Why don’t pro-life and disability rights groups work together more often?

Pro-life advocates pass the U.S. Supreme Court during the annual March for Life on Jan. 18 in Washington. Disability rights groups are not often prominent in pro-life demonstrations. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)Pro-life advocates pass the U.S. Supreme Court during the annual March for Life on Jan. 18 in Washington. Disability rights groups are not often prominent in pro-life demonstrations. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

When I read about disability rights advocates who accept or silently condone abortion, or when I look at pro-life materials and find almost nothing on the disabled, I cringe. Both disability rights and pro-life groups adhere to the same basic principle—that humans have inherent dignity based on who they are, not what they can do—yet they too often disagree.

The two groups should be wayfarers on a common path. I say this not only because of their common principles but also based on my own experience. A few years ago I was diagnosed with autism while in my 30s, finally understanding why I had struggled in certain areas. Reading up on the topic, I realized that one challenge for adults with autism is overcoming discrimination. Autistics are thus part of the disability rights community, working to protect their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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A participant in the 2017 March for Life in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Matthew P. Schneider, L.C.)

But abortion (and even euthanasia) is becoming more targeted toward the disabled. And this is the greatest way the disabled can be discriminated against. Killing someone due to a disability is akin to participating in an attempt to erase the disabled community. Not only is this far worse than, say, refusing to build a wheelchair ramp or to provide signage for the sight-impaired, it works toward removing the disabled community from society’s consciousness and thus makes it more difficult to build support for disabled rights.

For example, those diagnosed with Down syndrome prenatally are aborted at alarming rates. In the United States, two-thirds of such babies are killed in the womb. That may seem high, but it is low among developed countries: England aborts 77 percent of these babies, Denmark 90 percent and Iceland 98 percent.

Down syndrome is easy to diagnose, as it is an extra chromosome. However, soon we will be able to detect the probabilities of many other conditions in utero. A company called Genomic Prediction already offers tests for “mental disability” among in vitro fertilization embryos, and it claims that it can detect other intelligence “outliers.” It is easy to imagine that this technology could lead to parents wanting to “discard”—what a euphemism for kill—those who are predicted to have low I.Q. scores. Also, a current study is investigating the genes of 50,000 families to discover autism genetics, and I can imagine this leading to the search for a prenatal autism test.

Referring to selective abortions in these conditions, Pope Francis stated last year, “We do the same as the Nazis to maintain the purity of the race, but with white gloves.”

Killing someone due to a disability is akin to participating in an attempt to erase the disabled community.

When Jeff Sessions was nominated as U.S. attorney general in 2017, eight disability rights organizations signed a letter from more than 200 groups opposing his nomination, which is understandable given his record on disabilities. However, the same letter criticized Mr. Sessions for opposing “women’s access to reproductive health services” (understood to be a reference to access to abortion, especially given that the letter’s signatories included NARAL Pro-Choice America) and for voting to defund the abortion provider Planned Parenthood. It also criticized him for voting against a bill to “fix the Hobby Lobby decision” by requiring all employers to provide abortifacient birth control to employees.

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At least one disability rights group, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, went further and mentioned Sessions’ opposition to “reproductive rights” in one of their statements against him. I can understand looking at how he treated marginalized groups, but aren’t the unborn one of the most marginalized populations? Aren’t abortions often specifically targeted at disabled infants?

At least one disability rights group mentioned Jeff Sessions’ opposition to “reproductive rights” in one of their statements against him.

Likewise, the Center for Public Representation, another disability rights group, includes the Center for Reproductive Rights on its list of disability rights organizations. And many disability rights organizations ask people to sign on to the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but that convention asks for “reproductive health” programs to be provided to persons with disabilities (and subsequent statements from U.N. officials make it clear this phrase refers to access to abortion).

In recent years, the pro-life movement has put a lot of effort into keeping alive Down syndrome babies, but we need to highlight other disabilities. For the last four years I have gone through the whole March for Life looking for the best signs to make this point but have found few. Maybe next year, I will carry a “Pro-Life Autistic” sign. I have also looked through the archives of the top pro-life news sites and organizations for references to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the rights of the disabled, but, except for cases of the disabled being euthanized, they are almost non-existent. Given that the devaluing of the disabled will likely lead to selective abortions, focusing on how to improve our lives needs to be a priority if we want to help people choose life. Devoting more attention to the rights of the disabled would also help counter the argument that pro-life groups are merely “pro-birth.”

I am focusing here on official organizations in both the pro-life and disability rights movements that do not always recognize their common ground, but I have often found individual activists to be even less understanding. Unfortunately, the alignment of each of these movements with opposing political parties (pro-life with the Republicans, disability rights with the Democrats) does not help us work together.

We are seeing some hope with groups like the human rights group Rehumanize International, which last year published a blog post about a pro-life activist’s love for her blind brother. Rehumanize has consistently promoted a whole-life vision, but they are only a small group in the grand scheme of pro-life and disability rights activism.

The pro-life and disability-rights movements have the same basic principle of inherent human dignity. Right now, there are many cases where their fights overlap: where the disabled are threatened with abortion or assisted suicide or euthanasia. However, we have only worked together in a limited way. I hope that both movements improve their outreach to each other—for example, by making an effort to include disability rights groups in the March for Life—so that we can work together more coherently going forward.

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Lisa M
3 weeks ago

Great article- We either see all people as people deserving of dignity or we don't. Add to this group the impoverished, migrants, the elderly, etc. We seriously need to re evaluate our thinking. Thank God for Pope Francis. He is seriously exposing our deficiencies. If we'd only listen.

Crystal Watson
3 weeks ago

I'm so tired of pro-lifers trying to conflate the issues of abortion and disability rights. Fetuses are not disabled people. Disabled people are not in danger of being killed. In fact, it's quite possible that a disabled woman might want an abortion. If you can't win the pro-life argument on the merits, dragging in disabled rights is not a way to make your argument stronger - it's dishonest. I say all this as a person with a disability myself.

Bridget Spitznagel
3 weeks ago

I say this as a mother of an autistic person: He was a person before he was born, same as you were. He likes being alive, same as you do. If there was a prenatal test for autism I would have been pressured to take it, same as I was pressured to find out whether he might have Down syndrome (I declined). If you don't see an impending direct attack on neurodiversity, then you don't see it, but it's there anyway.

Matthew Schneider
3 weeks ago

As an autistic individual and the author, I wholeheartedly second what Bridget said.

A Fielder
3 weeks ago

Crystal, there are some countries that claim to have zero people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Chances are these places are encouraging not only abortion, but also facilitating euthanasia of these people. While it would be a very difficult position for a parent/pregnant woman to be in, the thought that certain governments are also encouraging this outcome, perhaps for financial reasons, it absolutely sickening.

J Jones
3 weeks ago

Crystal, I agree 100%. Disability rights activists understand that State control of women's bodies is no different than State control of disabled bodies. Either is dehumanizing and, as you point out as a disabled woman, disabled people are also women and women are also disabled and neither constituency seems inclined to relinquish control of their bodies to the State or the Roman Catholic Church.

Crystal Watson
3 weeks ago

You're saying that disabled people should support forced births of possible future disabled people because ... why? Advocates for the disabled work to make life for existing disabled people better, they don't advocate to make more disabled people exist. And there's no existing plot to get rid of all disabled people in some kind of Terminator-ish preemptive abortion plan.

Theodore Seeber
2 weeks 5 days ago

The right to life is basic to all other rights. Would you rather have Oregon's solution, where they are now working on lethal injection for disability?

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 5 days ago

That's BS. Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law specifically precludes people who are disabled ... it is only for people who have less than 6 months to live and who ask voluntarily to die a few months earlier due to suffering.

J Jones
2 weeks 4 days ago

Citation, please.

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 4 days ago

Death with Dignity and People with Disabilities ... https://www.deathwithdignity.org/death-dignity-people-disabilities/
And here's the Wikipedia page for the Oregon law ... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1994_Oregon_Ballot_Measure_16

J Jones
2 weeks 4 days ago

Crystal, thank you for the citations. I was actually asking Theodore. His was a huge and frightening statement which has the potential to scare the daylights out of people who have more than enough to cope with. I think it is absolutely and utterly and 100% irresponsible to put that kind of thing out in the world without documentation, which impacted persons and their allies can check it out rather than either being stuck with their fear and outrage or expending precious time and energy focused on something which might be a misunderstanding or outright falsehood. I believe it is a stunningly unChristian thing to do to another human being when this is done intentionally as a political tool (which I recognize Theodore may not have done here).

J. Calpezzo
3 weeks ago

Why not peace groups and climate change groups? Poor air quality results in over 50 million deaths a years. The pro-life racket doesn't like hearing this; they would rather be used by the Donald Trumps of the world and the Catholic-hating fundamentalists.

J Jones
3 weeks ago

Matthew, "reproductive health services" is code for "abortion" only in pro-birth/"pro-life" circles whuch are supportive of the State compelling women and girls to remain pregnant. Please include in your education the study of the "reproductive health" pages of the US Health And Human Services administration (https://www.hhs.gov/opa/reproductive-health/index.html) and the United Nations Population Fund (https://www.unfpa.org/sexual-reproductive-health).

It is unbelievably frustrating that Catholic priests - every single one of you a man - keep positioning yourselves as teachers and authoritative resources on topics about which you have stunningly inadequate and biased information.

Lisa M
3 weeks ago

J Jones- Sorry, I'm not trying to pick on you, but I just don't think it's fair that you and others think a priest is not entitled to share their perspective because of celibacy. We all have an understanding of sexuality whether or not we are sexually active, and we most certainly have an understanding of abortion and disabilities. We don't need to be swinging off chandeliers or confined to a wheelchair to understand life's challenges or to have compassion for those suffering from experiences we have not ourselves encountered.

J Jones
3 weeks ago

Hi Lisa. Please re-read Matthew's statement that "reproductive health services" means "abortion". Matthew's celibacy is completely irrelevant here, I agree.

One needn't be sexually active to understand that Matthew has engaged in an ideological redefinition of a term nor need one be sexually active to object to Matthew's obfuscation of reality, most particularly because he holds institutional and spiritual and "ordained by God" authority.

Peace, Lisa.

Matthew Schneider
3 weeks ago

"The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) said access to safe and legal abortion, as well as related services and information are essential aspects of women’s reproductive health." The UN explaining what it meant. The link to this is in the text.

J Jones
3 weeks ago

Correct, Matthew. "Access to safe safe and legal abortion is AN ASPECT" of reproductive health services (emphasis mine).

You reduced reproductive health services to abortion. That reductive definition is ideological, obfuscating and dishonest. It has the effect of encouraging persons in need of the full range of reproductive health services to advocate against their own interests by supporting or pursuing the elimination of providers and other means. This is a prime example of why "pro-life" advocates - even when they are priests and academics - are dismissed as reliable resources and leaders.

Crystal Watson
3 weeks ago

Diversity is good, but I don't see how this applies to disability. Being blind or deaf is not an interesting alternative way to be, it is a handicap that affects people's lives adversely. I was born with a degenerative retinal disease that has left me partially blind. It doesn't make me less of a worthy person but it does make my life harder and I wish I didn't have it. If someone didn't want their future child to have a disability, I would understand why.

Mark M
3 weeks ago

Father Matthew, who is supporting Maciel’s wife and children now?
Are Maciel’s criminal lieutenants still working in the Legion?

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 6 days ago

See, it's not just me - in the news today, 'Disabled people are tired of being a talking point in the abortion debate' ... https://www.vox.com/first-person/2019/5/29/18644320/abortion-ban-2019-selective-abortion-ban-disability

J Jones
2 weeks 4 days ago

Crystal, I read this article. Thank you for sharing it. I encourage everyone who read Matthew's article to read the article to which you linked. I have more thoughts: will come back later

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 4 days ago

Thanks. As someone with a disability, I've never worried about the government trying to do away with disabled people - we don't so that here. My state of California has a physician-assisted suicide law and I'm glad they do. Like Jerry Brown, who was the (Catholic) governor who signed it into law, I want there to be that option available for me if I ever think I need it. The pro-life movement uses fear and shame and lies to work against people having choices, both in abortion and in physician-assisted suicide.

J Jones
2 weeks 4 days ago

Hi Crystal, The Vox article does a good job of responding to Matthew's titular question. For starters, it notes very powerfully that many persons with disabilities object to being USED (emphasis the author's) as a talking point in a power struggle about abortion. The Disability Rights movement has worked long and hard to get others in the community to interact with people with disabilities as, in fact, people, not objects to be managed by non-disabled people (or by other people with disabilities). As a person from a large extended family in which mental health struggles are common, I think it makes a tremendous amount of sense that a lot of people with disabilities would object to becoming political pawns for "pro-life" conservatives who vote consistently against (for starters) the healthcare, affordable housing and transportation necessary for Americans with disabilities to live with even a modest level of dignity, health, freedom and quality life. (Looking at you, all you pro-life Catholics who vote GOP and Trump).

Mention abortion, though, and "pro-life" conservatives will whisk you into a make-believe world in which they are the only Americans who care about the lives of Americans with disabilities.

Second, all but invisible from Matthew's article is the reality that women with disabilities (and men with disabilities, for that matter) are sexual beings and most have or desire to have sexual relationships. This human and civil right, which the Disability Rights community fought long and hard legal battles to establish and which they are STILL fighting cultural battles to exercise without interference and moral judgment, is acknowledged only in an oblique way. The sexual lives of people with disabilities are visible here only because Matthew wants to register his complaint that access to the full range of reproductive healthcare services (which includes safe abortions) is a priority for the United Nations disability rights committee as well as other national and international efforts as one aspect of their focus on guaranteeing that people with disabilities have access to the full range of healthcare services.

Except for that oblique nod hidden in his complaint, persons with disabilities as sexual beings are entirely invisible in Matthew's writing here. Matthew does not mention women with disabilities who are raped (the University of Michigan found that women with disabilities are twice as likely to be raped and sexually assaulted as other women https://sapac.umich.edu/article/56; see also US dept of Health and Human Services https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/violence-against-women-disabilities) nor does he mention disabled women whose physical and mental health is threatened by an unexpected or unwanted or troubled pregnancy. And it goes without saying that Matthew does not mention women with disabilities who might determine, in consultation with their healthcare providers, that having a child at a given moment might compromise their ability to maintain much-needed and long-sought after employment and health insurance, care for existing children, affordable housing or any of the other reasons other women choose to delay parenting.

That erasure of their sexuality as a core aspect of their humanity has been and continues to be an extraordinarily painful reality *******and politically motivating******* force in the lives of many people with disabilities.

The only disabled people Matthew acknowledges here (excepting his censure of those disability rights groups who advocate for reproductive freedom and healthcare for themselves) are fetuses with disabilities and children born with disabilities. As soon as those fetuses with disabilities and children with disabilities become women with disabilities, they all but disappear from Matthew's - and, thus, our - view here.

I am pretty sure that, by rendering invisible the sexuality of disabled women, Matthew answers his own question for us.

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