Disabled feminists are caught between being pro- or anti-abortion

‘With the history of the eugenics movement, disabled people’s lives also endure stigmatisation’

During a lecture in Trinity College Dublin early this year, feminist theorist Judith Butler described how her recent thinking is being influenced by the work of disabled feminists.

While sexism is experienced by all women, racism and homophobia, transgender and disabled experiences all bring an internalised knowledge and fear of the marker of difference. With this difference, punishment often comes in the form of isolation, alienation and marginalisation.

Due to the legacy of institutionalisation and segregated education, women have only recently begun to develop a disabled feminist analysis of the abortion debate. It’s a work in progress. Hierarchical structures in the women’s movement often mirrored those of patriarchal environments, ensuring the loudest voice would be heard.

Now disabled feminists have arrived at the vanguard of the movement. We are no longer just the appendix to feminist dialogues. Our contribution has reinforced arguments on autonomy, freedom and control over our bodies.


It’s personal

“The personal is political” remains far more than a rhetorical mantra for disabled feminists. Equal opportunities and equal outcomes are still closed off to many women.

Other issues include the right to bodily integrity. The history of eugenics still creates stigma. The charge of being an “economic burden” and “constant protection” in the form of infantilisation, impose vulnerability on us.

Euthanasia and abortion are often depicted as relating to the quality of one’s life. Our status, and indeed our bodies, are held to ransom in a complex orbit. Part of our history as disabled women has been a hushed legacy of forced sterilisation. Although many disabled women are mothers, a large proportion of us are often silenced in the conversation on reproductive and sexual health issues.

The new liberal Ireland still holds on to certain taboos. Disabled feminists are caught in the polarised debate on abortion. We are bombarded with insulting, manipulating discourse from all sides.

Appalling history

Ireland’s historical record on women, and our reproductive rights, is appalling. The State’s attitude towards disabled people is disturbing. My internal struggle appreciates the rights of both women and disabled people.

Listening to arguments about abortion and the right to die can be overwhelming. The State has no commitment to people with disabilities. Parents of disabled children and adults who have to fight for every resource require enormous ingenuity, devotion, strength and love.

In the right-to-die debate, the point made about terminal illnesses can too readily segue into stereotyped characterisations of the perceived worthlessness and horror of disabled lives. Pride, self-esteem and achievement for people with disabilities often comes in small compromising individual and collective milestones.

There are fears that another generation of disabled people will continue to internalise the degradation and shame attached to being disabled.

Abortion is a difficult conversation for all women. As a feminist with a disability, my politics and values are constantly evolving. I will not negate my own experience, that brings a pride in being part of a rich form of human diversity. In supporting women’s rights to terminate their pregnancies, there is also a need to advocate for rights and adequate resources for people with disabilities.

All of us thrive only through our interdependence and multifaceted positioning in the dialogue on women’s human rights. Anti-abortion pontificators are frightening, as are their negative, controlling views on women’s bodies. Their use of disability rights in the debate on reproductive rights is manipulative and exploitative. Supporting women is our responsibility. The pro-choice chorus allows for context: choices occur in often constrained circumstances. We must honour the place where we find ourselves.

Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Traveller community