Commentary Law and Policy

Kavanaugh’s Disrespect of Autonomy Isn’t Limited to Women’s Bodies

Imani Barbarin

The public can be assured that the lifetime appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the highest bench in the country would devastate generations of disabled people, especially those at the intersections of gender, race, and class.

As more allegations of sexual assault against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh come to light, many of his controversial and oppressive viewpoints have been overshadowed. But while his responses to the accusations make little sense to those following this debacle, his defenses are in line with his history as a judge—especially in cases involving disabled people.

Recent headlines might lead you to believe that Kavanaugh’s disrespect of a person’s ability to dictate what happens to their own body is restricted to women—both those subject to his court decisions and those he allegedly assaulted nearly 30 years ago—but his history with the disabled community and our ability to consent deserves attention. He is using the very justifications he once relied upon to deny disabled people their rights and autonomy to paint himself as innocent or not responsible for the fallout of his actions. The public can be assured that the lifetime appointment of Kavanaugh to the highest bench in the country would devastate generations of disabled people, especially those at the intersections of gender, race, and class.

As a disabled Black woman in the United States, I am acutely aware of this country’s treatment of people who aren’t seen as worthy as respect by those in power. Growing up, I heard of unnecessary hysterectomies forced upon Black women, disabled people forced into institutions, and disabled mothers having their children taken from them in the delivery room. All of these horrible actions were based on the belief that it was irresponsible to allow these people to further burden the world with the consequences of actions they were not equipped to make in the first place.

The essential logic behind this idea: If people aren’t aware of their actions, then why should they be beholden to the consequences?

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Kavanaugh appears to be quite familiar with this argument.

His claim to be a virgin through his teenage years to deny the recent allegations plays on the inherent innocence conservative society associates with a lack of sexual experience. His alleged actions can be dismissed as the misguided fumbling of an inexperienced kid who didn’t know how to interact with women, or as the actions of someone else entirely. Misunderstandings all around, right?

Kavanaugh has also relied upon the trope of misguided “innocence” to strip disabled people of their autonomy. In 2007, Kavanaugh vacated a court injunction that sided with three disabled people who had each undergone medical procedures against their will—two abortions and an eye procedure. He argued that it “does not make logical sense” to leave personal medical decisions to those that “lacked the mental capacity.” Amazingly, he seemed to have little issue ditching the “pro-life” rhetoric he espouses to deny non-disabled women their right to choose when it came to disabled people.

In its objection to the nomination of Kavanaugh, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network also noted the judge’s decision to deny an undocumented minor in detention abortion care, arguing this shows he “does not respect the rights of people in government-run institutions.”

Born just six months before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, I too have turned 28 this year. Though many things have changed for disabled people since its passage, the idea that rights can be stripped from you—and perceived innocence thrust upon you—because of a diagnosis you have no control over has remained oppressively present. While hardcore conservatives espouse “pro-life” ideology, minimal government interference, and pro-capitalist values, those same ideals seem to leap out of the window when disabled and other marginalized people are involved.

It’s “life begins with the first heartbeat,” until that life is developing inside the womb of a disabled person. It’s “minimal government interference,” until it comes to a disabled person determining where they want to live. It’s “capitalism is freedom,” until it comes to disabled people trying to patronize inaccessible businesses. It’s “take personal responsibility,” until it comes to predators being held accountable for their actions.

The conversation around Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court exemplifies that paradox. Virginity is a tool, and it’s being wielded in Kavanaugh’s favor.

As others have pointed out, confirming Kavanaugh could mean putting health care in danger for millions of people with pre-existing conditions. Even more terrifying than his views on the Affordable Care Act is his record when it comes to violating disabled bodies he deems incapable of making decisions.

Even as the allegations against Kavanaugh take center stage, it’s prudent to familiarize ourselves with how his opinions might intersect with the lives of disabled assault victims.

We, as disabled people, wear the sins of the United States like a second skin. While the #MeToo movement has questioned why Kavanaugh—as the alleged perpetrator of assaults—should decide cases for women’s bodies, many activists have been slow to acknowledge the voices of disabled women, 80 percent of whom will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes.

What we are aware of should already disqualify Kavanaugh from nomination, let alone a seat on the Supreme Court. I can’t imagine the details being hidden from the public.

We know little about his views on police brutality and the prison industrial complex, a key matter for us, as 30 to 50 percent of police brutality victims have a disability. How will his conservatism influence rulings regarding members of the LGBTQ community, a third of whom are disabled? How would his position affect job and accessibility protections afforded to us by the ADA given the GOP’s attempts to gut accessibility laws?

Let me be clear: Kavanaugh’s views on disabled people alone means that his confirmation would put each and every person at risk. Every person is one step, one accident, one trip to a doctor from becoming one of us. You shouldn’t need to be in our situation in order to believe disabled people. Just in case the urgency of the situation is lost upon you, though, I will modify the farewell of one of my many physical therapists over the years: Should Kavanaugh be confirmed to the bench, try really hard not to get hurt.

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