Missing a hand: Ableism and selective abortion

04/08/2020 / Abortion 
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An Australian woman was almost 19 weeks pregnant when she learned at a routine scan that her pre-born child was missing a hand. Medical professionals gave the couple information about prosthetic options and offered pre- and post-natal support to raise their child. However, the parents chose to end the life of this young girl. In fact, her being a girl was a factor in the decision to abort, as the parents explained that they “felt the cosmetic impact [of missing a hand] would be far greater for a girl.” Put another way, the parents thought the appearance of missing a hand would be harder for a girl than for a boy.

Tragedy for more than one

Every abortion is a tragedy. No justification is sufficient to do away with the tragedy and the reasons given are irrelevant to the pre-born child. And yet, being aborted for both a disability and because of sex represents an even greater tragedy. Not for the pre-born child, maybe, but certainly for the culture surrounding that child.

We often view abortion as being about individuals –the individual woman and her circumstances and the individual pre-born child. But there is a whole culture surrounding and impacting these individuals. Catherine Mills, a Professor in the Monash Bioethics Centre, tries to capture this in her article saying, “Reproductive autonomy is not exercised in a social vacuum; it is exercised only within the parameters set not only by law but also by social norms.” I would add that those social norms and law are likewise influenced by individual’s choices.

Normalcy and disability

Professor Mills is pro-abortion, but she wrestles with the abortion chosen in this story not out of concern for that specific pre-born child, but the broader impact of that decision. To give a concise summary of her argument, she suggests that living with one a hand can be normal. Not standard. Not normal in the sense of it being common to be missing a hand. But in a redefining of the concept of normalcy. Is a normal life defined by a certain ability? Or is a normal life defined by the way in which it is lived? Basing the concept of normalcy on standard ability will always favor the able-bodied and bar those missing a hand. But by refocusing the manner in which we value life by on the way life is lived or the relationships one has, you can see that every life has the capacity to be valuable gift both to the individual living it as well as to those around her. Based on this refocusing, Professor Mill concludes that the missing hand “does not provide justification for termination.”

Disability and sex

She doesn’t stop at just the missing hand, but goes on to discuss the inherent sexism as not a wholly separate issue from the disability. Rather, she says, “the ethics of termination for disability and sex selection remain distinct but nevertheless always recalls the other.” She sees the two issues as intertwining, which is especially apparent in these parents’ concern for the “cosmetic impact” of the missing hand because she was a girl and the way that “reveals the extent to which this decision – and perhaps others like it – was predicated on social stereotypes and norms, both about sex and gender and about disability.”

The stereotype in this case is being female necessarily includes a cosmetic component, and missing a hand detracts from that cosmetic component. To put it bluntly – girls should be pretty, and missing a hand is not pretty.

What the pro-life movement can learn

Professor Mill decries sexism and ableism as factors in the decision to abort, but misses the fact that these are natural symptoms of denying the humanity of the pre-born child.  Selective terminations, whether for ability or sex or any other reason, ignore the human right to life.

While the pro-life movement understands the tragedy of every abortion, we are able to concern ourselves also more specifically with the ethical issues surrounding selective terminations. I like to think about it in terms of a puzzle. If you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle, there are two approaches that you can take. You can either look at the picture you are trying to construct and see how the individual pieces fit into it, or you can look at the individual pieces and try to see how the shapes and colours fit together, ignoring the bigger picture until the end. The humanity of the pre-born child, and the associated right to life, is the bigger picture that we want everyone to see. But helping someone see the harms of sex selective abortions, or abortions based on ableism, is helping them put together smaller pieces that will ultimately help build the bigger picture.

Stories like this one offend everyone who doesn’t fit the standard definition of “normal,” and rightly so. They offend everyone who fights against gender stereotypes and pressures to conform. We share stories like this in hopes of helping build the puzzle for those who do not yet see the full picture: that every life has value and deserves protection.

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