Abortion is always ok. Disability sometimes sucks.

by Jon

At Tiger Beatdown, s.e. smith has a post up attempting to criticize a (quite good, actually) piece over at RH Reality Check examining anti-choice arguments relating to prenatal screening and disability.

There are a number of problems with smith’s response. Zie embraces anti-choice narratives and frameworks. Zie also completely erases the experiences of people for whom disability is not ZOMG-SUPER-HAPPY-FUN-TIME. And to top it off, there’s a general disregard for logic that, while not atypical for this particular writer, is particularly egregious in this post.

Let’s look at the abortion-politics angle first:

The post opens with smith accusing the article at RH Reality Check of claiming that hir life has so little value that zie should have been aborted. The article in question is making the (EMININENTLY REASONABLE) point that “[h]aving an abortion to prevent a child from being born with Down syndrome or another disability can be a positive moral choice.” Sierra, the author of the piece, DOES NOT SAY that a woman pregnant with a Downs fetus SHOULD abort. She says that it is permissible. By conflating the two, smith is willfully misrepresenting Sierra’s position, and deploying a classic anti-choice trope used to vilify supporters of choice: the mandatory abortion.

Even worse, though, is the moral equivalence smith draws between hir value as an adult with the value of a fetus. Hir value as a person has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not hir mother should have aborted her pregnancy. s.e. smith had no value as a person when hir mother was pregnant because zie did not yet exist. Had hir mother aborted, zie never would have existed, and thus never would have had any value as a person to worry about. This is true of any and all abortions. Fetuses have no moral standing; they are not people. Until a person is born, they are no different than any other hypothetical joining of an egg and sperm. To say otherwise, to take an adult and claim that if they had been aborted, that would have somehow wronged them or shown a lack of respect for their value as a person means that to allow an egg to pass unfertilized or a sperm to not reach an egg is a crime against the person it would have become.

This logic is taken to even more ludicrous extremes when smith claims that “[s]tatements like ‘I want a cure for autism‘ or ‘I want a cure for Down Syndrome’ are eliminationist in nature. These statements indicate that you want an entire population to disappear.”

There are two ways one could imagine Down Syndrome or other such congenital disabilities “cured.” One would be their eventual disappearance through things like selective abortion; the other, some sort of medical intervention in people already alive and dealing with them. smith appears to be thinking of both possibilities, so let’s look at what that means. In the case of the first, for smith to claim that abortion is eliminationist, zie has to also contend that nonexistent people have the right to exist, and that this right trumps women’s rights to not be pregnant or bear children against their will. One hopes that zie doesn’t actually think that, but it follows logically from what zie says.

The other claim, that medical intervention to cure Down Syndrome or autism or deafness (not Deafness, which as a linguistic-cultural grouping isn’t something that a cure would eliminate) is eliminationist seems to arise simply from extraordinarily sloppy thinking. Zie claims that it’s eliminationist because it demonstrates a desire to get rid of a population. In so doing, zie’s using the word “population” in such a way as to confuse the distinction between the people who make up a population and the criteria that define it. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Is there a difference between eliminating poverty by raising living conditions universally and eliminating poor people by rounding them up and shooting them? In both cases, you no longer have the group “the poor”, so clearly they’re morally equivalent, right? How about AIDS patients? Is a cure for AIDS morally equivalent to executing everyone who tests HIV positive? And yes, of course, disability is neither poverty nor disease (although it can have complex and reciprocal relationships with both), but the underlying logic in smith’s conflation of a group of people with the criteria by which that group is defined is precisely the same.

Finally, one of smith’s hangups about the RH Reality Check piece seems to be the fact that Sierra isn’t disabled, and so zie belabors hir own disability and contentedness with that disability in order to establish both hir legitimacy in this debate and to try to demonstrate that disability does not in itself cause suffering. Zie is certainly entitled to that opinion, although given that zie accuses hir target of focusing exclusively on particular disabilities that are not representative of disability more broadly, it’s worth pointing out that the autism spectrum can be seen as even less representative in a world of disability that includes many painful and debilitating conditions.

In keeping with smith’s game of using our own disabilities to see whether or not disability can cause suffering, let’s look at my family. None of us are neurotypical. One brother is on the border between Asperger’s and full-blown autism. Another has a whole host of neuropathologies, the most fun of which has got to be the several-month-long migraines that cause vertigo so severe that when he is able to get out of bed at all he usually can’t walk without a cane. I have a history of severe depression, anxiety, ADD, and an immune system that decided to make 90% of the food available for consumption in this country poison.

Guess what? THESE THINGS CAUSE SUFFERING. s.e. smith is happy with hir place on the autism spectrum?  Good for hir! But if zie wants to use that to claim that disability is a “value-neutral status” while barely paying lip service to the fact that not all of us want to spend all day “celebrating [our] amazing body”, then zie can kindly fuck right off. Disability encompasses all kinds of experiences, and erasing or downplaying the suffering and misery that it can cause is every bit as much bullshit as pretending that it’s impossible for a disabled person to be happy and fulfilled.

My biggest problem with smith’s attitude in this piece is that no one is trying to force women to abort their pregnancies, and if they ever do come up with a cure for autism, no one’s going to be forced to take that either. But by demonizing the desire to fix disabilities that do cause suffering, smith is working to take the choice away from people. Zie likes to use deafness as an example. Fine. Are cochlear implants eliminationist? How about surgeries that give sight to blind people? Antidepressants? Again, no one is forcing anyone to receive medical care they don’t want, but why should the fact that you like your autism spectrum disorder mean that my autoimmune disease, or my brother’s vertiginous migraines, or my (now-hearing) high school American Sign Language teacher’s deafness not receive the attention of researchers and advocates who can improve life for those of us who want it?

Don’t want a cure? Don’t take it! But don’t pretend like those who do are threatening to send you off to the concentration camps. It’s not about you. No one else’s medical decisions, whether it’s getting an abortion or making their own disability easier to live with, are any of your damn business.