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Abortion Access Month: How (Dis)Ability Can No Longer Be Ignored

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September 9, 2013

What does abortion access look like to you?

For many, it’s having private insurances and Medicaid cover the cost of the procedure, creating strong networks of social support and not having to drive five hours or out of state for a clinic.

September is Abortion Access Month; For the reproductive justice movement, access is more than just Roe vs. Wade. It’s access on all levels – being able to afford the procedure, erasing the stigma behind it and having a high quality clinic nearby.

What the movement tends to forget in this fight is how ability can impact accessibility.

The reproductive justice movement and disability rights movements are at their best, in solidarity. For example, working together to acknowledge the fact that women with disabilities face a higher rate of sexual assault, uniting the two for access to abortion care. At worst, the reproductive justice movement may be labeled as ableist by anti-choicers, claiming that abortion access encourages people to terminate fetuses who appear to have disabilities under the guise of “fetal anomalies.”

People with disabilities make up a significant portion of Americans – about 1 out of 5 adults have some sort of disability, whether it’s physical, sensory, developmental or intellectual. Most of the focus on reproductive justice has been put on economic access for low-income people, which is of course important and often intersects with disability. But why is the reproductive justice movement practically ignoring the issue of ability and access?

Perhaps it’s because most of the leaders in the movement are able-bodied. I do not personally identify as a person with a disability, and as an ally I have limitations with my understanding of disability and abortion access. I personally did not realize many of the complex issues and cultural attitudes around reproduction, sexuality and disability until I took a class called Love, Sex and Disability. I encourage readers to read up on disability and sex, starting with Sex and Disability by Robert McRuer.

People with disabilities face a staggering amount of barriers to reproductive care. People with disabilities are often dependent on others to help with their daily needs, and a caretaker’s opposition to an abortion may become an overwhelming obstacle. For example, if a person has a sensory disability and are deaf or sight-impaired, they may rely on someone for transportation or translating. If their daily caretaker/interpreter does not want them to have an abortion, then they may refuse. The same could be said about being coerced into an abortion. A caretaker may speak for a person with a disability, eliminating access to appropriate reproductive care.

These barriers are just a small representation of what a person with a disability may face when trying to have an abortion. Reproductive justice activists must put a lot of thought into how they organize as to not be ableist. We must also think about issues of consenting to abortion for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities and how we feel about people having abortions because they believe their fetus has a disability; These are difficult questions that must be asked in order to successfully organize around disability. This is just the tip of the iceberg on reproductive rights and disability — there are also issues of forced sterilization and other issues around access, pleasure and sex that must be dealt with.

This is a call to action to reproductive justice activists. We need to fight to pull down every barrier to abortion access. This means advocating your local clinic to have wheelchair ramps, ASL interpreters, and staff who advocate for the right of those with a disability to choose abortion – not be coerced into one. This may also look like developmentally appropriate sexual education for special education students and comprehensive information at group homes or independent living facilities. The sexual and reproductive rights of people with disabilities are not be understated or ignored any longer, but need to be put at be put at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement.

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