone’s life as “less than human” is a hateful act. So is claiming that they did it for the sake of “Fred.” Why is everyone so obsessed with insisting that disabled people don’t like to be alive?

  7. 1) We do not need to justify aborting a pregnancy. Any pregnancy.

    2) Maybe, in that best of all possible worlds* we’ll see less demand for abortion, because fewer people will feel that aborting a pregnancy is the best option. We don’t live in that world right now. It makes a lot more sense to me to keep fighting the good fight for a world in which disability presents fewer obstacles and allows for more independence for people with disabilities and more support both children with disabilities and for their families than to shame or blame people who do not feel that they are up to the challenge in the world as it currently is.

    * You know, the world where everyone receives good sexuality education, everyone has access to effective contraception, everyone has access to childcare, everyone has enough money to feed and clothe and care for a child, everyone has access to whatever accommodations they need for their own or their children’s disabilities, everyone has access to good elder care, where people with serious disabilities have easy access to every opportunity to expand their access to choice and their independence within the scope dictated by their abilities and desires. Yeah, that world. The one we don’t inhabit.

  8. Thank you for this post. I’ve always been extremely pro choice and I am ashamed to say that I used to hear arguments like the one you quote above and not really question them. And I say this as a person who has a disability.

    I think that some people are so invested in being pro choice and so used to being attacked that they cannot hear criticism without attributing it to some pro life agenda. They don’t understand that challenging the ableism in the movement is not the same challenging the goals of the movement. And if they could just shut up and listen, they might agree with everything you said in this post.

    That said, as a recovering asshat, I’m not sure how you get them to listen.

  9. Thanks for this post – I always find it difficult to articulate being both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-disability rights’.

  10. Great post.

    “Justified” abortions are so often used as an arguement against forced birth. And not only are they often very ableist (not always, as abortion after a rape is also used as an example of justified abortion), they also, to me, actually weaken the pro-choice message. Because they move away from the central meaning of being pro-choice, which is supposed to be the bodily autonomy of women. When you get away from that, when there needs to be more to justify an abortion than the fact that a pregnancy is not wanted, this hurts the message that bodily autonomy has to be the priority.

    That’s also how you get away from the “choice” element. I do not believe that it is fair to equal pro-choice on the whole with pro-abortion, but there are certainly people who get so caught up in their arguements that they get to a point where they present abortion as the only reasonable choice in certain circumstances. And these situation almost always concern disabled children/ a fetus who will be a disabled child if the pregnancy is continued.

    It seems that, in their quest to convince people that choice is necessary, these kinds of activist have become so focused on convincing people that abortions are necessary in some circumstances (which they believe no one could argue with), they do not realize that as soon as something is presented as the only right choice, the actual choice is taken away from people.

  11. This is something I’ve been struggling with recently; I escort at my local Planned Parenthood. This has been really helpful for me and I’m going to be pushing my pro-choice buddies to use an argument for women’s agency instead of for ableism.

  12. Thanks for this.

    Perhaps I can refer people with whom I’ve been talking here
    They are pro-choice people who do not see any problem with aborting simply because of disability and I struggle to articulate that being pro-choice and being against the abalism inherent in many PGD*-based abortions are not mutually exclusive positions.
    I am pro-choice (emphesis on choice) and do not think any pregnacy needs justifying. I think that if a woman chooses to not give birth than that is a choice that needs to be respected. I would also, however, like to see the world that Zingeralle (above) where the demand for abortion because of disability is less because disability would no longer be seen by society in general as a burden.


    *(prenatal genetic diognosis)

  13. Thank you for this discussion. I’ll add “government support for disabled people and the families of disabled children” to my list of things that pro-life people should support if they are truly “pro-life” and not “anti-woman”.

  14. Inasmuch as my pro-choice position dictates that I agitate for legal protection of abortion *and* work to improve the social conditions that leave some women feeling as if abortion is their only option, I see no contradiction between being pro-choice and pro-disability rights. Lack of medical expense relief, insufficient accommodations for different levels of ability in schools, businesses, and government facilities, and crushing social sanction against disabled people are all reasons women and families might decide they can’t afford to have a child with a congenital condition. The answer is to make these things available to more people, not remove a woman’s right to choose.

    That said, I am not a fan of the assertion that in the perfect post-feminist utopia, no women will decide to have abortions. We can try to draw lines between “valid” reasons for abortion (poverty, abusive relationship, rape, family planning, environmental burden, being an ethnic minority, etc.) and “invalid” ones (…I don’t know, changing one’s mind too late?), and the fight will be over which reasons go in which categories, or we can just Trust Women to know that they don’t want to be pregnant now, regardless of how good or bad the situation is.

    On a meta level, I sometimes see this angst in lefty circles that the right is winning b/c they’ll use emotional appeals and other “dirty tricks”; I would submit that the loss of moral clarity by pro-choice advocates, as outlined above by others, is a lesson in why not to go down that road. Not to mention that in the U.S., at least, we’re still losing, despite all this dodgy rhetoric.

  15. Talia, I don’t think anyone’s arguing against your first paragraph. This isn’t a space where you have to justify being pro-choice and pro-disability rights. The positions are in no way mutually exclusive.

  16. Thank you for posting this, it’s an issue I myself have questioned for years, but could never quite articulate.

    I guess for me it comes down to the right of personal medical choices versus the right to discriminate. Using disability as the only justification for abortion (which under many circumstances is indeed the only legal justification after 22 weeks or so) doesn’t make any more sense to me than using race or gender as a justification. And telling parents they should really does send the message that people with disabilities cause burden/pain/financial drain (though these are the same reasons most people abort what they assume to be able-bodied fetuses).

    I’m totally pro choice, but I still find myself almost resenting most people’s motives or justifications. Your idea of just insisting that NO justification is necessary really hit me as the best answer I’ve ever heard to this problem. Pregnancy never needs a justification, but ending one does.

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