Disability, Parental Martyrdom, and Reproductive Choice

by Shapeling and Shaker Sweet Machine

Ableism, like other systems of oppression, has overt expressions and covert expressions. The media spotlight on Governor Sarah Palin's young son Trig, who has Down syndrome, is bringing both types of ableism out of the woodworks. It's easy to see prejudice at work when people criticize Palin for not aborting a fetus known to have a disability; the idea that anyone has a responsibility to the citizens of the world not to have a disabled child is clearly based on the idea that disability is a monstrosity to be eliminated rather than a morally neutral variation of human experience.

What may be less easy to see is that praise for Palin's decision to "keep" a fetus with a disability is often based on the exact same premise. The anti-choice adulation that Palin's choice has inspired clearly reflects the same eliminationist assumption that people with disabilities are inherently Other, that they are symbols rather than people.

If you haven't noticed this meme yet, that's probably because the Bristol Palin story overshadowed it rather quickly. But here's a quote from the NYT article about McCain's decision to run with Palin:
Ms. Palin is known to conservatives for opting not to have an abortion after learning that the child she was carrying, her youngest, had Down syndrome. "It is almost impossible to exaggerate how important that is to the conservative faith community," Mr. Reed [i.e., Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition] said.
Here's an example of the kind of reaction Reed is talking about: a WorldNetDaily article (warning: actual WND link) from May (after Trig was born) is headlined:

Mom rejects abortion after Down syndrome diagnosis

Praise for governor: 'May God give America more women like her'
Check out that phrasing: It's not "Governor gives birth to child who happens to have Down syndrome," it's "Mom rejects abortion." To me this reveals two things about this reaction: 1) people who give this kind of praise don't give a shit about the actual kid that gets born, only about the avoided imaginary abortion, and 2) that even anti-choice hardliners expect that fetuses with known disabilities will be aborted.

The truth is, the headline "Mom rejects abortion" could run after every single birth announcement of every woman in America. It's only news when the child that is born is known to have a disability. The narrative that paints Palin's choice as a kind of "pro-life" martyrdom depends on the idea that Trig is only significant because of his disability, which in itself is only significant as a tragedy that shows how saintly "pro-life" Palin is. Palin is SO "pro-life" that she would EVEN keep a baby with Down syndrome is the thinking here. She's extra "pro-life"!

This is a kind of parental version of what in disability studies is known as the trope of the Supercrip—the person with a disability who heroically "overcomes" his or her disability to teach all able-bodied people about the triumph of the human spirit. When parents of people with disabilities are treated as heroes or saints, they are implicitly told that their disabled children are a terrible burden that must be overcome or endured, an instant ticket to martyrdom.

Like Shark-fu, I have an older brother with cognitive disabilities. He lives in a group home now, and it takes a staff of aides, nurses, cooks, and drivers to provide the basic care that my mom and stepdad provided until he was in his mid-20s.

I don't know what my mom's life would have been like if she never had a disabled child. Maybe my parents wouldn't have gotten divorced; maybe my mom would have gone back to work instead of staying home. I don't know. But I do know that she would have had more free time, fewer hospital visits, and a lot less prejudiced nonsense directed against her every parental decision. (When my brother was born in 1974, my parents were told, by doctors, that he would be a "vegetable.")

You have no idea how pernicious the tropes of disability prejudice are until you hear them from your own loving grandparents. I vividly remember my grandfather once telling me my brother was an "angel"—another familiar way to other people with cognitive disabilities—and my grandmother rebutting him by saying, more or less, that my brother had ruined my mother's life. Each of them then appealed to me to affirm their respective ableist paradigms: Was my brother a magical angel sent to teach us all a lesson about sweetness, or was he a terrible burden whose life severely tested those of his loved ones? My grandparents loved us to death, y'all. I'm telling this story to illustrate how fundamentally ableism shapes our way of talking about parenting and disability.

So when CNN anchors say that the "unfortunate" birth of Trig Palin will endear his mom to right-wing voters, or when anti-choice commentators disingenuosly praise the difficult choice that Sarah Palin made to carry her fetus to term, I see the same old bullshit. Choices are not made in a vacuum. We don't know the reasons Sarah Palin made the choice that she did; we don't know that it's because she's any more or less susceptible to the systemic ableism of our culture. Despite the media attempts to claim her as a "pro-life" poster girl and Trig Palin as the aversion of one fake tragedy (abortion) and the embodiment of another (disability), we should recognize the situation for what it is. Sarah Palin is not a hero for having a child with a disability; she's a woman who exercised her reproductive choice.

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