Disability should not be seen as a "punishment" for abortion or anything else

It is obscene to degrade and stigmatise disabled people as some kind of punishment for past wrongdoing.

An article in the Irish Examiner on 11 October 2012 reported that a guest speaker at children’s mass in County Cork, Ireland, detailed her abortion and stated that because of this abortion, she was “punished by God by having a grandchild with special needs”.

There were disabled children at the service and parents left the mass feeling horrified.

As Ireland is currently living through changing times around abortion, the emotive ideology deployed by some campaigning groups, are conflating the issues of abortion and disability and seeking to make a linear argument of cause and effect .

Put simply, women who have abortions now will “pay” for this choice later by having a disabled child.

This notion is not new. In February 2010 Virginia State Delegate Bob Marshall speaking at a press conference against state funding for Planned Parenthood said this:

“The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children.

In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest.”  

Again this discriminatory notion played to the idea of "punishment" through disability and it would be easy to sideline him as a “crack pot” but the worry is that as the battle to allow women control over their own bodies, politicians of faith here in the UK are also stepping forward with restrictions.

Jeremy Hunt recently made Health Secretary and as a Christian, made his views on the reduction of the limit for abortion in the UK. He proposed that the limit be reduced from 24 to 12 weeks.

From my standpoint his position as cabinet minister should determine his responsibilities to represent his constituents and all people of the UK whether religious or not, not responding solely via the dictates of his faith.

This is a time when the issue of women’s rights globally should be talked about as much as possible to ensure all views are heard without fear of reprisal. Emotive propaganda may vent faith-based views, but they destabilise themselves in the face of calm objective science, which easily negates emotive based opinion offered as “fact”.

As an atheist my view is clear. I choose to live my life to the dictates of my conscience not religious rules. I support and endorse a woman’s right to choose and I campaign against stigmatising attitudes towards disabled people which contribute to disability hate crime which we have seen rise exponentially in the UK in the last 12 months.

This does not preclude a view that faith can and does provide a comfort for those who believe in God. It should be a support network to those encountering the challenges that life brings. It should promote love and understanding and acceptance.

What it should not do is highlight and demonize a significant section of it’s own, or any community as “deserving “of punishment; the discriminatory concept that disabled people are living, as an actual manifestation of divine retribution.

Propaganda ignores the fact that many disabled people and carers derive comfort and support from their church community, and church leaders.  Extremist views only serve to weaken these bonds and brand those with disabilities in the congregation and wider world as lesser people.

It seems an odd morality which subscribes to the theory that disability exists as any form of punishment.

I spoke to Martin Long the Director of the Catholic Communications Office of The Irish Bishops' Conference.

I detailed the piece I was writing and my concerns as to the message this was sending and he sent through the press release by Archbishop Dermot Clifford, in response to this story, by way of comment:

“Last Sunday was the annual Day for Life in Ireland which marked the special month of prayer dedicated to the theme: ”Choose Life!”  A special pastoral letter on this theme was circulated to the priests of all 1,360 parishes in Ireland, North and South for use at Masses.

Parishes and individuals were invited to pray a special “Prayer for the Child in the Womb” during Masses throughout the month, culminating in the Feast of All the Saints of Ireland on November 6 next. 

It was in this context the Parish Priest of Mitchelstown, Rev. Michael Fitzgerald, invited a guest speaker to speak at all Masses last Sunday. 

Fr. Fitzgerald commented: “The guest speaker gave an account of her personal journey involving abortion but a central theme of her address was that all human life is sacred, that all children are precious and should be equally cherished and supported. It is a matter of regret that a small number of people were upset at some aspects of the lady’s address, especially as they related to children with special needs. I can assure you that that was never intended.” 

Fr. Fitzgerald said the lady spoke of the effects on her life of abortion and how she felt that everything that happened to her subsequently, including the loss of a child and the birth of a grandchild with special needs, were God’s punishment. However she subsequently came to accept that this was not the case. She emphasized that her grandchild with special needs was loved and cherished as all children are and should be."

I also spoke to Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanists Association he said:

“The idea that children with disabilities are punishments from god is horrifying and the exploitation of vulnerable people to preach this message from pulpits is deeply immoral. This incident graphically illustrates the depths to which anti-choice campaigners will go to try to prevent the introduction of abortion laws in countries where women still don't have their rights.”

Ultimately disabled people are not the whipping boy for government, or fringe faith groups, or anyone else. The institutions of church and government exist to serve people, not the other way around.

This manipulation of health and wellbeing through the prism of hysterical fundamentalism whilst asserting an affirmation of love and compassion, offers us only the lasting idea that they do not speak as a conduit for faith or decency.

It is quite simply obscene to suggest that anyone irrespective of his or her ability or disability is the manifest atonement for anything and it is beyond offensive to expect any right thinking person to accept that disabled people be degraded, stigmatised and dragged pejoratively into the debate.


Many disabled people and carers derive comfort and support from their church community. Photograph: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.