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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.