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Difference, disability & discrimination

Prenatal screening, followed by selective abortion for disability, is fast becoming the norm in many societies.  Not only is such a practice widely accepted, but increasingly expected, so that those parents, who decline to undergo testing, or to abort their disabled child, are becoming the exception to the rule.

It is necessary to investigate this trend specifically within the context of the wider abortion debate for a number of reasons.  Firstly, many “soft” pro-life advocates view disability to various degrees as one of the exceptional cases in which abortion, which is otherwise a great evil, may be morally acceptable.  This viewpoint has its parallel in legislation – abortion law is often made by the “hard cases”, one of which is the disability of the unborn child, so that the legalization of abortion for this reason, and in other tragic circumstances such as rape and incest, often precedes the legislation of abortion on demand. .

Legislation continues to reflect this attitude in many countries.  South Africa, for example, allows abortion from the 20th week of pregnancy with no upper age cap if the continued pregnancy “would result in a severe malformation of the foetus”, although what constitutes a “severe malformation” is left to the discretion of the medical practitioners involved.

Secondly, abortion for disability is fairly unique in another respect.  The justification for abortion is not that the pregnant woman does not want a baby at this time, for whatever reason, but that she does not want this baby, because of this baby’s future as an individual living with disability.  This has important implications for our attitude towards the disabled, or in fact, that it reveals society’s underlying, discriminatory assumptions about the disabled.

Is it not paradoxical that at the same time that we seek to combat discrimination against the disabled in our communities and in the workplace, with such, measures often having support in legislation, South Africa’s Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996 effectively makes allowance for abortion up to birth for reasons of disability, thereby granting support for the notion that those who do not comply to a socially constructed standard of normality do not share equal moral status with those who do?

What else can such a distinction suggest?  This argument, widely termed the “expressivist” argument, holds that selective abortion for disability sends a message to those already living with disability that they are less desirable than the rest of society.

This debate is particularly pertinent in the South African context.  Firstly, a history of discrimination and injustice based upon difference has engendered a legally and morally entrenched commitment to fostering equality and human dignity

One may contend that there exists a major incompatibility between selective abortion for disability and a commitment to non-discrimination.  This incompatibility exists largely because of a conception of personhood which denies that every member of the human race has equal moral status, but rather identifies certain characteristics which one must have in order to be considered a full person, and therefore for one’s life to be considered unquestionably valuable and dignified.

One is reminded of attitudes towards race and gender, which designated certain members of the population as inferior (and often as having lesser moral status), because of some supposedly biological lack of qualities deemed essential to the possession of full personhood (reason, academic intelligence, the ability to make autonomous and independent decisions and so on).  One must also examine to what extent such a lack (falsely attributed in the latter case) is partially socially constructed in the case of disabled individuals, both by prejudicial attitudes in wider society about their capabilities, and by a lack of practical resources (particularly in the South African context) available to those who live with disability and their families, which may further limit their life possibilities.

One must remember that human beings are partially distinguished from other life by their ability to not only react to the environment in which they find themselves, but to profoundly alter it according to their needs.  Perhaps technology should be put to such use; to alter our environment in order to extend the range of life choices available to those living with disabilities, rather than being put at the service of attitude, which holds that a life with disability is a less valuable life, which should obviously be prevented if possible.

The current simplistic acceptance by not only pro-abortion advocates, but also many of those who would regard themselves as pro-life in other circumstances, is ultimately a failure of imagination – the failure by one group “to imagine that people in some “other” group lead lives as rich and complex as their own” (Parens and Asch 2003). It is this failure, which has fuelled discrimination on the basis of difference, and it must be overcome in order to provide for the perception of disability as a legitimate and valuable way of being in the world.

1 Comment

  • Aug 15th 201119:08
    by Elaine Broekman

    I agree with you 100%!! Abortion has become the “quick fix” of any “inconvenient” pregnancies. The fact that it became legal has definitely placed a veil over the eyes of the general population.

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