Commentary Human Rights

Stoking Fire: Right Rejects Disabilities Treaty on Grounds It Threatens Anti-Choice Movement

Eleanor J. Bader

Why is the right rejecting a treaty that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people with disabilities around the world? Because of women’s reproductive health and the perceived weakening of parental rights and U.S. primacy.

This summer, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Palau, and Singapore ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), bringing to 133 the number of nations that have voted to support the treaty since 2007.

Addressing the world’s 650 million people with disabilities, the convention is the UN’s first human rights proposal of the 21st century. According to its preamble, it “recognizes the inherent dignity and worth and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Furthermore, it opposes discrimination in all areas—education, employment, and the home, among them—and pledges to protect people with disabilities from “torture, cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.” Lastly, it bars medical or scientific experiments on human subjects with disabilities without their informed consent.

Alas, U.S. lawmakers are not clamoring to pass the measure. In fact, many conservatives are working overtime to make sure that the convention remains stalled in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and does not see the light of day in the remaining months of this year’s legislative session. Particularly disappointing to supporters is the fact that although President Obama signed the treaty in 2009, a December 2012 Senate vote failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority required for ratification.

If you’re wondering why the right is rejecting a treaty that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world, look no further than the tried-and-true political bugaboos that typically invigorate religious conservatives and reactionaries: women’s reproductive health and the perceived weakening of parental rights and U.S. primacy. According to a blog post on the website for PolitiChicks, an online talk show started by Saturday Night Live alum turned Tea Party activist Victoria Jackson, “This treaty enshrines abortion rights, homosexual rights, and demands the complete disarmament of all people. … This treaty gives the ultimate authority to determine if a child with special needs will be home schooled, attend a private school, or be required to accept the program offered by the public school.”

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How it does these things is never explained.

PolitiChicks has yet another objection to the CRPD: Since Article 15 of the treaty rejects the use of corporal punishment, the blog post argues that it “means that spanking will be banned entirely in the United States.”, an anti-choice website, makes no mention of homosexuality, disarmament, or the spanking of unruly offspring in its critique of the CRPD. Nonetheless, its contributors agree that the convention poses a threat to the anti-choice cause—a “hidden abortion agenda,” according to the headline. As they see it, a provision mandating that “persons with disabilities be provided with the same range, quality, and standard of free or affordable healthcare and programs as provided to other persons, including the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based health programmes” (emphasis added by LifeNews) will push the world’s nations to legalize abortion. Closer to home, they believe the treaty will provide a tool that the pro-choice community could use if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. The upshot, they conclude, “is that a treaty aimed at securing the recognition of the dignity of some [people with disabilities] puts at jeopardy the dignity of others [fetuses].”

Additional anti-convention activists, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Pat Toomey (R-PA), alongside the Heritage Foundation and the Home School Legal Defense Association, further object to the convention’s requirement that countries report back to the United Nations every four years on their progress in eradicating discrimination against people with disabilities, charging that it will undermine U.S. sovereignty, and give too much power to unelected UN bureaucrats.

Predictably, CRPD supporters—a wide array of international groups, including the Arab Organization of Disabled People, the World Blind Union, the European Disability Forum, and hundreds of local and national disability rights organizations in the United States—are exasperated by the Senate’s intransigence in ratifying the CRPD. Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, calls the right’s invocation of abortion, parental authority, and sovereignty “absurd” and “not grounded in reality.” “It’s partisan politics,” he told Rewire. “We met with Secretary of State [John] Kerry on July 30th and he underscored the White House commitment to the treaty. Right now, more than 600 organizations around the country are working to build the support we need from the Senate. Traditionally, disability issues have been non-partisan, but the ball is in the Republican’s court to prove that this is still true.”

Robert Schoenfeld, an executive board member of Disabled in Action, is similarly adamant that “the convention has nothing to do with parental rights or abortion.”

“As a matter of fact, it just brings up standards for the rest of the world so that they are near to what we have here under the Americans With Disabilities Act, signed by President [George H.W.] Bush in 1990, and that guarantees that people with disabilities have the same rights to participate in everyday life as everyone else,” he said.

And contrary to PolitiChicks and LifeNews’ assertions, Carmen Gloria Arriagada, the International Council of Women’s permanent representative to the United Nations, says that the convention “simply works to strengthen the rights of people who need access to education, health care, and the workplace.”

“The right wing is manipulating information to stir up opposition” and shift attention away from the many problems facing disabled women, men, and children throughout the world, she said.

Arriagada notes that CRPD opponents would better serve people with disabilities by calling attention to the fact that the global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is 3 percent, and that approximately 90 percent of children with disabilities in so-called developing countries never attend school. In addition, individuals with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence or rape and are less likely than their non-disabled peers to receive help from law enforcement or social services. Indeed, despite PolitiChicks’ fear that parents will be restrained from spanking their kids, the reality, says Arriagada, is that violence against children with disabilities is virtually endemic.

Even more sobering, while the United States is seen by much of the world as a leader on disability rights, 23 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act by Congress, only 35 percent of U.S. adults with disabilities are employed, and 10.8 percent continue to live in dire poverty.

If a treaty can raise consciousness and kick-start even modest improvements, doesn’t it make sense to pass it?

Commentary Abortion

Reproductive Justice Activists Must Combat Anti-Choicers’ False Push for Disability Rights

Erin Matson

Until reproductive rights and justice leaders make disability rights an integral issue for the movement, anti-choice advocates will continue to dictate—and skew—the conversation in order to restrict abortion.

All over the country, from Denver to Minneapolis and beyond, billboards recently sprang up featuring a smiling white boy cradling a white infant. “My brother is a blessing,” reads the text above the children’s heads. “He has Down syndrome.”

The ads, sponsored by the national group PROLIFE Across AMERICA (PAA), come emblazoned with a telephone number offering “trained professionals who can help educate, provide facts, and counseling” to pregnant and “post-abortive” women—facts that will presumably include, based on PAA’s website, wildly inaccurate claims like “94 percent of women regret their decision to abort.”

PAA’s billboards, however, are just one tiny example of the ways in which those in the anti-reproductive rights movement are muddling their messages with false disability rights advocacy, reinforcing discriminatory frameworks and creating more obstacles for actual people with disabilities in the process. So far, however, most reproductive health and justice activists have themselves failed to prioritize disability rights as an essential goal. Until they do so, the conversation about the best ways to support people with disabilities will continue to be dictated—and dramatically skewed—by anti-choicers.

A Cynical, Sick Strategy

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Designed to tug at the heartstrings, the message of PAA’s Down syndrome-focused ad is clear: Babies with disabilities—particularly children with Down syndrome—need to be “saved” from abortion.

What’s more, the billboard’s takeaway hinges on a few factual inferences. It says that people with disabilities matter, and that they can be blessings to a family. Given that people with disabilities are too often stigmatized as burdens, rather than individuals with dignity and agency, these are both true and important declarations.

However, the presentation of the billboard itself gives the first clue that there is more motivating its creators than advocacy for people with disabilities. For one thing, it makes a point of presenting the younger boy as the one with the disability, stating that he is the blessing, rather than both children. This language reinforces a discriminatory narrative: that people with disabilities are Others, to be pointed out and scrutinized by everyone rather than accommodated as a default part of the group.

PAA’s billboard places the emphasis on the child’s disability rather than the child himself and the world he lives in. A better narrative would have acknowledged and attempted to combat the primary obstacles that people with disabilities confront. These are not genetic, mental, or physical, as the ad implies. Rather, they are societally created: uncut curbs that can be crossed only by people who are not using wheelchairs and scooters, automated touchscreens that work only for people who are not blind, or police officers who are not trained to de-escalate situations involving people with mental disabilities.

This disconnect between legitimate advocacy and PAA’s billboard message is symptomatic of one of the anti-choice movement’s major objectives. Much like with their pushes for sex-selective abortion bans, which rely on racist rhetoric to make it more difficult for women of color to obtain abortions, anti-choicers seek to justify restricting reproductive health care under the guise of fighting for disability rights.

While nine states have 20-week post-fertilization abortion bans that have acute effects on individuals and families who decide to end pregnancies after learning of fetal conditions that may not be visible earlier in pregnancy, North Dakota is the only one to explicitly ban abortion on the basis of what the state calls “genetic abnormality.” Proponents of this law believe it gives a right to life to those fetuses that might, through the process of birth, become people with disabilities. This is dubious, given that many disabilities are not present at birth, not genetic in basis, or both.

Moreover, the language of the law is itself offensive. It is as if variations between bodies are “abnormal” only when they pertain to disabilities—as opposed to differing hair color, sex, or sizes. And because North Dakota provides no way to ascertain whether someone chose an abortion “solely” for “genetic abnormality” or “sex,” the practical impact of the law is to place women, doctors, and other members of the medical community under suspicion.

Although the law is, for now, only on the books in one state, it is markedly similar to model federal legislation crafted by Americans United for Life. Moreover, its terminology is echoed by the National Right to Life Committee, which says in talking points crafted for its followers that “you can show them that aborting a child because of possible abnormality is nothing less than blatant and deadly discrimination against people with disabilities.”

Working for “Life,” But Against Disability Rights

Even as the anti-choice movement feigns concern about disability in the womb for the purpose of banning and further stigmatizing abortion, it is still an integral part of a radically conservative approach to governance that actively works against the interests of people with disabilities.

Perhaps no one personifies the issue better than former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), who routinely invokes the love he has for his young daughter Bella, who has Trisomy 18, as an argument for restricting abortion rights everywhere and for all reasons. When it comes to banning abortion, at least, Santorum’s no-exceptions approach makes him appear to be ideologically consistent.

But that is far from the case on all issues. In a piece Santorum wrote titled “Celebrating Bella: Our Gift from God,” he said:

It’s important for us to continually affirm life and our belief in the fundamental right to life by supporting those who work to ensure that all families with special-needs children are able to provide for them.

Working to support families who have children with disabilities is not what he’s doing when he trots Bella out to argue against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a treaty that firmly acknowledges disability rights as human rights—and that remains shamefully unratified by the United States. Santorum falsely claimed that CRPD would transfer parenting authority to a “faceless and distant United Nations bureaucrat,” a charge that Secretary of State John Kerry said was “just not factual” and that Eleanor J. Bader debunked for Rewire.

But the issue is bigger than one billboard, one politician, or one treaty. The fact of the matter is that the anti-abortion rights movement consistently fails to act to improve the lives of people with disabilities who are already here.

If you want to support people with disabilities, you need to put your money where your mouth is. You need to support funding for education, health care, and social services. Yet this pious constituency that claims to care so much about saving babies does not do that.

In a 2012 article for the American Prospect, Judith Lewis Mernit outlined how many self-described “pro-life” legislators at state and federal levels use their votes to undermine services that are vital for people with disabilities, by slashing services like early education and therapy for children with developmental disabilities, targeting for removal or reduction state-level early intervention programs for children receiving matching funds under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and proposing changes that would undermine the availability of Medicaid.

As a presidential candidate, Santorum vowed to “cut back a lot on the Department of Education” without mentioning whether he would spare IDEA from such cuts. Meanwhile, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), the perpetual House sponsor of a 20-week abortion ban, told the National Review Online that having been born with congenital defects himself and having a late brother with Down syndrome informs his long career of anti-abortion rights advocacy. Yet he also co-sponsored a bill to repeal Medicaid expansion—which expedites and grants health-care access to more people with disabilities. Legislators like these enjoy strong backing from anti-choice groups, which typically fail to mount resistance or even muster a comment about this behavior from their star champions.

In fact, anti-abortion rights organizations usually stay out of debates that have nothing to do with abortion, letting the proverbial bullets strike their beloved babies and children where they may. Unless, of course, they can insert abortion within those discussions. Last year, the National Right to Life Committee took no position on Medicaid expansion; its Cleveland and Cincinnati affiliates, meanwhile, sued to block it within Ohio, claiming the typical “abortion-inducing drugs” falsehood leveled against Obamacare. But in an unusual move, its statewide Ohio affiliate actually supported expansion. Even so, this step toward advocacy in favor of improving quality of life for those people who actually have been born is the exception among anti-choice groups, not the rule. As Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, told Irin Carmon at MSNBC, “We were the first and probably only perceived social conservative organization that came out and supported Medicaid expansion.”

When the government is not supposed to provide support, the solution offered by Santorum and his allies is to have charities and faith-based organizations step up to support people with disabilities and their families. This is not a moral option, nor is it sustainable or practical. Our government has a responsibility to assure the dignity and equality of everyone, including people with disabilities.

For that matter, it is not appropriate to create situations in which nonprofit faith-based organizations must step in to provide services when truly public, government-accountable ones are intentionally defunded. Individuals’ needs don’t go away, so this inevitably leads to “common ground” solutions, through which progressives and conservatives can hug it out by redirecting tax dollars to churches and religious organizations that provide at least some services to people with disabilities.

These agencies, however, often don’t have to adhere to anti-discrimination laws because of religious exemptions. And, for that matter, it’s dangerous to delegate care of people with disabilities to groups that actively refuse to provide all forms of reproductive health care, especially when even secular health providers can fail to account for the reality that people with disabilities are people—and just as in need of reproductive health care as everyone else.

Changing the Conversation

There is no question that those in the anti-abortion rights movement are insidiously using narratives around disability rights to push for restrictions on the procedure. This is evidence, however, that progressive activists must prioritize disability rights as a vital reproductive justice issue, especially as the availability of prenatal testing for genetic traits becomes more ubiquitous in the United States.

More than 90 percent of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of fetal Down syndrome, for example, choose to have an abortion. Although Down syndrome is associated with higher maternal age, today pregnant women of all ages are routinely offered simple screenings that reveal the statistical likelihood of chromosomal conditions. If a greater chance of Down syndrome is revealed, a woman may choose to undergo amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling to confirm a diagnosis.

It should be noted that some women thoughtfully forgo prenatal screening altogether. “We declined prenatal testing because we would welcome another child with Down Syndrome,” author Amy Julia Becker wrote in the New York Times in September 2010. While making it clear that she is not opposed to prenatal testing and acknowledging that it has benefits, Becker offers a critique commonly espoused by members of the disability rights movement:

The way these tests are administered, the way information is provided to women and the way our culture talks about and conceives of individuals with chromosomal abnormalities contribute to my concern that prenatal testing more often serves to devalue all human life and to offer parents and doctors an illusion of control.

This critique should be adopted widely and vocally within the reproductive justice community. Hear me out: Absolutely, pregnant women should have access to prenatal testing, as well as accurate, timely information about their results. A woman who decides abortion is best for her should be accommodated without shaming or restrictive laws, regardless of whether prenatal testing has suggested or confirmed that if her pregnancy goes to term, a baby with a disability will be born.

However, such testing is often framed as a way to “empower” parents over “risks” versus “normal outcomes,” to paraphrase the marketing brochure of MaterniT21 PLUS, one brand of prenatal test. Becker pointed out in her Times article that doctors-in-training told her that before they met her daughter, “they thought Down syndrome was the worst thing to happen to a child.” Other personal essays, such as this piece from Amy Atkins, have recounted midwives reacting with horror at the comparatively high chances of an infant being born with a chromosomal condition. These attitudes all contribute, in part, to the disgusting and pervasive discrimination against disability within and outside of the reproductive rights movement.

Reproductive justice is about more than supporting people in their decisions about pregnancy; it includes a call for adequate resources so that people can have healthy pregnancies and raise children in safe communities, regardless of privilege or lack thereof. Under a reproductive justice framework, those at the margins are pushed to the center of analysis and activism. It’s well past time for that analysis to more robustly include the needs of those people with disabilities, as well as the families who support them.

Backing policies to improve the lives of people with disabilities, embracing disability rights leaders as reproductive justice leaders in their own right, and insisting that the medical community provide unquestioned support to women who choose to continue or end a pregnancy after receiving a prenatal diagnosis—these are not threats to the fundamental right to choose abortion. There should be no stigma attached to choosing to raise a child with a disability, just as there should be none for choosing to end a pregnancy for any reason.

So far, however, the discussion largely remains dictated by anti-abortion rights concern-trollers and a few bigoted voices claiming to be “pro-choice.” One such figure is Richard Dawkins, who recently tweeted that he believes that a woman who finds she is carrying a fetus with Down syndrome should “[a]bort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.” He doubled down in a blog post that had “apology” in the title but defended his initial words.

Whether the objections come from those in the medical community or self-styled leftists like Dawkins, it’s not ethical to pressure women to abort fetuses that test positive for potential disabilities. In fact, it’s downright horrific to insinuate that someone’s life exists because of someone else’s immoral decision to allow it. This should not, under any conditions, be considered the “pro-choice” response to disability.

But in the absence of engagement on disability rights from actual leaders of the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements, it’s not difficult to see how someone could see these prejudiced views as the sole answer to “advocacy” from the anti-abortion contingent. It is up to all of us to do better—we know the “pro-life” movement doesn’t have it covered, no matter how hard they try to make it seem that way.

Commentary Human Rights

Stoking Fire: A Global Look at the Right’s Anti-Gay Rhetoric

Eleanor J. Bader

A new report by People for the American Way examines the "globalization" of homophobia and offers chilling details about its spread.

During the 45-year Cold War between Western-allied countries and those of the Eastern bloc—1947 until the USSR collapsed in 1992—the right wing had nothing nice to say about Godless Communism, dubbing it the Red Menace. But a little more than two decades later, there’s been a complete shift—much of the world’s religious and secular right wing now sees the region, and Russia in particular, as “the savior of civilization.”

The reason? Hatred of homosexuality.

Globalizing Homophobia: How the American Right Supports and Defends Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown, a report produced by People for the American Way (PFAW), charts the growth of this movement and offers chilling details about its spread.

Report contributor and PFAW Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery told Rewire, “The right has lost support in the United States and Western Europe on the issue of LGBTQ equality. From their perspective, the work to save the family has to happen elsewhere. They presumably hope that if Russia and Eastern Europe can be turned on this issue, the ideology can later be exported back to the West. Rather than more traditional mission work to spread Christianity, these groups are now pushing on homosexuality.”

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They’re outraged that the United Nations has been used to promote the idea that LGBTQ rights are human rights and that these rights should be internationally recognized,” he said. “That’s why they’re going to Eastern Europe, Muslim countries, and the Vatican to seek allies.”

And it’s not just the U.S. right that had jumped full-tilt into the campaign. Despite the report’s title, Globalizing Homophobia notes that Collectif Famille Mariage, one of France’s most prominent anti-marriage equality groups, has aligned itself with other far right “pro-family” organizations in the country, including the nationalist Dies Irae, the Mouvement Catholique des Familles, and Catholiques en Campagne. One of their chief U.S. allies is activist Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Together, these groups have raised money to bolster anti-gay mobilizations in Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine.

The fundraising and organizing have paid off. Victories in Russia—from laws banning the dissemination of “gay propaganda” to prohibitions on actions, like those of Pussy Riot, that “offend religious feelings”—have been a shot in the arm to homophobes the world over. What’s more, through the World Congress of Families, a 17-year-old Illinois-based organization that was founded by conservative activist Allan Carlson to promote “the natural family”—an entity the WCF believes was “ordered for the procreation of children and the expression of love between husband and wife in the covenant of marriage”—a host of “pro-family” policies have been transported to foreign lands.

Alexey Komov, WCF’s man in Moscow, and his colleagues take great inspiration from the U.S. anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ movements. Among the victories he celebrates are newly passed laws restricting abortion for Russian women. Among the familiar-sounding hurdles, Russian women now need to wait between requesting the procedure and having an abortion. Equally pleasing to Komov are laws banning same-sex couples from adopting—they call it “corrupting”—orphaned or abandoned children who live in state-run facilities. But the icing on Komov’s cake is the fact that the 8th World Congress of Families, an event that will bring Eastern European, African, South and Central American, and Middle Eastern conservatives face-to-face with mentors from Focus on the Family, the Christian Broadcast Network, NOM, and FOX News, will be held in Moscow next September. The conference theme, “Every Child Is a Gift: Large Families, the Future of Humanity,” is a blatant attempt to forge international alliances between anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and anti-gay activists.

That Russia is at the center of this movement and is seen by the right as “the Christian savior of the world” is mind-boggling. Komov, the report explains, sees his homeland as “the last bastion of moral values against a UN sponsored push to recognize gay rights around the globe.” His unlikely hero is Vladimir Putin. In defending Russia’s leader, Komov argues that “Putin and other Russian leaders have not only turned away from their Communist past and involvement with the KGB, but are Bible-believing Christians today.”

Imagine that.

But Bible-thumping aside, it is the ideology of hate—the notion that if same-sex couples are allowed to marry and rear children, there will be a slew of “negative developments all over the world”—that is most concerning to PFAW. They’re also troubled by the hyperbole used to drum up anti-gay hysteria. Some of the most egregious examples come from French nationalist Fabrice Sorlin, who the report quotes as “comparing Russia’s anti-gay stand to its protection of Europe against Mongol hordes in the thirteenth century and against fascism in the twentieth.” U.S. leaders who tie gay sexuality to Satanism and child molestation are, of course, equally culpable in revving up discrimination and prejudice.

What’s more, while the Russian and Eastern European embrace of anti-gay policies has clearly pleased the American right wing, this is not the only part of the world to capture financial or on-the-ground support from American activists. “Infamously,” Globalizing Homophobia continues, “American religious right leaders’ financial and political support has been inflaming anti-gay passions in Uganda for years, leading to the 2013 passage of a bill that imposes a life jail sentence for ‘aggravated homosexuality.’ American conservative activists Lou Engle and Scott Lively traveled to Uganda to help rally support for the bill, spreading apocryphal stories of the harms that come from gay rights.”

These men have also had a hand in helping conservatives in Belize uphold that country’s criminalization of homosexuality. Similarly, the U.S. right has raised funds and worked behind the scenes to promote homophobia in countries as disparate as Jamaica, Peru, and Nigeria. Indeed, momentum has been so great that in mid-February Scott Lively and Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, formed the Coalition for Family Values. Whether this group will compete with, or complement, the World Congress of Families is anyone’s guess.

Despite these developments, PFAW’s Peter Montgomery says fissures between different factions of the right wing have become increasingly apparent in recent weeks. “In mid-March, Concerned Women for America announced that it was pulling out of the WCF’s 2014 Summit because of Russia’s bad behavior toward Ukraine,” he said. “Some on the right are clearly trying to figure out what their next best move is and there are evident conservative splits. A few weeks before the CWA pulled out, Ted Cruz spoke at a Heritage Foundation event and he slammed Putin. While many of his religious right allies are saying that Putin is the savior of world Christianity and are extolling him, others want to hold Putin responsible for his aggression. We need to push that divide.”

That said, Globalizing Homophobia reminds us that a tangled web of right-wing organizations are working hard to reverse LGBTQ civil rights at home and curtail gay activism abroad. These groups are well-funded and well-connected, and while same-sex marriage is the hook they use to ensnare followers, their actual agenda is far more insidious. The goal? To shove queer communities back into the closets of denial and self-hate. Scott Lively, for one, said as much at a press conference announcing the formation of the Coalition for Family Values. When asked what about the group’s raison d’etre, he told reporters that unlike other “pro-family” efforts, it will condemn all things homosexual, not just same-sex marriage, as an affront to decency and civilized behavior.