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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA