Many of those involved in the pro-life movement are aware of the incredibly high abortion statistics for those prenatally diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome—around 90% by many estimates. We’ve heard stories of women pressured to abort their disabled children by doctors and genetic counselors, and the ableist assumptions that underlie such pressures. Many of us are also aware that legalized euthanasia tends to put pressure on severely disabled individuals to kill themselves, especially if government cuts to their medical services make them feel that it is simply too expensive to stay alive. However, this is only the tip of the iceburg when it comes to the deadly consequences of the ableism which is so deeply rooted in our society.
Simply put, ableism is a prejudice, much like sexism or racism. Unlike most other prejudices, ableism can often be well-intentioned. For instance, a doctor denying lifesaving treatment to a severely disabled infant is often acting out of compassion, believing that the child’s life is not worth living. However, such an assumption ignores the fact that many severely disabled individuals do find their lives to be worth living, and this scenario involves an able-bodied individual forcing their assumptions about the kind of life that is worth living onto a disabled person—a textbook example of able-bodied power and privilege.
There is a much darker side to ableism, however. A commenter on this CNN article regarding the discriminatory denial of organ transplants to disabled individuals summed up his ableist views best when, in support of the practice, he said: "Because they won't be as productive a member of society, and cost tax payers more money to support them their entire life." Sadly, this perspective was shared by the vast majority of the many commenters on this article, and his comment was upvoted 53 times.
Ableist views are held not only by the general public, but also by the medical community. Those involved in the disability rights movement might be familiar with the case of Paul Corby, a young autistic man who was denied a heart transplant based solely on his developmental disability, and the case of Amanda Baggs, an autistic self-advocate whose stay at the hospital took a very dark turn when her medical providers tried to bully her into accepting comfort care rather than lifesaving medical treatment. Thankfully, in Amanda’s case, the disability rights community stood up for her, and she got the medical care that she needed. However, many others in her situation don’t have a community of advocates to rally around them, and their outcomes are much worse.
These are not isolated incidents, either. Surveys and studies that have been taken of the medical community indicate that ableist attitudes are rather prevalent and affect patient care. It is more common than you might think for a disabled individual to be denied or discouraged life-saving medical care that a non-disabled patient would be encouraged to have.
Furthermore, the ableist attitudes that we disabled persons encounter on a daily basis may lead us to believe what society often tells us—that we are burdens on society and therefore unworthy of life. My friend Sarah Terzo, who lives with multiple disabilities and is the brain behind the pro-life website Clinic Quotes and an occasional SPL guest blogger, has this this to say:
You feel like you are a leech on society, and the stigma of being on government assistance can be brutal. You definitely feel like you are burden, and often it’s hard to deal with. You always think people are looking at your life, at the fact you get money to help support yourself, and are judging you.I know the feeling. As a teenager, I battled suicidal ideation that was partially based upon the belief that I was a burden.
If we want to create a truly pro-life society, we must not only establish the humanity of the unborn and their right to life, but the right of all human beings to life and non-discriminatory medical care, regardless of how much we cost or how productive we are. We must fight against the ableist stereotypes that many in our society hold. Until that time, disabled individuals such as myself and those that I care about will continue to fall victim to this deadly and discriminatory form of utilitarianism.