As a young woman, I had no particular desire to be a mother. I was neither for nor against having and raising a child, and as things were at the time, the opportunity had not presented itself. That changed when I was 29 and met Jim, the man who would become my husband. In 2002, not long after we married, I gave birth to my son.
In my 20s, I was neutral about parenthood partly because, as a woman with cerebral palsy, I was spared the usual intrusive questioning and expectations about having children that most women are subject to. People never pressured me to have children; they just assumed that I could not. In fact, it became clear very fast that women like me are expected not to reproduce. Now, in my 40s, I find these attitudes ignorant and prejudicial, but as a young woman, it seemed like a bit of freedom to be excused from the usual problems women complain about.
My disability is not genetic and it does not hamper pregnancy. Being pregnant was physically, emotionally and spiritually easy for me, but socially, it was complicated. Moving around in New York City as a pregnant woman with a disability opened me up for constant commentary. I am used to having my body be an object of attention. The real difficulty came from elsewhere — it was dealing with the medical establishment during my pregnancy that I was not prepared for.
When I got pregnant, my husband and I discussed what we would do if our child had a disability. I didn’t have any anxiety about it. In some ways, I viewed the possibility as an opportunity. If my son ended up with cerebral palsy, he would be like me. If he ended up with a different disability, we would have a chance to see the world in a different light. Either way, there was no question in my mind that I would not have an abortion, no matter what the circumstance. We wanted our son, whether or not he had a disability. As it turned out, he did not.
In 2004, when my son was 3, I read an article in The New York Times that deeply upset me and has stayed with me. In it, Amy Harmon wrote about fetal genetic testing and the hundreds of “defects” that, even then, could be predicted before birth (this technology has since evolved rapidly, as we know). If an abnormality is detected, parents must make the decision whether to continue with the pregnancy or abort. One woman, with a genetic condition that caused her to have an extra finger, which she’d had surgically removed, chose to end two of her pregnancies because tests detected her fetuses’ having the same condition. This instance is the extreme, but it is by no means an exception.
I support legal abortion and am not criticizing women who have made the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy because of a disabled fetus. There are situations in which the life of the child would be so painful and short that abortion would be the most compassionate option.
The right to legal and safe abortion is a core element of American feminism and the struggle for women’s rights. This puts me in a strange position. When I think about this issue, I feel my very existence questioned. As a disabled woman, I have been told flat out, “I’d rather be dead than be like you.” Even the Dalai Lama has said that aborting a fetus with a disability is understandable. How do I begin to hold this contradiction in my mind? That I am a valid, beautiful human being — as are all my friends, some of whom have much severer impairments — and that I also support women’s right to choose, a right that logically must extend to a woman who ends a pregnancy because of the prospect of an extra finger? I don’t know the answer, but somehow, I believe the treatment I received as a disabled woman who chose to conceive — the disrespect, the testing, the constant questioning of my capacity to give birth and to be a mother — and my response to it fit into this equation.Tags: Abortion, abortion right, disability