Ablism’s been front and centre this week for me. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing when I saw that a Councillor in Cornwall, Colin Brewer, had said that disabled children should be “put down”. The comment was actually made in 2011. That he tried to defend himself by saying he was in a bad mood, is a former salesman and hoped to provoke a debate did nothing to help his case. He’s since resigned but I still want to say a few things about this.
Let’s not muck about here. The extermination of disabled people is not funny. It’s not a subject for flippancy. And it has been attempted before. The Nazis’ killed approximately 275,000 disabled people in the Holocaust and sterilised 375,000 more. Disabled people were among the Nazis first victims, despised by those intent on breeding a perfect race. It’s probably fair to say they were also easy targets. I don’t want to hear “oh, well, yes, but they were Nazis”. The Nazis held power because they had the support of ordinary people.
Disabled people have been derided and victimised throughout human history and forced sterilisation of disabled women and girls still happens all over the world today, despite the UN having concluded that it’s a breach of human rights and despite there being long term contraception alternatives for girls and women who are at risk by reason of their disability. Even if it’s in the best interests of the woman not to get pregnant, that’s not necessarily a permanent state. Take a 16 year old with severe learning disabilities, for example. It may be true that she’d be unable to care for a baby but that doesn’t justify sterilisation over all alternatives. Also, can we guarantee that, over the course of the next 25 years or so we won’t unlock more about the human mind? I know next to nothing about learning disabilities and they can have various causes but what if we discovered something which lessened her disability? One argument is that men will take advantage of such girls and women. That’s men’s problem and falls in the same category as blaming women for rape as far as I’m concerned. If abuse is a risk the proper response is to prevent the abuse not abuse the woman’s human rights. Practically speaking, I can’t see the justification for not using long term contraception as required. We have implants. Use them.
A (not completely unrelated) digression: a few years ago I met a nurse who works on sexual health with homeless people and addicts. Many have mental health problems. In February 2010, she told me about a charity’s plan to offer cash in return for agreeing to be sterilised. It made the papers here a few months later. Obviously, the first point is addiction is categorically not a permanent thing (or at least continuing to be controlled by addiction isn’t). Imagine being a recovered addict, falling in love and having to explain you sold your ability to have children for the price of a few fixes. As far as I’m concerned asking addicts to sell their ability to have children is just a more sneaky way of achieving the same end as forced sterilisation. Even among those with no other disability, many addicts aren’t incapable of ever consenting but are so impaired by their addiction that they may well be unable to give genuine consent at the time it is sought. And, of course, the bribe takes advantage of the need for cash to feed the person’s addiction. The nurse I met was appalled at the plan, feeling long term contraception is appropriate for some homeless women and addicts but that education on sexual health is also a priority. She was also concerned that condoms would be used even less than her experience suggested they already were among these vulnerable groups and that a rise in std’s could be the result.
And as for killing disabled people? At the moment there is an ongoing debate over abortion of disabled babies. A parliamentary enquiry is looking at the lawfulness of carrying out abortions between 24 and 40 weeks where the baby will be born disabled. I’ll go on record here as saying I’m pro-choice but do find it disturbing that we have so many abortions in the UK. In my opinion abortion on disabled babies up to 40 weeks isn’t abortion. We set limits on abortions for a reason: foetal development. After 24 weeks the test should be the same as for babies after birth. In a very small number of cases, where the baby is terminally ill and will be put through awful pain or other severe symptoms and death will surely follow, euthanasia may be in the best interests of the baby but those cases will be a minority. There’s evidence that women are encouraged to have abortions when tests indicate that the baby is likely to be disabled and around 500 abortions a year are performed solely because the baby will be born with Downs Syndrome. Disabled people have been vocal in their anger at this and rightly so. If we don’t draw a firm line in the sand, where will it stop? The message the Government and medical profession send to able bodied people about disability with the existing law is dangerous.
I’ve been surprised to find the only coverage of this enquiry (which only began in February) has been in the Mail, the Telegraph and pro-life websites. This shouldn’t be an anti-abortion issue. It should be an anti-ablism issue. Maybe other media sources are on the fence, not wanting to walk the tightrope between pro-life/pro-choice and ablism. Maybe they’ve just been too busy with Eastleigh, the pope, horsemeat and the two Oscars to make time for it. I wouldn’t normally quote a pro-life article because there may be accusations of bias but I have little choice if I want to talk about the enquiry at all. They reported that less than a fortnight ago disability activists and parents of disabled children were among those who gave evidence to an enquiry into abortions of disabled babies. They said there was little support or information available for families who wanted to keep their babies, as opposed to having them aborted. “Second, there was a strong presumption from doctors that parents with disabled children would choose to have them aborted. Third, there was a huge amount of subtle or direct pressure placed on parents who decided not to abort. They were repeatedly asked to reconsider their decisions and treated like pariahs – in short they were discriminated against.”
Hopefully both the law and practice will end up being changed. In the meantime, no Mr Brewer. There never could be an excuse for what you said but thank you for eventually acknowledging that you were in the wrong.