Commentary Human Rights

The Anti-Abortion Bill You Aren’t Hearing About

Rebecca Cokley

While being framed as “saving those poor defenseless disabled babies,” the reality is this Texas bill is just one more assault on people’s bodies.

As the country has anxiously watched extreme and dangerous anti-abortion bills pop up in Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio, another threat has received far less attention. Earlier this month, the Texas Senate passed SB 1033, which would remove the exemption allowing abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy when there is “severe fetal abnormality.” And it prohibits what the anti-choice lawmakers call “discriminatory abortion”: That means when a person receives information that the fetus they are carrying has a genetic condition—such as Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, dwarfism, or other mutations—they could not seek an abortion on the grounds of that diagnosis. While being framed as “saving those poor defenseless disabled babies,” the reality is that this is just one more assault on people’s bodies.

The Texas bill specifically eliminates the exception written into the state’s 20-week abortion ban for cases of “severe fetal abnormality.” An additional provision means that doctors who knowingly perform an abortion following a prenatal diagnosis could be charged with a class A misdemeanor and risk losing their license. In effect, the bill puts the doctor’s career and livelihood in direct opposition to a person’s right to bodily autonomy.

If this bill passes the legislature, it heads to the governor’s desk. The current governor, Greg Abbott (R), is a wheelchair-user. While hailed by the anti-choice movement as “saving our community,” the reality is bills like this strip from everyone, particularly people with disabilities, the right to decide what happens to one’s own body.

Yet again, what I see is a man exerting control over someone else’s body, and it needs to stop.

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The disability community is not a football to be punted for the sake of political points, but it has indeed been relegated to that role by both Republicans and Democrats. Politicians bring out their disabled children as props at the same time that they attack the Affordable Care Act, push for voucher programs (which remove rights protections), and support subminimum wage while framing the disability community as perpetuators of fraud. But this latest legislative attack on a person’s right to exert control over their body puts us directly in the center of the abortion debate, again.

Prenatal screening is a tough conversation to have in the disability community. For some people with degenerative conditions, the knowledge of their lived experience may lead to them being staunchly pro-choice. For others, like the deaf and dwarfism communities, we often see our disability as less a diagnosis and more a culture. We celebrate the birth of future generations regardless of any health-related side effects.

When prenatal screenings were introduced in Iceland, the number of births of people with Down syndrome plummeted. Imagine knowing your community was small, but then all of a sudden it was just gone, it was not coming back, some people think that’s a good thing. This is why the Down syndrome community and their families are largely “pro-life”—and that needs to be respected by pro-choice activists who erase those experiences from public conversations on the issue.

It is hard to be a pro-choice disabled person who understands that believing in bodily autonomy means you have to support the idea that other people—your friends, your peers, your siblings—may choose to abort a pregnancy because their child could be like you. Yes, it’s hard. But that’s why it’s a conversation we have to have, because if we don’t, decisions about us and our futures get made by others, without us.

The right to decide what happens to our bodies is a fundamental principle in the disability community, and with good reason. Both of my parents had achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. When they started trying for a family, they knew what the probabilities were of the baby dying shortly after birth. But since FGFR3, the gene for achondroplasia, hadn’t been discovered yet, they endured three pregnancies, three baby showers, and three losses before I came around. The trauma was long-lasting and put significant strains on my parents’ marriage. I know this is why my mom was unwavering in her support of abortion. A person should have the right to choose.

The way disability is framed in the political messaging around access to abortion care is very frustrating. And at the same time, the disability community is dependent on the medical industrial complex for our quality of life. But removing options doesn’t improve that—and that’s what bills like this do.

As writer and doctoral candidate Laura Dorwart pointed out in a 2018 New York Times op-ed on a similar abortion ban in Ohio, “Anti-abortion legislation and rhetoric often circulates stereotypical, infantilizing imagery about people with cognitive disabilities as innocents in need of protection from nondisabled saviors.” When this rhetoric is used by the same political party attacking the Americans with Disabilities Act, cutting Medicaid, and removing protections, it clearly demonstrates that they don’t care about the disability community.

What’s equally harmful is that those on the pro-choice side often use disability as a monster under the bed, framing our lives as lacking dignity, independence, or value. Our lives are valuable because they’re our lives. Why is this not enough?

The messaging often ignores that disabled people need abortions too. During the Supreme Court nomination fight for Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, disability advocates were intentional about focusing on his arguments that women with intellectual disabilities did not have the right to make decisions about medical procedures conducted on them. We know that 90 percent of people with developmental disabilities are survivors of sexual assault. Bills like SB 1033 continue to take control from people who have to fight for the least bit of autonomy as is.

From birth, we’re raised by an ableist society to perceive our bodies as an almost external commodity. Let the doctor examine you; let the personal care attendant wipe your bottom; have your friend on the playground help straighten out your leg after you fall down; show your friend’s mom your latest pressure sore so they can compare it to one their son or daughter has. Some days it may feel like your body belongs to everyone else but you.

Many disability advocates talk about developing actual disassociation skills at the doctor’s office because the objectification can be so traumatizing. And when you do exert control over your own body, you are labeled as difficult, as non-compliant.

We also live in a country where Buck v. Bell—the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the sterilization of people with disabilities was ruled constitutional—has never been overturned. The same country where the carceral system, which is disproportionately disabled, uses sterilization as punishment or an “incentive” toward release. When those in power determine you are “undesirable,” there undoubtedly is a mechanism taking reproductive rights from you without a choice.

The reality is that people with economic means will always be able to access the procedures they need. But a majority of people with disabilities, who are disproportionately lower-income, will never have this luxury. Bans like the ones in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, and now Texas will only serve to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and disability.

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