I am not your totem, Tim Montgomerie, and you are not my able-bodied saviour. Listen!

"I am not your totem, Tim. Nor do I want to be used as a vehicle to facilitate the poisoning of the pro-choice standpoint."

The debate around abortion, foetal abnormality, and disability was re-ignited by a piece written by Tim Montgomerie in the Times.

At the outset of my own argument, I would like to commend to you this latest post from Glosswitch. It outlines many of the arguments around pro-choice and reproductive rights.

I fully support women’s bodily autonomy and their own choices. However I felt strongly that there had been an important omission from this debate. The voices of disabled people themselves. That alone is my rationale for this piece.

When I was born, I was born at 28 weeks gestation, that is to say three months premature. I was born on the  17th January. I was due on 30th March.

Doctors told my mother explicitly that my chance of survival was 50-50. It could have gone either way. But also, given my level of disability, and the impending challenges that would bring to my mother’s life, she could have easily chosen to end her pregnancy and that would be a decision which is utterly understandable.

However, she chose not to and here I am. But a conversation around the dinner table this Christmas made me realise how premature my birth actually was. It scared me. I was so small she could pick me up in the palm of her hand. My organs were not fully developed.  I had trouble breathing and contracted pseudomonas on my chest.

I do have to give utmost credit to my mother because she brought me up single-handedly with no help from my father. We were pretty isolated in a small flat with little outside assistance.

Tim Montgomerie stated that many people are simply too “frightened to raise a disabled child.”

My mother wasn’t. But that does not mean women who are should be vilified, condemned and made to feel ashamed of their choice. I am fully aware that my disability came at a cost to my mother. She missed out on a social life, holidays and employment.

There is also nothing simple about it. That is why it is equivalent to a full time career. That is why we employ care workers to ease that burden on relatives.

Therefore, it is entirely proper that women should be able to meaningfully reflect upon any residual impact on their own lives without feeling like The Worst Woman. Furthermore, it is entirely proper they receive whatever emotional support is necessary to enable them to understand the implications of giving birth to a disabled child.

I would far rather a mother had an abortion than for her to carry a child to full term out of guilt.

Having a disability myself, you may be surprised to hear me say that. But you know who would suffer as a net result of such a decision, don’t you? The baby, who then morphs into the child, and lastly they will morph into a damaged adult.

I cannot support a two dimensional framing of this debate, whereby women who choose to keep their disabled child are hailed as the best of modern parenting, and those who choose to abort are an evil heartless abomination

It angers me viscerally to be a pawn in this game of Heroes and Villians. Tim Montgomerie later said that he could not support laws which made disabled babies second-class citizens. This would be the bit where I tell Tim how happy I am and say “Thanks Tim. Thanks for standing up for me. I’m so grateful.” Love you Tim! How sycophantic and saccharin. But no!

I do not need a saviour. I need someone who is prepared to listen to the sheer complexity around these issues.

I am not your totem, Tim. Nor do I want to be used as a vehicle to facilitate the poisoning of the pro-choice standpoint. Nor will I be manipulated.

Women are the ultimate arbiters of their own individual bodies and minds.  That process of arbitration should be respected without “saviours” like Tim Montgomerie playing the totemic violin.  It is utterly insulting to women, their autonomy, and the intelligence of disabled people themselves. The work of caring for a disabled child is not glamorous, and by the time we reach adulthood is fraught with frustration and setbacks..

Either caring for a disabled child, or having an abortion due to foetal abnormality, are both scenarios filled with cost to parents, emotional, physical and psychological. That is why all women need our love and support, free of invective.

A disabled child is for life, not just for Christmas.

This post originally appeared on Hannah Buchanan's blog, flyingontherainbow.com.

A protester at a pro-abortion rally in Maryland, US, in 2011. (Photo: Getty)

Hannah Buchanan is a blogger with a specific interest in LGBT, disability, and feminist issues and the potential crossover between them. Follow her @HannahBoo3131

Photo: Getty
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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.