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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The Femicide Census honours the victims of gender violence

The survey shows that the majority of women who are killed by men suffer their fate at the hands of a current or former partner.

 

The phrase “isolated incident” often turns up in media reports when a man kills a woman. The police use it at press conferences. It’s a code: it means the story ends here, no one else is in danger, the rest of the world can sleep safe because this particular killer does not have his sights on anyone else.

Thanks to the Femicide Census – a collaboration between Women’s Aid and nia, two specialist services dealing with violence against women – we now know how many of those “isolated incidents” there are, in England and Wales at least. Between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2015, it was nearly a thousand: 936 women (aged 14 and over) were killed by men in seven years.

As the census reveals, the killing of women follows a very different pattern to the killing of men, although there is one thing both groups of victims have in common: their killers are almost always men.

But female victims are more likely to know their killer than male victims. In fact, they usually know him very well: 598 (64%) of the women were killed by a current or former partner, 75 (8%) by their son, 45 (4.8%) by another male family member. Killing is often what the census describes as “the final act of control”: not an “isolated incident”, but the culmination of a long campaign of coercion and violence.

This means that trends in femicide – the killing of a woman by a man – don’t match the overall homicide trend, as a 2011 UN study found when it noted that the overall rate of homicide had fallen while killings of women remained stable. But official records have long failed to recognise this difference, and there were no statistics specifically on men’s fatal violence against women until 2012, when Karen Ingala Smith (CEO of nia) started cataloguing reports of women killed by men on her personal blog, a project she called Counting Dead Women.

That was the start of the Femicide Census, now a high-powered data project on a platform developed by Deloitte. The list has been expanded so that victim-killer relationship, method of killing, age, occupation, ethnicity, health status and nationality can all be explored.

Or rather, these factors can be explored when they’re known. What gets reported is selective, and that selection tells a great a deal about what is considered valuable in a woman, and what kind of woman is valued. As the census notes: “almost without exception, it was easier to find out whether or not the victim had been a mother than it was to find out where she worked”.

Killings of black, Asian, minority ethnicity and refugee women receive vastly less media coverage than white women – especially young, attractive white women whose deaths fulfil the stranger-danger narrative. (Not that this is a competition with any winners. When the press reports on its favoured victims, the tone is often objectifying and fetishistic.)

Women’s chances of being killed are highest among the 36-45 age group, then decline until 66+ when they jump up again. These are often framed by the perpetrators as “mercy killings”, although the sincerity of that mercy can be judged by one of the male killers quoted in the census: “‘I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag.”

Another important finding in the census is that 21 of the women killed between 2009 and 2015 were involved in pornography and/or prostitution, including two transwomen. The majority of these victims (13 women) were killed by clients, a grim indictment of the sex trade. The most chilling category of victim, though, is perhaps the group of five called “symbolic woman”, which means “cases where a man sought to kill a woman – any woman”. In the purest sense, these are women who were killed for being women, by men who chose them as the outlet for misogynist aggression.

The truth about men’s fatal violence against women has for too many years been obscured under the “isolated incident”. The Femicide Census begins to put that ignorance right: when a man kills a woman, he may act alone, but he acts as part of a culture that normalises men’s possession of women, the availability of women for sexual use, the right to use force against non-compliant or inconvenient women.

With knowledge, action becomes possible: the Femicide Census is a clarion call for specialist refuge services, for support to help women exit prostitution, for drastic reform of attitudes and understanding at every level of society. But the census is also an act of honour to the dead. Over two pages, the census prints the names of all the women to whom it is dedicated: all the women killed by men over the six years it covers. Not “isolated incidents” but women who mattered, women who are mourned, women brutally killed by men, and women in whose memory we must work to prevent future male violence, armed with everything the census tells us.

 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.