Commentary Human Rights

The Fight for Reproductive Rights Too Often Excludes Disabled Parents

s.e. smith

The right to have children and keep them is especially in danger for disabled people, who may be prevented from parenting at all or risk confiscation of their children by welfare authorities after birth.

Last month, a British couple with developmental disabilities was reunited with their baby and awarded damages by a High Court in London after being separated from their child for nearly 18 months. Judge Clifford Bellamy determined that social workers in the couple’s town of Leicester had handled the case of “Baby H.” incorrectly when they removed the child from custody, placed her with a foster family, and failed to explain to her parents just why she’d been taken away in the first place. Meanwhile, it took more than a year for Leicester officials to properly and honestly assess whether Baby H.’s family was fit to parent. The sluggish action on the case was so appalling that the judge even felt compelled to comment on how the Council had “dragged its feet.”

What happened to Baby H.’s parents, though, was not an isolated case. In fact, in the United States, the American Psychological Association estimates that “the percentage of parents with intellectual disabilities who have their children taken away from them is as high as 40 percent to 80 percent.”

Mainstream conversations about reproductive rights often revolve around the right to not have children, especially in the wake of anti-choice restrictions sweeping the country. However, there’s another issue that many overlook: the right to have children, and the right to keep them once they’re born. This right is especially in danger for disabled people, who may be prevented from parenting at all or risk confiscation of their children by welfare authorities after birth. Social justice advocates must support these families too.

Historically, disabled people—along with other marginalized social groups—have been forcibly sterilized as part of a widely approved policy of eugenics across the political spectrum. Even the Supreme Court gave it the nod in 1927’s Buck v. Bell, which has never actually been overturned. While the practice is much more rare today, it does still happen. Doctors developed the controversial and horrific “Ashley Treatment,” for example, in 1997. Named for its first victim, the procedure strips children with developmental disabilities of their reproductive tracts and stunts their growth; experts estimate that medical professionals have continued to perform it on at least a dozen children worldwide. Meanwhile, in 2012, a judge had to smack down an attempt to force an adult disabled woman to undergo an abortion against her beliefs and follow with a tubal ligation to prevent future pregnancies. In the 21st century, the fact that the proposal was on the table at all was chilling.

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Disabled parents also face the terrifying prospect of having their children taken away from them after they’re born. A 2012 report from the National Council on Disability (NCD) noted that disabled people are more at risk of having their children taken under spurious and suspicious pretenses and have to fight harder to retain custody rights. It documented cases like that of a quadriplegic women who had to fight for custody for more than a year, and a California woman who was denied the opportunity to adopt because of her cerebral palsy.

And like forced sterilization, this injustice has ample historical precedent. In 1986, the State of Colorado took a child from a blind parent with the justification that the child was “underweight,” a fact two doctors reportedly disputed. And in 1988, New York City took two children of a Deaf mother into state custody, in a case that involved a tangled snarl of domestic violence, authorities’ failure to hire interpreters to assist with the ordeal, and judgmental attitudes on the part of child services personnel.

More recently, in 2010, Missouri officials separated Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett from their newborn baby for nearly two months. The young parents were furious and heartbroken; after living independently for years, authorities informed them that they were incapable of caring for their infant because they were blind.

“Records from Children’s Protective Services … revealed nothing other than blindness as a reason for removing Mikaela from her parents and placing her in protective custody with a foster mother,” confirmed Gary Wunder in a November 2010 issue of the Braille Monitor. Wunder is president of the National Federation for the Blind, which played an important role in the case. According to the NFB, while education on parenting while blind is available for reproductive justice advocates and medical centers, many are not taking advantage of it—a critical misstep, considering that 1.3 million Americans experience blindness and low vision.

Although local media supported Johnson and Sinnett’s fight to get their baby back, there are often blatant prejudices at play from mainstream outlets, who sometimes imply that a disability somehow robs someone from their very identity as a parent. The same year that Johnson and Sinnett battled for their child, the Los Angeles Times had the gall to weigh in on the case of a woman named Abbie Dorn with the headline, “Severely disabled, is she still a mom?” Dorn had experienced multiple complications during the birth of her triplets, resulting in significant impairments. Her husband attempted to keep her babies separated from her for years under the guise of any contact being “too traumatic” for their children. It took years of court battles for her to access visitation rights alone—the courts, Dorn’s husband, and the media assumed, of course, that she was incapable of taking custody of her children.

In reality, challenging someone’s parental fitness based on an innate trait displays a degree of bigotry that reproductive rights advocates must unite against. A day in the life of Priscilla Hedlin, a blogger and mother of three, provides a clue as to just how prejudiced that misconception is. Her time-lapse video of a hectic day at home, which she posted to YouTube earlier this year, looks utterly ordinary, because it is: She’s a busy parent taking care of her children (whom she also homeschools), working on tasks around the house, and keeping up with various activities. She also happens to use a wheelchair for mobility. In other words, she, like millions of other disabled parents, is a parent first and a disabled person second—what’s important is not her disability, but her skill as a parent, which has nothing to do with her spinal cord injury.

Protecting parenting rights for disabled people starts with striking down laws restricting them currently on the books, such as those documented in the 2012 NCD report. In July 2014, the NCD also held an open congressional forum inviting legislators and members of the public to learn more about the challenges facing disabled parents, including the barriers in the way of those interested in pursuing assistive reproductive technology (ART) to have children because they cannot or don’t want to bear their own. So we also must defend access to ART and adoption for parents who choose to go that route—while also defending the right to get pregnant and carry pregnancies to term, for those who do not. The fight to protect these rights also extends to challenging family court cases in which the basis for questioning parental fitness is nothing but a parent’s disability.

This is an issue of social attitudes as well as legal barriers: Disgustingly, the 2012 NCD report documents a number of cases in which disabled mothers have been told they shouldn’t pass on their genes, are unfit to have children because they’re disabled, or are questioned about their families when they’re out in public as though they couldn’t possibly be parents. This is neither fair nor just to disabled parents, who work hard to bring their children the best opportunities in the world, even if their techniques may seem unfamiliar or unorthodox to nondisabled people. A wheelchair user can change a diaper just fine; a blind woman can hear her baby cry in the night for food; a Deaf mother can see a light-up baby monitor.

Everyone who wants to enter into the challenging, amazing, and beautiful endeavor of parenting deserves an equal shot. Including disabled people.

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