Anti-abortionists need to recognise the lived experiences of women and the disabled

Right-wing commentators keep arguing for a tighter abortion law in the UK, ignoring the voices of those who would have to live with the consequences.

I do find it incredible when a person who is neither disabled or a woman gives their thoughts on a woman’s decision to abort a disabled foetus. Sorry, incredibly arrogant. (I always get that mixed up.)

Enter: Tim Montgomerie of the Times. For anyone who chose to spend the aftermath of Christmas Day in the blissful ignorance of a meat-induced coma, this week Tim decided to be the latest male journalist to dedicate a column to telling female readers what they should be doing with their bodies.

With the air of a man who had forgotten what to get the pro-lifer in his life for Christmas, Tim wrote an entire article advocating the reduction of women’s bodily rights based on anecdotes and feelings, rather than any scientific evidence. He told us he was keen on a law that requires pregnant women to look at pictures of foetuses before having an abortion, suggesting it would be a way of providing “informed consent” rather than, y’know, unimaginably cruel emotional manipulation. He avoided the fact that “tightening” abortion rights doesn’t so much reduce the number of women seeking abortions but increase the number of women who die when they have one.

As someone in possession of both a womb and a disability, however, it was Tim's thoughts on aborting foetuses with abnormalities that particularly stood out for me:

Many people are simply too frightened of having to raise a disabled child. Although the UK currently recognises that a 24-week-old foetus deserves the full protection of the law, this protection is not afforded to babies that might be disabled in some inadequately defined way.

Here I was thinking that whether or not to go ahead with a pregnancy if severe abnormalities had been detected was a complex decision made between a woman and medical professionals. Luckily for the disabled community, Tim was here to throw in his advice too!

I wondered though, had Tim thought about what would happen to all these severely disabled children born to parents who didn’t think they could cope with them? Forcing women to have children against their will is clearly a great idea but, it seems to me, anyone advocating that position – particularly when it comes to something as serious as severe disability – should have at least a vague idea of the consequences. What would all this mean for these disabled children? Enter Tim Montgomerie:

Right. Okay. What? Right. Well, this was very nice. Tim had seen a disabled child out in public just a few days prior to our conversation and he/she had sang him a song. I wondered what this had to do with anything.

Enter: Louise Mensch.

Right. Okay. It’s almost as if it was being suggested that the fact that disabled people (not one, but two!) can be happy was evidence no disabled foetus should ever be aborted. It’s almost as if the people who had charged themselves with defending the disabled had no understanding, or respect, for disability whatsoever.

It’s very easy to say it would be better if disabled foetuses could be treated equally to non-disabled ones. See, I’ll do it here. It would be better if disabled foetuses could be treated equally to non-disabled ones. You’re the hero! Who could disagree with you? Other people want to kill disabled babies. You want to defend their lives. It’s less easy to think about the next bit. The bit that comes after you’ve forced a woman to bring a child into the world that will require emotional, physical, and financial resources she told you she didn’t have.  

A woman in this sort of conversation is abstract; a thing separated from the complicated, messy reality. Disability is just the same. There is no life of a million long moments. There is no poverty. There is no pain or (as Tim gave no mention of disability’s impact on viability) there are no women giving birth only to watch their babies die. There is no sleeplessness. There is no guilt. There are no feeding tubes or hospital wards. Or cut services that leave you shouting and crying at the walls on your own.

It must be nice to be able to position yourself as protector of potential disabled children without having to do anything whatsoever for disabled children. If only women had that luxury. If only disabled people did.

I have to say, at this point, I’m quite tired of these sort of arguments. It’s beginning to feel just a bit insulting. I’m tired of being told we’re only talking about “modest tightening”, as if any removal of half the population’s bodily autonomy could be modest. I’m sick of being chastised for responding with “hysterics”, as if women are either not humans with feelings or should only have ones that come with suitable decorum.

I’m sick of people who it seems have no inkling of a disabled lived experience (bar seeing a disabled child at a carol service, that is) using disability as the manipulative hook to their own agenda. I’m sick of (notably non-disabled) people reducing a complicated, painful matter to simplicity and shock tactics.

I’m particularly sick of so-called protectors of the disabled being part of the same right-wing ideology that sees the disabled people who are already living, starved and humiliated. I’m sick of their concern for abortion’s impact on “society’s wider attitudes to disability”, as if they have not stood by all year as their party has, with near relish, stroked and fed it.

The UK’s current abortion law “has produced an alliance between anti-abortion and disability rights campaigners,” Tim concluded. The phrase ‘not in my name’, comes to mind. Trying to chip away at one marginalized group’s rights is one low. Using another marginalized group to do it, is another.

A pro-choice protest in Westminster, 20 May 2008. (Photo: Getty)

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change