What is Anti-Eugenics in Practice?

I’ve previously written about the difference between eugenics and pro-choice, and how the thought process that goes into the decision to abort a disabled fetus is both a symptom and a perpetuation of systemic ableism.

What does it mean in practice to oppose eugenics, however? If aborting a fetus on the basis of disability is harmful, how do we address that? Do we make it illegal? Do we restrict a person’s ability to make that decision by eliminating the ability to know in advance whether a child has a disability or not?

How can you oppose eugenics and still remain pro-choice. Isn’t it wrong to shame people who get abortions for the reasons they get abortions?

Let me make it clear. The right to bodily autonomy is such that any restriction, even for the best of intentions, is a violation of bodily autonomy. Regardless why someone is getting an abortion, the ability to do so safely and without barrier is essential. All people should have the right to access an abortion without shaming.

My main problem is not with the people who are choosing to abort an otherwise wanted fetus because of a disability, but rather with the fact that their decision is based on false information. In the same way that I object to lying to women with false medical information in order to trick them into not having an abortion, I object to lying to women to encourage a different outcome on the basis of hateful ideology.

The people who think that it is a moral obligation to eliminate disability by terminating disabled fetuses are basing their opinions on the idea that disability is suffering or inherently wrong. This is true not just of the person making the decision, but of the much greater percentage of the population who advocate this idea. I’ve addressed this idea before and encourage you to read the post before asking me to explain again how it is not. There may be people who are disabled who are miserable and attribute that fact only to their illness, who may wish that they had never been born. The same can be said of abled people however, and the fact that a part of a specific population is miserable does not mean the same can be true of everyone in that population.

By stating unilaterally that disability is misery you are ignoring and silencing the countless of disabled voices saying “Actually no, I love my life.” You are ignoring the voices of disabled people saying that the misery in their lives is most often caused by social barriers or a refusal to honour accommodation needs.  You are presenting an ideological perspective that ignores reality.

What’s more, this same ideology is used to cause active harm to living persons, not just fetuses.

Proponents of eugenics are interested in the eradication of disability. The ideology is often used to restrict the choice of disabled persons through sterilization. There have been countless examples of people of varying disabilities being sterilized, including autistic people, people who live in group homes, people who use wheelchairs. Most recently, sterilization is being offered as a “treatment” for non-verbal girls with cerebral palsy, under the guise of improving quality of life. A claim that is difficult to believe in light of the fact that in dramatically increases the rates at which they experience sexual violence.

What should be noted as well, is that sterilization is used in many instances of eugenics, not just those aimed at disabled people. It was and continues to be used both in residential schools in Canada against Native populations, and in the United States war against poor people of colour where female inmates have been found to have been sterilized without their consent.

These people are having their bodily autonomy violated by their parents, by doctors, by organizations, and sometimes by governments themselves, and yet the public outcry is curiously silent.

The claim that disability is misery has been used to excuse the murder of disabled children by their parents. Every year there are countless stories of parents who “just wanted to end their autistic child’s suffering” or who “just couldn’t handle it anymore”. What is often ignore is the fact that there were other options for the parents to abandon their parental responsibilities. Frequently these children were miserable only in the minds of their parents, who decide that happiness means being “abled” and ignore their children’s passions, and interests. Who, even if they don’t murder their children, choose treatments that should be considered torture in the pursuit of some arbitrary idea of normality.

Opposing eugenics isn’t about restricting the rights of people who can get pregnant, but about challenging an ideology that is used to restrict the rights of disabled people. At the point where a woman is facing the decision of whether she is wants to keep her fetus after news of a diagnosis is already too late. While you can discuss the decision with them at that point, a parent who is convinced of the morality of terminating disabled fetuses is probably not best suited to raising a disabled child. In the same way that I wouldn’t want a gay child to be raised by homophobic parents, neither is it beneficial for a disabled child to be raised by parents who think their worth is diminished by their diagnosis.

Restricting access to genetic and health testing in utero is also not the answer. Those tests can be used to discover conditions that can be treated in utero, like a hole in the heart, or a blockage. It can warn the doctor’s and the parents of potential health risks to the parent. It can be used to help the parents get ready to be good parents to their disabled child. Moreover restricting access to healthcare is certainly not the answer.

Challenging eugenics is about challenging the ideas that feed into that ideology. Much like challenging the false ideas that are often used to promote religion, so too it is about addressing where it is based on false assumptions, biases, and outright lies.

My existence is not unethical. Neither is that of my neurodivergent friends and wife, nor of my otherwise disabled chosen family.

What is Anti-Eugenics in Practice?

32 thoughts on “What is Anti-Eugenics in Practice?

  1. 1

    Many years ago I was a graduate student in a human genetics department that did a lot of prenatal diagnoses. I heard a lot of seminars from parents of children with severe disabilities and I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of disabilities I would personally consider grounds for abortion. What it came down to for me was ability to live independently. The issue isn’t just the quality of the disabled person’s life but also the quality of the family’s life.

    1. 1.1

      So here’s the problem with that.

      Genetic tests are not a measure of functionality. A genetic test can only tell you if a child has Down’s Syndrome and not whether or not they are able to live independently. Moreover, functionality has been found to be impossible to accurately measure since the same person can register as “high functioning” and “low functioning” throughout their lives, and from day to day. It’s not a set state.

      Moreover, the term “live independently” is misleading. So what? If they need a personal support worker to say, help them with laundry because they cannot bend easily then they are not deserving of life? i live on my own, but in order to improve quality of life, my wife helps manage some of the chores that cause me pain. What about someone who can have a perfectly wonderful life in a properly managed group home?

      As for quality of family’s life, once again, that determination is troubling. A lot of the family problems caused by disabled children are once again caused not by the children or the disability itself but because of the social approach to the disability. Take autism for example. Autism Speaks is widely considered a hate group because it paints autism as this horrible thing that destroys people’s lives. In reality, it is the parents’ disappointment that their child isn’t “normal” that leads to their unhappiness, as well an an unwillingness to actually accommodate their child rather than “cure” them, or a lack of available necessary services available to the family. It’s not disabilities fault that the government decided to charge for essential medical services and it’s unfair to say we should destroy a population because we as a people haven’t figured out that there is no good reason to deny someone access to medical care, housing, food, etc. If you want to improve family lives focus on socializing education, on better integrated special education and disability into public schools, affordable housing, etc.

      If you ask the disabled community, most of them will tell you that disability parents are very very very bad representatives of disability in general because they see not their children but their disappointments. Parents are disproportionately the source of abuse and murder of disabled children.

      I don’t like using different oppression to highlight why something is problematic, because most oppression is not adequately addressed in our society so saying if this was a matter of “sex, race, etc.” ends up being disingenuous, but imagine if you will someone saying “we should abort gay fetuses because it will make the parents’ lives more difficult and also their lives will involve too much suffering because of homophobia and they may not be able to care for themselves on their own because people don’t want to hire gay people.”

      The problem is the systemic social discrimination that makes it harder to care for one’s self and not the disability itself that is the problem and the solution is to fix the discrimination and not to eliminated those being discriminated against.

  2. 2

    “Let me make it clear. The right to bodily autonomy is such that any restriction, even for the best of intentions, is a violation of bodily autonomy. Regardless why someone is getting an abortion, the ability to do so safely and without barrier is essential. All people should have the right to access an abortion without shaming.”

    I agree with this statement wholeheartedly, but then had a thought that gave me pause….

    What about in cases of sex-selective abortion? Would expectant parents choosing to abort a female foetus because it is female be worthy of “shaming”? Laws have been established to try to prevent early prenatal screening to try to curb this practice is places where male children are valued higher than female children, culturally (eg. India). Do you believe restrictions on such screenings functions as limits on ability to get abortions?

    I would never “shame” someone for deciding to abort a foetus with a disability that the parents decided would simply be too hard, however I do think I would feel disdain for someone having an abortion so as to select the sex of their baby.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. 2.1

      We have written about this before: https://the-orbit.net/splainyouathing/2015/09/14/crack-in-the-womb/

      Legally prohibiting sex-selective abortion is a pretty good way to increase incidence of sex-selective infanticide. Further, ANY interrogation of someone’s motivation for terminating their pregnancy is an anti-choice slippery slope waiting to happen.

      Some motives for abortion do indeed lead to long-term societal harm–and the place for challenging them is most emphatically NOT the legal system, because it’s an enormously greater harm to establish a legal precedent for some people being required to surrender their bodies to someone else for any length of time. There’s a reason that sex-selective and diagnosis-based abortions are both major talking points among pro-forced-birth Christofascists, and that reason is NOT concern for babies.

      Obligatory reminder that “sex-“selective abortion is also rather ineffective, given that the existence of non-binary and trans people is proof that the tools available for diagnosing gender in utero are not up to this task.

      1. I have a very simple rule here: If there is a case where I think someone’s reasons for wanting an abortion is bad and frivolous and going against everything I stand for, I cheer this person on in getting an abortion.
        They want an abortion because it’s a girl and girls are worthless? Imagine how they’d treat that girl!
        They want to abort a foetus because science has found the “gay gene” and this foetus carries it? Imagine that person with a gay child.
        They want to abort because that foetus has a disability and they think that living with that disability is not worth living and only a burden on everyone else? Why would you want those people to become parents to a child with a disability?
        In short, why would you want living, feeling children to pay the price?
        People who want to terminate a pregnancy for whatever reason are not the people who should become parents to that child, therefore they’re making the right decision.

    2. 2.2

      I’m not the person you asked, but my opinion on sex-selective abortion is this: If girl* fetuses are being selectively aborted, it’s because women are not valued in the society. Taking away yet one more freedom from women is not going to help that. Banning sex selective abortion will only make the problem worse.

      *Not that all fetuses that appear female will turn out to be women when they grow up. I contend that you don’t know a child’s real gender until they tell you. But that’s a related but slightly different issue.

  3. 3

    “If they need a personal support worker to say, help them with laundry because they cannot bend easily then they are not deserving of life?”

    What? I don’t think that’s what decisions to abort or not abort are about. Also, that same sentence could be used on any fetus at all, because no fetus can do laundry, they’re a fetus.

    1. 3.1

      You said you determine whether or not a disabled fetus should be aborted would be based on whether they can live independently. I assumed you meant the fetus post birth, since none of them can live independently as a fetus.

      1. (That wasn’t me, I’m not Dale)

        Independence sounds like a nice and thoughtful thing for a parent to consider. Also, I think my criticism of the sentence I quoted still stands.

        1. No one is actually independent, not just disabled people. This is a metric that is ultimately arbitrary and premised on the rich assortment of ultimately capitalist notions (rugged individualism, Protestant work ethic, etc) that try to make it shameful need, depend on, or even benefit from other people being around.

          If it wasn’t so socially shameful to require more support than is designated “normal,” we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

          1. True, I was thinking about that point about no one really being independent in a lot of ways.

            Yet there is such a thing as more independent and less.

            I think you are wrong in your last paragraph. There’s more to it than mere social shame.

          2. *Sorry, I didn’t mean to say “mere” social shame as if it isn’t a huge problem for people with disabilities! I was trying to point out the difference between something that is actually part of the disability itself, rather than part of the social attitudes surrounding it.

  4. 4

    I think about someone making the decision to abort a fetus on the basis of something like a non-fatal birth defect, gender, possibility that the fetus will be gay, etc much like I look at someone who agreed to donate marrow to a person and then backed out at the last minute: Do I think they have the legal right to decide what to do with their body? Absolutely. There is no question in my mind that abortion should be legal and marrow donation should never be forced. Do I think that their decision is wrong? Also absolutely. But unless I’m the one that is making that decision or the person who is making the decision asks for my opinion (or for information on making that decision) it’s simply none of my business.

    Another way of looking at it: Suppose we had a way of looking at the egg before conception and diagnosing some issues in that egg prior to conception. For example, whether it contained an extra chromosome 21. Would you consider a person who decided not to try for a conception that month because they knew that their egg had a defect* of some sort to be acting in a eugenic manner? If not, but you do have a problem with a person aborting early on for the same defect, then your problem is with people deciding what to do with their bodies, not with people not wanting to have children with Down’s or other problems.

    I’m tempted to put “defect” in quotes because a lot of genetic traits can be positive or negative depending on context, but, for the example, I’m going to leave it alone because the scenario more or less assumes that the people involved see the finding as a defect.

  5. 5

    To give some personal context to this, I’m a “high functioning” autistic, diagnosed variously with Asperger’s, social communication disorder, and a variety of depressive/anxiety disorders. The idea that my mother might have decided to abort me if she’d known is emotionally neutral to me. On the one hand, if I hadn’t been born she might have been able to get a more neurotypical child. On the other, since she’s almost certainly aspie too, that might actually have been harder on her. It’s that kind of debate in my mind. I mean, there would be no “me” so why should I care?

  6. 6

    I think this is a really interesting read, but I don’t completely buy it.

    A big reason (the biggest?) reason people get abortions is because they feel they’re not ready or able to support a child. Children with certain disabilities require even more support (e.g., time, money, emotional) than non-disabled children. So shouldn’t that figure into someone’s calculus of getting an abortion? It’s not about wanting to eradicate people with disabilities, it’s about not wanting to carry a pregnancy to term for a child you don’t think you can support.

    I think that you’re right that we often overstate the difficulty and hardship of raising disabled children, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t additional challenges.

    1. 6.1

      If you go to the first article I wrote on the subject, I address that fact. Making a decision because you personally don’t think you can handle it versus making the decision because you think it is the moral thing to do to abort disability are two different things. And yes there are additional challenges, but a lot of them are the result of a society that is ableist and so doesn’t value accommodations.

      It’s not about wanting to eradicate people with disabilities […]

      There is a whole movement of people actually who actually do make a point to say that the moral thing to do is to abort disabled fetuses. Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, are just two examples that come to mind immediately. Moreover many people who have faced this choice have had doctors flat out recommend abortion. If you look at the comments of the other article to you will find someone who actually tries to make the same argument as well.

      1. Don’t you agree that abortion is a good idea in some cases? Like, if there is a prediction of chronic pain or depression? I went and read some of your previous articles about this, and they have good points on many topics but they don’t seem to change this analysis.

      2. Thanks for the clarification. I’ll need to go back and read the other articles.

        Do you think there is some line where abortion is the moral thing to do for the child (e.g., anencephaly)?

  7. 7

    When I said ‘live independently’ I didn’t necessarily mean living without assistance but more along the lines of being able to arrange for their own care when their parents were gone.

    To my mind choosing not to bring a disabled child into this world is not the same as discriminating against those already born who fall into that category. I don’t believe that people should be shamed for deciding they don’t want to take on the added responsibility and stresses that a child with disabilities will require. I’ve seen all kinds of articles in the past few years about the joys of raising a disabled child but I can’t help but notice that they are for the most part written by parents of children who are still pretty young. When those kids get older and bigger I expect some of those parents will find it a very different story. Surely if parents are the disproportionate source of abuse and murder of disabled children, it would be better if people were encouraged to think realistically about the extent of what will be required of them and to chose abortion if they aren’t emotionally (and financially) prepared to follow through.

  8. 8

    To me, the fulcrum where we need to put the lever isn’t the pregnant person, but society, regardless of whether we’re talking about sex selective abortions or abortions because of disabilities.
    People who are told that their child will always need assistance will make the decision also based on the availability of assistance.
    And they will make their decision based on their personal abilities. Just like no support whatsoever would convince me to have another child, none will convince some parents to have a disabled child if they have a choice.
    For me, being pro choice means that I want them to be able to make that choice. To me pro choice also means it should be a true choice, meaning that all the support should be in place. Having to choose to abort a child with disability because you know society will leave you and the child alone with their special needs is as fucked up a choice as having to choose to abort because a child, even the most healthy and neurotypical one would trap both of you in poverty forever.

    1. 8.1

      You had a reply, but it was waste-of-time libertarian claptrap about why the parents of disabled children should be entitled to support, which totally disregarded the humanity of disabled children, so I consigned it to the dustbin.

      Don’t think of me as a hero; think of me as a housekeeper with unusually noisome trash.

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