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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.