The prevailing understanding is that feminism, both as activism and theory, harmoniously overlaps with disability studies. This article, however, seeks to more closely scrutinize the relationship between the two fields. Through an examination of reproductive rights — a particularly divisive issue — this article argues that technocultural arrangements of the body reveal a potential disjuncture between feminism and disability. The rhetoric surrounding reproductive rights frequently focuses on choice, health, and control. Such terms function according to different valences when thought through from the vantage of disability. Moreover, it becomes difficult to understand how a generalized form of abortion can allow for the specific protection of fetuses that exhibit forms of disability. While not fatalistic about the possibility of a reciprocal arrangement between disability and feminism, this article does caution that disability must be understood on its own terms before it can form beneficial relationships with other fields.

The exposure of deformed infants means taking them outside the settlement to an unknown location and letting them expire in a hole in the ground or drown in a course of water. If the consequence is indeed death, the signification of exposure is not as an execution of these infants. Exposing them is only returning them to the gods.

Henri-Jacques Stiker, A History of Disability

In developed nations we no longer use inclement weather and rude terrain to eliminate the undesirable. Pits in the earth and flowing water have been supplanted by medications and machines. Soil, sun, and choking liquids were used by the ancient Greeks cited by Stiker; now, however, we have amniocentesis, mifepristone and misoprostol, as well as manual vacuum aspirators to identify and expunge deviance well before it can conform to our concept of life. We are further still removed from the Greeks of antiquity because our refuse is not rerouted back to a supernatural origin; our rejected bodies are delivered not to divinity — be it plural or singular — but instead to medical waste incinerators. On the other side of the death of the gods is technoscience, and we are firmly situated within its encompassing discourse.

This, of course, does not mean that there have not been robust critiques of technoscience. Many of the most trenchant offerings have come from feminist theorists (Merchant 1980, Harding 1986, Martin 1995, Barad 2007, Landecker 2007, Thompson 2007). Yet, at the same time, reproductive rights, which are highly mitigated by technoscience, have remained a centerpiece of feminist activism. This is not to suggest that there is an illogic at play in feminism, but it does signal just how complicated the relationship is between the gendered body and technoscience. So, too, is the relationship between the disabled body and technoscience tremendously complicated. What is more, these complications can create enormous friction between feminism and disability.

Were it not for a wide array of pioneering feminist work on the body — including analyses of its acceptance, its rejection, its history, and how it can serve as a liability in liberal discourse (Haraway 1990, Bordo 1993, Butler 1993, Grosz 1994) — disability studies would have labored even more so than it already has to gain acceptance as a viable discipline. Likewise, were it not for feminist activists, disability rights activists would have found their struggles much lonelier and they would have worked against domination without the bolstering benefits of amity. Despite these links, however, I suggest that the relationship between feminism and disability has largely been axiomatic. It has been taken for granted by many in both fields that disability and feminism parallel one another in those arenas which count most — chief among them being the relationship between the body and technoscience.

The problem, then, is twofold. On one hand, feminism and disability are assumed to be in alignment, but this assumption has been insufficiently analyzed. On the other hand, there is a risk that upon analysis it will be demonstrated that feminism and disability are actually at odds with one another on key points relating to the body and technoscience. In regards to the first point, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson observes that the two intellectual enterprises have sometimes overlooked one another or spoken past each other. According to Garland-Thomson, "many disability studies scholars simply don't know either feminist theory or the institutional history of women's studies" ("Integrating" 257). At the same time, though, "feminist theorists all too often do not recognize disability" even while exploring those "feminist issues that are intricately entangled with disability" ("Integrating" 257). Thus, even while feminism and disability are frequently aligned in terms of a coalitional politics, theoretically they have often remained isolated. By way of exhibiting the potential risk for sunderance, I will examine a specific issue — reproductive rights. In doing so, I hope to reveal the undertheorized tensions that exist between feminism and disability theory. The point, of course, is not to argue for a severance of the ties currently binding feminism and disability. Feminists might be thought of as the wise older sisters of disability studies scholars; but, as anyone with siblings knows, life offers occasions where we find ourselves in profound disagreement with those whom we are inseparably related.


Without question, there have been notable efforts toward cross-fertilization of the two fields. To date, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's work has made tremendous strides in the integration of feminism and disability. Her laudable results are perhaps most pronounced in her first work, Extraordinary Bodies, but they are still obvious in her articles and in her most recent contribution to the field, Staring: How We Look. In Staring Garland-Thomson demonstrates that she is versed in feminist analyses of the masculine gaze even while adopting these analyses, and in the process reformulating them, for disability specific ends. The male gaze, according to Garland-Thomson, is consistent with forms of "staring as dominance" (41). It is an "ocular gesture of dominance [which] acts out the gendered asymmetries of patriarchy as it proliferates in institutionalized cultural forms" (41). The masculine gaze, however, is not the only form of staring. Rather, because staring is "a high-stakes social interaction" it affords those being stared at, starees in Garland-Thomson's parlance, the potential to "take charge of a staring situation" (84). Thus, ocular power is not predetermined nor does it reside solely with the starer.

This shift from thinking about power, the body, and forms of looking from feminist terms to terms of disability demonstrates how the overlapping concerns of the two can produce results that remain sui generis. Yet, despite Garland-Thomson's own contributions, I would argue that there still exists a climate of failed mutual recognition between feminism and disability studies. For, when we truly bring the body back into discourse, we risk alienating the two fields from one another. To illustrate this hazardous potential it would be useful to examine one of the most polarizing issues in contemporary U.S. culture — the discourse of reproductive rights, which reveals just how tenuous are the bonds that knit together feminism and disability studies.

Whereas many feminists might assume that disability rights activists and disability studies scholars would unreservedly endorse legalized abortion — after all, legalized abortion is presumed to be one of the items perennially stowed in the knapsack of the Left — such an assumption would overlook the unique condition of embodiment had by people with disabilities. As Marsha Saxton puts it, "There is a key difference between the goals of the reproductive rights movement and the disability rights movement regarding reproductive freedom: the reproductive rights movement emphasizes the right to have an abortion; the disability rights movement, the right not to have to have an abortion" (105). Writing in Blind Rage, her excellent piece of creative nonfiction, Georgina Kleege echoes Saxton's conundrum. For people with disabilities the issue has consistently been not whether they should obey the dictates of a compulsory heterosexuality, but whether they should disobey society's injunction against reproducing at all. Kleege writes that "people take for granted that I don't have children because I don't want to reproduce my defective genes. Who would want to risk bringing a blind child into the world? On two separate occasions in my life, women have told me that they would abort a fetus if they knew it would grow up to be blind" (66).

The problem, then, is that choice can only extend so far. There is a biological horizon that choice cannot breach. Many able-bodied people would choose not to have a child with a disability, but barring the ability to make such a choice, they would choose to abort the child altogether. Of course, through assisted reproductive technologies the biological horizon has shifted somewhat, and as I will discuss at the end of the paper, the rhetoric of eugenics and the rhetoric of reproductive freedom have begun to coalesce because of these technologies.

Naturally, though, not all theorists who identify as feminists are as invested in the preservation of legalized abortion as others. Moreover, across the theoretical waves of feminist scholarship and activism abortion signifies multivalently. It is, for example, perceived to be less of a central issue for those post-second wave theorists who no longer hold to essentialist, liberal, or even radical forms of feminism. Yet, abortion still is a central issue of feminist discourse. Observe, for instance, how a resurgence of activism appears during U.S. presidential campaigns or whenever there is an indication that a position on the Supreme Court may be vacated. To be sure, though, abortion was a much more prominent topic during the height of second-wave feminism during the 1970s and 1980s. Writing in Signs — one of the leading international journals in Women's Studies — just six years after the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion a constitutional right for women, Barbara Hayler opined that, "The right to choose abortion — as part of a claim to reproductive self-determination — is central to the feminist movement" (321). Of course, what choice means and what it means to have rights is a very complicated affair.

Writing contrary to the simplistic language of bumper stickers and the reductive language of some pro-choice rhetoric, Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, argues for a "materialist view of reproductive freedom" (677). As the phrasing indicates, hers is a Marxist-feminism that is, for a variety of reasons, no longer prevalent in the academy. Irrespective of her movement away from an essentialist feminism which relies on biology to argue for women's control over reproduction, Petchesky's Marxist-feminism still posits that abortion is a central issue of any feminist discourse. More recent publications in Signs reflect the changing theoretical trends in feminism and other disciplines, even while they still remain tied to the themes of abortion. Laury Oaks' piece, "Smoke-Filled Wombs and Fragile Fetuses," for example, is reflective of the third-wave shift. Whereas Oaks focuses more on technocultural networks of power and surveillance, and while she does not deal with abortion explicitly, her piece does fixate on the role of fetal rights versus women's rights. For her, it is important that fetal rights been understood as an instrument of the pro-life movement and that problems like pregnant smokers be conceived in terms of a distributed agency. Hence, the choices and rights of the pregnant woman override social condemnations born of a public morality and they overshadow the possibility of any real rights that an unborn human may possess.

Before delving into the potential sites of friction that may occur between feminism and disability studies over the issue of abortion, it would be useful to first contextualize the legal operations of abortion. Legalized abortion, as we recognize it today in the United States, was primarily generated by the results of three lawsuits: Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973), and Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976). As it is iconic of the pro-choice movement, Roe v. Wade perhaps requires little explanation. Like Roe, its more widely known companion case, Doe permitted unrestricted access to legal abortions. The litigants in Doe were the plaintiff, who was assigned the pseudonym Mary Doe, and Arthur K. Bolton, the Attorney General of the state of Georgia. In the case of Doe, the seven to two majority ruled that upon attaining viability a fetus may be aborted if such an action is necessary to preserve the health of the pregnant woman. The court construed health very broadly and they included physical, emotional, psychological, and familial factors, as well as the woman's age. Whereas the language of health has often been employed by feminist activists to demonstrate the necessity of legal abortions, it can put these same activists at odds with disability activists. For, as Ruth Hubbard has observed, "Health and physical prowess are poor criteria of human worth" (93). The language of health may benefit those demonstrating that abortions uphold the legitimacy and worth of those seeking to have them, but it simultaneously can delegitimize those individuals who, although in utero, face being aborted. Put another way, the language of health remaps subjectivity in different ways depending upon whether one is speaking from the position of feminism or disability.

Prior to the Doe ruling legal residents of the state of Georgia could only obtain an abortion if they met specific, narrowly defined criteria. Disability was among the criteria from the original law that was transported to the new law. By implication, then, it was held that the experience of giving birth to a child with severe fetal deformity would unjustly impair the emotional and psychological health of the mother. It is intriguing that health is deployed in such a strategic manner, where it becomes a quality so necessary for preservation that it can both invalidate a child as being human while at the same time affirming the humanity of the mother. A similar dynamic, one that relies on the language of health, can be witnessed in related contexts. In Conditional Love, Meira Weiss' study of the attitudes of Israeli parents toward their disfigured children, it becomes clear how aesthetics and health overlap. For example, we meet a mother who when shown her infant boy for the first time dotes on him and sees only a perfectly formed "doll" (23); after she is made aware of her son's spina bifida, however, this same infant body becomes monstrous. Her revulsion is so great that she asks a nurse, "How could such an ugly thing have come out of [her]? a creature with a tail?" (24). Biology and physiology themselves are subject to perspective and Weiss' examples show just how contingent the meaning of the body is. For many of the mothers and fathers in Weiss' study the issue is one of self-preservation. Although their children are in emotional and physical pain, their appearances invalidate their humanity which in turn means that this pain is denied by their parents. The parents experience their own emotional pain, but because they are able-bodied this pain is considered to be real. Their children are nothing more than the inhuman causes of suffering; they themselves are not sufferers. Of course, Weiss' piece deals with children who have been born and Doe only addresses the fetus. However, one cannot help but notice the infanticidal fantasies expressed by several of the parents in Conditional Love; presumably, had they been given the option these parents would have rather spared themselves their suffering and preserved their own health by aborting their children.

Whereas Roe and Doe together provided access for abortions, the procedure was still constrained by a variety of legal mechanisms; the constitutionality of these mechanisms was one of the central issues of Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth. One of these mechanisms was the legal requirement that women notify spouses of their decisions to terminate a pregnancy. Another related requirement was that underage women seek consent from their parents prior to terminating a pregnancy. Clearly, there was a paternalism written into these laws which required women to seek permission to undergo a medical procedure. This was essentially how the court viewed it and the mechanisms of restriction were rejected; the court failed, however, to overturn statutes that required physicians to maintain records of abortions that they performed. Nonetheless, Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth was heralded as a partial success for those activists who sought to ensure that women had final, total control over their bodies.


Control over the body remains at the heart of the rhetoric of reproductive freedom and with it comes the baggage of classical liberalism. It is presumed that the body is something that can be controlled, that it is a possession ready to be made docile to the demands of the mind. Bodies don't have rights, minds have rights and bodies take orders. This is what informs the legal wrangling over reproductive rights and the ability for women to legally and safely procure an abortion. The question, then, that emerges is whether the mind of the individual should dictate the uses of that individual's body or whether the collective mind of the state should dictate the uses of individual bodies. Shelley Tremain, in her perspicacious application of Foucauldian biopolitics to the practices of prenatal testing and screening, argues for a shift away from the language of bioethics to that of a governmental perspective. Such a shift, she contends, "enables one to recognize that the feminist achievement of 'reproductive choice' and the genetic counseling which is claimed to enhance that ostensible autonomy operate as effects of what Foucault called the 'polymorphous character of liberalism'" (49). Moreover, governmentality reveals the mechanisms of subjectivation that interpolate fetuses, doctors, and pregnant women. Accordingly, Tremain holds that "because 'the fetus' has been turned into a subject . . . it has become a site of contestation between antidisability activists, anitabortionists, and feminists (among others), as well as an object of government, despite the fact that in most jurisdictions 'the fetus' does not exist as a legal entity" (42).

As he is a legal scholar, Paul A. Lombardo is attuned to politico-legal discourse and the ways that the law influences the uses of the body. A tragic and tragically forgotten epoch of American legal history is chronicled in Lombardo's Three Generations, No Imbeciles. In this text Lombardo recounts the events surrounding the odious rise of eugenics in the early twentieth century and its codification into American legal precedent under the case of Buck v. Bell. Rather than just examining the case itself, though, Lombardo instead meticulously contextualizes it within the milieu of eugenic ideology that came to pervade the American cultural and political landscape. Moreover, he weighs the impact that the case had for subsequent generations; in doing so, he points to the potential ramifications that Buck v. Bell may bring in our current post-human genome era. To this end it is a study of how "a small number of zealous advocates can have an impact on the law that defies both science and conventional wisdom" (274).

In his legal history Buck v. Bell, the 1927 court case that affirmed forcible sterilization for people deemed to be "feebleminded," Lombardo engages the dilemma that is posed by the co-existence of Buck and Roe. According to Lombardo, "the choice between Roe, which affirms reproductive autonomy, and Buck, which affirms the state's power to control reproduction, presents a quandary" (273). The issue at hand, according to Lombardo, is that, "Those who condemn Buck as strong evidence of the worst tendencies of government to run roughshod over decisions normally left to individuals are often the same people who are most opposed to abortion" (273). "If," he continues:

in rejecting Buck, you assert that the government should not be in the business of supervising reproduction, you run the risk of endorsing principles crucial to decisions like Skinner, Griswold, [two state cases supporting sterilization], and Roe. On the other hand, those who emphasize reproductive liberty and want Roe to remain intact should realize that in its present form, even Roe doesn't trump the power of a state to issue a sterilization order of the kind affirmed in Buck. (273)

While these are important considerations, what Lombardo might well add is that in our current technological context if one were to endorse a platform consistent with feminism and disability activism then one would have to be both legally and logically inconsistent. The reason for this is that one would have to both affirm individual rights by endorsing Roe, while simultaneously endorsing state-protected, collective rights that would ensure that disabled children are not eugenically aborted. How could, in other words, an individual woman's right to abortion never be questioned when it would have to be questioned in order to protect fetuses with deformities or other perceivable disabilities from being unfairly terminated? Can both the individual and a class of citizens be protected when we are dealing with the same issue?

Such a paradox lies at the heart of Ruth Hubbard's "Abortion and Disability." Hubbard makes the case that contemporary technoscience threatens the very existence of people with (dis)abilities. Hubbard decries the potential for the pruning away of corporeal difference from the genetic code through screening and selective abortion. "It is ironic," writes Saxton, "that just when disabled citizens have achieved so much, the new reproductive and genetic technologies are promising to eliminate births of disabled children" (105). "The American public," she continues, "has apparently accepted these screening technologies based on the 'commonsense' assumptions that prenatal screening and selective abortion can potentially reduce the incidence of disease and disability and thus improve the quality of life" (105). Hubbard, too, quite rightly demonstrates how appalling these new forms of technoscience are and how readily they are being integrated into North American cultures. However, even as she laments the introduction of selective abortion, Hubbard nonetheless contends that a woman's right to choose — that is to say, generalized abortion — is unassailable. Hubbard, for example, contends that she is "not arguing against a woman's right to abortion" (101). Moreover, she contends that, "A woman must have the right to abort a fetus" (102). If abortion is to remain legal, though, then how would it be possible to protect disabled people from being aborted out of existence? On a long enough timeline such selection would amount to a pernicious campaign of what Anne Waldschmidt has termed neo-eugenics. The position that Hubbard holds — but which undoubtedly is not hers alone — is one that can only be expressed by the Janus: within the same breath abortion is both reviled and defended. Such an untenable position, whereby potentially disabled fetuses are to comprise a protected class, even while abortion itself would be allowed, would produce impossible results. In order to defend people with disabilities, should then only able-bodied fetuses be destroyed?

By way of engaging this problem, we might turn to Allen E. Buchanan's expressivist argument. According to Buchanan, the expressivist argument against selective abortion is characterized by the contention that selective abortion of disabled fetuses fosters the oppression of people with disabilities. Writing in The Hastings Center's report on disability and genetic testing, Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch summarize the expressivist argument, stating that "many people with disabilities, who daily experience being seen past because of some single trait they bear, worry that prenatal testing repeats and reinforces the same tendency toward letting the part stand for the whole" (14). We might also think of this as the synecdochal model, where disability functions as the pars pro toto of subjectivity. Parens and Asch elucidate potential criticisms of what I am referring to as the synecdochal model. Some find it flawed because, "The argument presumes that we can distinguish between aborting 'any' fetus and a 'particular' fetus that has a disability" (15). This distinction, between any fetus and a particular fetus hinges on the disconnect between the rhetoric of choice and the potential lives of people with disabilities. In other words, the synechdocal model is accosted by some for its apparent incompatibility with pro-choice rhetoric. How can we ensure the liberty of a woman to decide what will emerge from her body if we are to argue for the preservation of people with disabilities as a historically vilified group? There exists a contradiction, then, between arguing for the right of a woman to abort any fetus and arguing that a unique fetus must be preserved. Rather than undermining the position of disability rights advocates, though, I think that this points to the instability and illogic of choice. What constitutes a choice? On what basis is choice made and, given the hegemonic interpolation of dominant ableist culture, can a choice ever truly be considered freely made? By emphasizing a staunch pro-choice position, feminists appear to be supporting an unreflexive model of the subject that has the liberty to navigate the world free of cultural constraints. We certainly aren't irresistibly inculcated by ideology, but nor are we completely autonomous rational beings. Instead, choice occurs within cultural constraints that ultimately undermine its free operation and which contour the subject herself.

The issue, therefore, seems to be one of allegiance. Disability would have us swear ourselves to the fetus, while feminism would have us take an oath to the pregnant woman carrying it. From the vantage of feminism, the fetus is a biological byproduct of the mother, an entity that should not be anthropomorphized any more than any other internal organ. Yet when we admit that technoscience allows for the targeting of disabled fetuses we have already humanized the fetus. This discursively renders the fetus to be more than a mere clump of cells. Saxton, therefore, calls us to understand that, "When we refer to the fetus as a disabled (rather than defective) fetus, we personify the fetus via a term of pride in the disability community" (110). This perforce means that, "The connection disabled people feel with the 'disabled fetus' may seem to be in conflict with the pro-choice stance that the fetus is only part of the woman's body, with no independent human status" (110 emphasis original). If we are to remain true to the ethos of choice that guides the rhetoric of reproductive rights, then we would need to not only deny protection to fetuses with disabilities, we would need to take the even more radical step and deny that fetuses can exhibit humanizing traits such as a disability.


The outright killing of a child after it has been removed from its mother's body strikes us as an abhorrent practice. However, if the child is within the confines of another body its status as human is downgraded. This has been part of the rhetoric of choice, which at its most extreme has depicted a fetus as a lowly clump of cells whose very functioning is contingent on either the aid of technology or the aid of another body. The rights of the woman carrying the fetus are assumed to take precedence over those of the fetus, because the fetus is presumed to be an unviable entity. It is incapable of survival without assistance and as such it possesses no discernable subjectivity. This discursive treatment of the fetus takes on a new dimension, however, when one considers disability. Are adults who require the assistance of machines also to be considered unviable? What really is the difference between such people and a second-term fetus in this respect? Anne Finger, in her profound chronicle of experiencing pregnancy as a woman with post-polio syndrome, poses an equally arduous question: "If abortion is acceptable because a fetus's brain isn't fully developed, and therefore they aren't human, then what is a person with brain damage" (59)? What does this parallel say about our understanding of subjectivity and dependency? As Paul Longmore points out, albeit in the context of physician-assisted suicide, "the specter of 'dependency'" is frequently raised to instill in able-bodied people contempt for and fear of the lifestyles of people with disabilities (188-89). Is independence — which serves as the basis for viability — really the most important metric of humanity? Like the rhetoric of health, the rhetoric of viability only remains unproblematic so long as disability is ignored.

That such importance is placed upon autonomy and individuality when speaking of reproductive rights is not surprising given that both of these values are the central pillars of liberal humanism. Kant, for example, placed freedom at the heart of his philosophy, and it was the central piece of a priori knowledge that enabled and animated future discoveries. In contrast, what Alice Domurat Dreger offers in One of Us — indeed what disability itself offers — is another way to think about autonomy. Rather than forcing us to fixate on individual autonomy, disabilities such as those experienced by conjoined twins offer a way to conceive of subjectivity and agency within networks of dependency. So, while Ruthie and Verena Cady and Abigail and Brittany Hensel have unique preferences and personalities, they also "walk, run, and swim in harmony by a system not fully understood by doctors" (40). Dependence and reliance on others, which are antithetical to the ethos of independence, are assets for the conjoined twins that Dreger examines. Rather than breeding suffering or acrimony, their dependence makes them "better prepared than singletons for the rigors of the world" (40 emphasis original). Paradoxically, then, Dreger's examples illustrate how the abstract notions of independence that guide our moral and political systems are in fact fetters.

Moreover, through her discussion of so-termed sacrifice surgeries, and in particular through her discussion of Rosie and Gracie Attard, Dreger points to the problems with humanistic subjectivity and with discursive uses of parasitism when discussing abortion. When deciding whether Rosie Attard should be surgically destroyed so that her sister Gracie might live unconjoined, the original judge concluded that doing so would violate Rosie's rights. The case, however, was appealed by the plaintiff and it was reviewed by a three judge panel. Curiously, the sentiments of Lord Justice Ward, one of the members of the appellate panel, are reminiscent of the discourse which has emanated from the pro-choice movement. Ward concluded that, "[Rosie] may have a right to life, but she has little right to be alive. She is alive because and only because, to put it bluntly, but nonetheless accurately, she sucks the lifeblood of [Gracie]" (101). Is this not the same position that any fetus is in, never mind whether it be disabled or able-bodied? The implications of Dreger's complex appeal to the reader — that the example of conjoined twins must make us rethink our attitudes toward ability — are as true of abortion as they are of disability. Fundamentally, we must ask who qualifies as human and in what instances do we refuse to assign viability to a subject.

The problem has, in many ways, become one of technology. Whereas infants once had to greet the world after gestation and birth before they could be classified as aberrant, we now live in an era of preventative medicine, as it were. The practice of apothesis which Stiker described in the epigraph of this paper has now been rendered obsolete through technologies which allow for earlier diagnoses and the prevention of the birth of people with disabilities. While the odious effects of these technologies have become ubiquitous in the last decade, their history reaches back nearly fifty years. Mass audiences were first able to peer through the keyhole and into the womb in 1965 when Life magazine ran a cover featuring the biomedical photography of Lennart Nilsson. Prior to that magazine cover, and to the development of sonography, endoscopic intrauterine fetal visualization was developed in the 1950s and it provided the basis for what Donna Haraway has called "the virtual speculum" (51). The virtual speculum has been heightened by newer procedures like genetic testing and amniocentesis. Amniocentesis began being used in clinics in 1969, though it was by no means a common obstetric procedure. Now, though, it has become a staple of chromosomal testing and genetic counseling and it is used to screen for fetuses that might exhibit some form of genetic or physical alterity.

The procedures are so advanced that, in the words of Helen Bequaert Holmes "A pregnant woman and/or her physician can make an abortion decision before the woman has begun to feel the fetus move" (122). While Holmes suggests that this is something of a moral victory, I am inclined to disagree. At bottom, it reveals a curious disjunction between the technological and the phenomenological. Whereas proof of life, proof of humanity might register for the woman through her ability to feel the fetus' movements, the technological procedure is able to confirm the "undesirableness" of the fetus before her body can recognize it as a living creature. In essence, then, technology is used to eliminate another person before that person can be understood to be human. The very same technology that confirms the existence of the being — and therefore makes it something that must be terminated — is also the machinery that disavows the humanity of that same being. It simultaneously produces and erases the Other.

Holmes, moreover, frames the ethics of in utero politics by claiming that one of the consequences which feminists would seek to avoid would be the widespread abortion of female fetuses in favor of their male siblings. This is certainly an uncontroversial point and presumably one that most activists, whether they identify as feminists or disabled, could agree upon. On the other hand, she worries that since males tend to be present with genetic disorders, whereas females only tend to be carriers, the technologies of sex selection would lead to the widespread termination of male fetuses. While this is something of an extreme scenario, it does signal the fears that are produced when we are faced with what I would characterize as techno-abortion. But, despite both her caution and apparent beneficence, Holmes acknowledges what are to her mind potentially positive consequences of allowing women to avoid bringing to term a child with a profound disability: "Although I support the personal reproductive rights of parents to choose not to bear and raise a defective child, I cannot wholeheartedly support the use of sex detection and selective abortion for sex-linked disease" (130). It is unconscionable that this technology, the virtual speculum, might be seen as an effective way to ensure the health of one individual by terminating the existence of another. Yet, this is precisely the result of the discourse of choice, which assigns agency and viability to an individual based exclusively upon that individual's perceptible independence and health. This is related to what I have elsewhere described as the process of somanormativity, which is the compulsory independence that buttresses ableist rhetoric (Caeton 2010).

Others, such as Mary Ann Bailey, have argued against the proposition that amniocentesis and selective abortion pose threats to the viability of the community of people with disabilities. For Bailey, the issue is not whether people with disabilities will ultimately face elimination given contemporary testing and abortion practices. Instead, she sees it as a quality of life issue. Though Bailey professes an understanding of the ways that people with disabilities are discriminated against by a hostile ableist society, her choice to undergo amniocentesis was dictated by her "belief that, all other things equal, disability (specifically, a disability for which [she] would consider an abortion) would make life more difficult for [her] child, [her] family, and [herself]" (67). This seems contradictory, as it is illogical to espouse that people with disabilities are simultaneously capable of living joyous, productive lives while also contending that disability would bring an almost unbearable hardship to her family. We might think of this as a distinction between the personal-Other and the generic-Other. For, if as feminism holds, the personal is political, then what are we to make of an argument that the personal-Other is burdensome while the generic-Other is acceptable? Are people with disabilities therefore to be understood as leading viable, vibrant lives only so long as they are kept at a distance from intimate contact with the able-bodied?

Of course, it would be unfair to ignore the positive motivations that sometimes guide the rhetoric of choice. The idea is to ameliorate suffering by allowing for uncoerced choices. But, when people with disabilities are viewed as inherently unhealthy, and when their existences are reduced to tropes of suffering, it becomes much easier to view their eradication as the moral choice. According to Saxton, "What is too often missed in medical training and treatment are the social factors that contribute to suffering" (109). When we think solely in terms of biology, of a particular brand of biology that is assumed to be uncontaminated by signification, then we make it that much easier to make bad choices. And ultimately, these are not free or good choices. They are choices based on anxieties and a misapprehension of what it means to be disabled. For Finger, the issue of choice is wrought with difficulty. She reminds us that, "A woman with a family history of Huntington's can elect to have amniocentesis and then an abortion. Or she can choose not to. But she must choose" (37). Even ignorance involves choice, because "you also have to choose not to choose" (37). The overriding problem, then, is that in order to rethink choice and reproductive rights we have to rethink the relationship between disability and feminism.

In order to do so properly, disability as physical and cognitive alterity must be regarded not as a fundamental manqué. Rather, it must be understood as an alternative modality of being, one that is no less, nor no more, despicable than any other category of being. Deborah Kent, for example, premises her "life on the conviction that blindness [is] a neutral characteristic" (58). This is to say that disability should be viewed as a neutral trait, one akin to eye color or left-handedness; it is a form of difference, but not one which is so absolute as to pose an insurmountable deficit. Until we embrace disability non-prejudicially, it will prove impossible to protect fetuses that exhibit traits of physical and cognitive alterity. This, of course, entails tremendous changes both at discursive and policy levels, solutions which, in their specificity, are beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say, prohibitions, be they placed on technologies or on behaviors, will not solve the problem. Instead, if we are to choose wisely when presented with choice, then we must continue to labor to make disability recognizable as a valid mode of being. We, along with those feminists who will join us, must strive for fewer barriers and less pernicious stigmas, so that in utero disability is no more cause for alarm than any other unplanned pregnancy. Thus, there must be greater reciprocity with our feminist allies, so that we may, to paraphrase President Clinton, keep abortion safe, legal, and fair.

Works Cited

  • Bailey, Mary Ann. "Why I had Amniocentesis." Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights. Ed. Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2000. 64-71.
  • Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, Duke UP, 2007.
  • Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U California P, 1993.
  • Buchanan, Allen E. "Choosing Who Will Be Disabled: Genetic Intervention and the Morality of Inclusion." Social Philosophy and Policy 13 (1996): 18-46.
  • Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Caeton, D.A. ""Veux-tu regarder, bourreau!': The Somanormative Dimensions of the Diderotian Citoyen." Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 4 (2010): 73-88.
  • Dreger, Alice Domurat. One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2004.
  • Finger, Anne. Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy, and Birth. Seattle: Seal P, 1990.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
  • ---. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 257-274.
  • ---. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
  • Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiania UP, 1994.
  • Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • ---. "The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order." Revisioning Women, Health, and Healing. Ed. Adele E. Clarke and Virginia L. Olesen. New York: Routledge, 1998. 49-96.
  • Harding, Sandra. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.
  • Hayler, Barbara. "Abortion." Signs 5 (1979): 307-323.
  • Holmes, Helen Bequaert. "Sex Preselection: Eugenics for Everyone?" Sex/Machine: Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology. Ed. Patrick D. Hopkins. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. 116-142.
  • Hubbard, Ruth. "Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Who Should Not Inhabit the World?" The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 93-104.
  • Kent, Deborah. "Somewhere a Mockingbird." Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights. Ed. Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2000. 57-63.
  • Kleege, Georgina. Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet UP, 2006.
  • Landecker, Hannah. Culturing Life: How Cells Become Technologies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2007.
  • Lombardo, Paul A. Three Generations: No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell." Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008.
  • Longmore, Paul K. Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003.
  • Martin, Emily. Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS. Boston: Beacon, 1995.
  • Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.
  • Oaks, Laury. "Smoke-Filled Wombs and Fragile Fetuses: The Social Politics of Fetal Representation." Signs 26 (2000): 63-108.
  • Parens, Erik and Adrienne Asch. "The Disability Rights Critique of Prenatal Genetic Testing: Reflections and Recommendations." Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights. Ed. Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2000. 3-43.
  • Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack. "Reproductive Freedom: Beyond 'A Woman's Right to Choose.'" Signs 5 (1980): 661-685.
  • Saxton, Marsha. "Disability Rights and Selective Abortion." The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 105-116.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2008.
  • Stiker, Henri-Jacques. A History of Disability. Trans. William Sayers. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1997.
  • Thompson, Charis. Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 2005.
  • Tremain, Shelley. "Reproductive Freedom, Self-Regulation, and the Government of Impairment in Utero." Hypatia 21 (2006): 35-53.
  • Waldschmidt, Anne. "Against Selection of Human Life: People with Disabilities Oppose Genetic Counseling." Issues in Reproductive and Genetic Engineering 5 (1992): 155-167.
  • Weiss, Meira. Conditional Love: Parents' Attitudes Toward Handicapped Children. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1994.
Return to Top of Page