(I first published this piece on another blog in April 2014 in response to an article on RH Reality Check – now called Rewired. It’s 2017 now. My writing voice is different. The way I analyze and critique issues is different – and I still stand behind everything I’ve said here. The kind of erasure I talk about here is still happening, which is why I’ve chosen to republish this essay.
If we don’t remember history, we’re doomed to repeat it. That’s probably one of the first cliches I learned.
We should say: If we don’t do our research, and talk to a good cross-section of people, our understanding of history will be skewed and incomplete—and nothing good can come from that.
Not so catchy, but much more real.
We’re still leaving people out when we write histories.
Even supposedly inclusive, progressive material is excluding people’s realities.
Even progressive, thoughtful writers are leaving out key pieces.
As a visibly disabled woman, I’m particularly conscious of how the histories and realities of disabled people are often left out of dialogues which include the histories and realities of other marginalized populations. This stings a little every time I see it, not because it’s specifically my reality being left out (as a North-American born white woman with economic advantages it often isn’t, but because the minority populations discussing these realities aren’t doing their research. They’re not practicing what I think of as true inclusiveness, not just making sure all the voices are at the table, but including the histories and realities of those whose voices aren’t at this particular table. Yes, it’s a fine line between including those histories and speaking for the people those histories discuss (and, yes, we want to avoid speaking for or over others) but so long as we use documented fact and anecdote, we’re practicing due diligence.
Can we include every single person’s reality? Of course not. Someone will always be left out. We’re too individual, have too much amazing, beautiful diversity, to expect that every one of us will always be represented.
Yet entire populations, populations with well-documented histories and realities if one knows where to look, are still being left out.
I’ve been noticing this particularly in the reproductive justice movement – it makes me especially sad to see it here – and it was glaringly obvious as I was reading this position on proposed changes to consent requirements around sterilization published recently at RH Reality Check.
I’m pleased that the groups who put this position paper together are reminding the public about this country’s long history of reproductive abuses against women, and urging reproductive justice advocates not to be so quick to dismiss safeguards against those abuses. But am disappointed that such an aware, well-cited mini-history leaves out the well-documented experiences of disabled people.
Disabled women were one of the primary targets of involuntary sterilization laws, which fell under the umbrella of eugenics, and became particularly prevalent starting in the 1920s, yet this article mentions disabled women only once.
Any quick Google search will pull up references to online and offline resources about the unconsented/involuntary sterilization of disabled people. This is not> a hidden history.
I’m disappointed that the organizations who signed this position paper left out this key part of history.
I’m disappointed that they seem to be following the common trend of rendering invisible any reality that doesn’t specifically speak to the one they’re trying to bring attention to.
While this article nicely addresses the pros and cons of a thirty-day waiting period before sterilization procedures—we’re not nearly far enough away from the days when sterilizations were incorporated into other medical treatments without patient consent to do away with safeguards—I do wish that the mention of women with disabilities that does exist wasn’t so perfunctory and one-dimensional.
This is the only reference to women with disabilities in the entire piece:
What improvements to the Medicaid sterilization consent form would reflect the needs of women with disabilities, limited English proficiency, and low literacy levels, who want sterilization?
This feels an awful lot like being talked about, while rendering our collective history invisible. In other words, we don’t get to be part of the history-telling (and in so doing be empowered to speak our truth) but we can fit into a bullet list of policy-considerations.
Not only does this single mention in an article all about something that has routinely happened to us erase our reality, but it reinforces the assumption that the relationship women with disabilities have to sterilization is unilateral, and is that we would want it. This reinforces the idea that women with disabilities are not capable of the full range of reproductive decisions that other women—other people–are capable of, and that we don’t, in the course of our lives, find ourselves considering and making that same range of decisions.
I can tell you that this just isn’t true. Disabled people worry about getting pregnant, make decisions about whether to parent, have abortions, feel a range of feelings about those abortions, experience unwanted pregnancies and unplanned parenthood, think about how many children they want to have, wind up having fewer or more than they’d intended, and all the other health and life circumstances that fall under the rubric of reproductive rights or reproductive justice.
Looking at the list of organizations which put this position paper together, I noticed a distinct lack of organizations run by women with disabilities or devoted to disability research. I reached out to my favourite grassroots women with disabilities thinktank Gimp girl, to find out if any organizations were in fact addressing reproductive justice for disabled people.
They pointed me to these groups:
Both look excellent, and I’m happy to have them in my virtual rolodex of research.
They don’t appear to be doing any significant cross-issue work, such as with other reproductive justice organizations, though, and reproductive justice organizations don’t appear to be looking critically at the place of disability or disabled people either.
It’s not an easy thing to critique the work of prominent reproductive justice organizations, particularly when what they’re calling for is critical dialogue.
However, When we have a position article that references secondary sources, and which was clearly researched and constructed thoughtfully, the absence of information right there in the open, ready for the taking by anyone, is disappointing and frustrating. The reduction of disabled women’s reproductive realities—no matter how unintentional—to how and whether they can access consent forms for sterilization is, again likely unintentionally, harmful.
How do we, I wonder, integrate the voices of people with disabilities, and awareness of our collective history, into the general reproductive justice conversation? How do we break down the barriers that make reproductive justice activists afraid or unwilling to include disability and disabled people’s role in the movement?