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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear