Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Personal Is Political: Corollary

Years ago, in the heyday of the American feminist movement, "the personal is political" was a slogan used by women who were demanding more reproductive choices. Although it often has been associated with legalized abortion, the original context was much broader, including such things as wider access to contraceptives and the option to give birth at home with a midwife in attendance. Coercive and paternalistic behavior by doctors (who were almost all male at that time) was a major concern for feminists. Because many women thought of these issues as "personal," they were too embarrassed to speak about them.

Now the battle lines in our cultural war have shifted. Contraceptives are available throughout the Western world, there are plenty of midwives and new-age birthing centers, and abortion has become a legal option. Sexual and reproductive issues are discussed so frequently, and in such detail, in the mass media that it seems there's nothing too embarrassing to mention nowadays. Women still find that they must contend with coercive practices all too often, however, as to some reproductive choices.

Prenatal screening tests did not exist when the feminist movement was defining its political views in the mid-twentieth century. Widespread cultural acceptance of eugenics seemed quite implausible, the stuff of science fiction. Feminists who sought more personal control over their reproductive decisions never imagined that their daughters would be pressured into having abortions based on the results of routine medical tests.

How did we get to this point? I see it as a consequence of several unfortunate factors. The malpractice insurance crisis in the United States has resulted in obstetricians becoming very diligent about performing prenatal tests and informing women of any unusual results, lest they be sued for "wrongful birth." Health insurance companies are glad to pay for whatever prenatal screening tests a doctor chooses to order, for the simple reason that an aborted baby costs a lot less than a living one. Because the prenatal testing business has become so lucrative, there's a strong economic incentive for research and development of new tests (hundreds of prenatal screening tests are now commercially available).

At the same time, social attitudes toward disability have improved only marginally. Children with disabilities are no longer kept locked in the attic or sent off to an institution as soon as the diagnosis is made, but many people still see their existence as a tragic embarrassment. Ignorance, stigma, and discrimination are rampant. The taboo against discussing disability is almost as strong as the taboo against mentioning sex used to be. Thus, when a doctor tells a woman that her unborn baby has a genetic condition (whatever it may be), she probably will know nothing about it. Her first response is likely to be a culturally conditioned terror of being burdened forevermore with a profoundly dependent, horribly suffering, embarrassingly incapable family member. She may be too distraught and ashamed even to discuss the situation with anyone before making an appointment with the abortion clinic.

Moreover, because the modern medical establishment has such a penchant for creating new diagnostic classifications (which have become necessary to obtain insurance reimbursement and disability accommodations), many more people are labeled as having disabling conditions than at any time in the past. Most of those considered to be on the autism spectrum, for example, would not have been diagnosed with autism or anything else 25 years ago. And this increase in diagnosis has caused the public to worry that having a child the old-fashioned way is extremely risky—that without prenatal testing, in-vitro selection of embryos, etc., parents are likely to end up with tragically impaired children who will never be independent.

I recently wrote a post about the illogical ways in which our society defines independence. In response, Bill (Livsparents) made a very perceptive comment:

...it is societal constraints that dictate much of potential independence. Look at the arguably genocidal practices of China's limiting family size and the unintended consequence of many female babies being aborted because of their perceived 'dependence'.

Don't parents strive for giving their children the greatest potential independence, through education, through (sexist, I know) primping them to attract the best husband or by simply trying to give the child 'what we as parents didn't have'?

Autism 'elimination', for lack of a better word, is just another outcropping of this desire to improve their progeny's chances in the world...

Social constraints do indeed have a very strong effect on how the natural, instinctual desire to raise successful and independent children is manifested. Modern-day eugenics is not, as some pro-life activists characterize it, simply a selfish and thoughtless quest for a "perfect" child. And it is not always a hasty choice arising from fear and ignorance. Sometimes it can be a calculated decision to sacrifice one child for the perceived good of other existing or future children, as when families in China and India abort daughters because they believe that sons are more likely to have a successful life.

Female infanticide is, of course, nothing new in history. Neither is the killing of babies with visible disabilities (which was done by the ancient Spartans, among others). Our earliest recorded history includes stories of parents who practiced child sacrifice in the belief that it would please the gods and bring prosperity to the surviving family members and the tribe. The only difference now is that our society is using third-millennium technology to carry out the same ugly old Bronze Age barbarities.

I see it as both counterproductive and unfair to attack women as selfish, immoral, or other judgmental terms if they choose to make use of eugenic methods. Such women react defensively, insisting that it is a personal matter and that others who haven't been in the same position have no right to judge them. Indeed, many others would behave just as they did under the same circumstances because pro-eugenic attitudes are so commonplace in today's society; they're right about that. It is not, however, just a personal matter. The personal is political—and here's the corollary for the age of eugenic abortion:

A socially constrained choice is not a personal choice.

Ignorance, stigma, and discrimination are political issues, and they need to be dealt with in the arena of political action, like other civil rights issues.



  • My best friend has three children; a set of twins, and a singleton. All three are severely disabled by hydrocephalus. She knew they would be hydrocephalitic before they were born. She knew the diabilities could be severe. She chose to prepare for them, to have them, and to raise them. Because she knew they would likely be disabled in some capacity, she was able to put things in motion as soon as they were born to get them interventions, services, and medicaid waivers. Their lives may not be ideal (the schools and state fight you for every little thing, no matter how much time they've had to prepare and budget...), but that jump let her prepare to support these children, and to prepare for supporting them as adults.

    I offer this as an inspiration to those who have those test reults. Don't miss out on the joys of your children, just because they may be disabled. They just will need more support than usual. Be prepared, so you can spend more time enjoying the joys your child/ren will bring to your life.

    My friend and I love her children. I am so glad they are part of my life, and she wouldnt miss them for the world. They may never walk, talk, ride a bike, or even have a girlfriend, but they do love living. You should see those smiles when my boys come over to play with them!

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 12:26 AM  

  • Thanks, Joeymom. It boggles my mind how many people assume that children with disabilities should be aborted because they supposedly can't enjoy their lives. How can anyone believe they're qualified to pass judgment on someone else's quality of life, especially a child who hasn't even been born yet?

    By Blogger abfh, at 5:38 PM  

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