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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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.