Let’s Not Play the Blame Game: Parenting, Disability and Social Stigma

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Leah Smith

I just recently came across an article titled, “If I Knew my Daughter had Down Syndrome, I would have Aborted Her- All Women Should Have that Right.” Without reading another word, the title tells you most of what you need to know about the author’s position: She loves her daughter, is glad to have her as a part of her life, but doesn’t think it would have been right to have forced her to carry the pregnancy to term.

Anyone that has been following my blogs for very long or has known me for longer than 10 minutes, probably knows that I am not only a huge advocate for disability rights, but also women’s rights. It is my belief that abortion is a human right and does not need any further stigmatization or guilt placed on it. Therefore, I would like to take a closer look at this issue, but proceed knowing that I believe all women should have the right to choose an abortion.

Additionally, I have been very interested in the tension between parents of people with disabilities and the people with disabilities themselves. In the broader Disability Community, as well as many of the sub-communities (such as the Autistic or Deaf community, etc.) there is often a difference in opinions between the two groups, with the parents having a different view on disability than those who are actually experiencing it. I’ve often looked at this paradigm and wondered where the perspective shifts and how we can bridge this divide. In theory, shouldn’t my perspectives be at least somewhat similar to the person who raised me? Where does one experience overlap the other? While the author of this article states that her intent of telling her story was to provide an argument against Ohio’s ban on abortion because of a fetal diagnosis of Down Syndrome, I can’t help but wonder if this article isn’t also an insight into this divide between parents of people with disabilities and disabled people themselves. Namely, it seems to me that future parents learn most of what they “know” about disability during pregnancy. No matter how enlightened or progressive the parents are, this “knowledge” is almost always deeply stigmatizing.

When I say parents, I suppose I actually mean Moms, as they seem to be the ones central to most of the conflicts and would also be the one choosing to keep or not keep a fetus that has been diagnosed with any type of disability. At 18 weeks pregnant (SURPRISE! To those of you that didn’t know), I know that, even though my partner and I are completely OK with any possible disability that this child could be born with, I think about anything I eat, drink, or breathe and its relationship to how it *might* affect the baby. I recently had to go on an antibiotic for something unrelated to the pregnancy and had, at minimum, 10 people ask me if I checked and double checked that the antibiotic was safe for the baby. Of course, I did. But this pressure is constant. Being pregnant simply means that you are suddenly thinking about how you’re actions are affecting someone else’s life. Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining- as I’m sure this will be a concern of mine for at least the next 20 years. However, what I’m getting at is the amount of pressure a new mom feels from the moment of conception that any move she makes could dramatically affect the outcome of the pregnancy, including the presence of a disability.

I’m positive that if my child is born with any type of disability, those ten people that asked me about the antibiotic will be the first to blame the antibiotic for it. I imagine them reporting to their gossip circles, “Leah says the baby only has four fingers. I told her that she shouldn’t take that antibiotic.” I’m only 18 weeks in, but I imagine this pressure only increases as the pregnancy moves forward. And then it all comes to a crashing head the day the child is born. I’ve heard time and time again of children being born with disabilities and the mom being asked over and over again what she did or did not do during pregnancy. No matter what, the mother immediately gets blamed. “Did you take drugs? Did you drink alcohol? Did you stand on your head during pregnancy? Did you.. did you.. did you?” From my own mom to my friend’s mom’s, they have all reported some incident (at least one) in which someone came up with something, anything they did to have caused this disability in their child.

People, disability is a very natural part of the human race. Mutations occur. It’s been happening since the beginning of time and no matter how many ‘cures’ we come up with, it will continue to be a reality of the human race! At the same time, of course it’s hard for new moms to think about disability as just a part of diversity or something their child should take pride in when they have been and will continue to be blamed for it, as something “obviously” bad. With these social attitudes toward pregnancy, it is no wonder that the parents of disabled children and disabled adults have a different perspective about disability.

Let’s learn from this and instead provide the social support that’s needed to new moms. Let’s remove the blame and social stigma around any kind of disability. Having a disability is not punishment and not anyone’s fault. Let’s get rid of this old, archaic belief that having a child with a disability is some form of punishment, either morally or medically, and, instead, begin to celebrate every human life as part of diversity. The problem is not that we have mother’s that are choosing to have an abortion due to a child’s disability. In actuality, the problem lies in the fact that we have a society that constantly tells women that disability is the ultimate evil and they are to blame if it enters their family.

Contact: Leah Smith