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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.