The 180

If abortion based on gender is wrong so is abortion based on disability: U of C prof

Research suggesting sex-selective abortions are taking place in Canada has sparked discussion about the acceptable reasons for terminating a pregnancy. But ableism and disability studies scholar Gregor Wolbring says the discussion reveals a discriminatory bias Canadians have on selective abortion.
Wu Tianyang, who is five month pregnant with her second child, attends a sonogram at a local hospital in Shanghai September 12, 2014. ( REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

New research out this week suggests sex selective abortions are taking place in Canada.

The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, looked at more than six million births in Canada and suggests that sex selection, through abortion, is making for an usually high proportion of baby boys. 

  • For analysis of the study itself, read Dr. Brian Goldman's analysis here. 

The research has prompted plenty of reaction from columnistsacademics, activists, women's rights advocates, and politicians.   

But while Canadians seem to be disturbed by abortion based on gender, Gregor Wolbring wonders why abortions based on ability don't trigger a similar reaction.

Down's Syndrome, we all know has a termination rate of 90%. So if we talk about gender equity, the question then is do we have two-tiered system based on social groups where one is more important than the other- Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary

Wolbring, an ableism and disability studies scholar at the University of Calgary's Cummings School of Medicine, says the logic is inconsistent and points out that fetuses with conditions like cleft palate or Down's Syndrome are aborted more often than not. 

"We're selecting, through ultrasound, whether you have arms and legs — termination rate is roughly around 90-95%. Cleft palate has a high termination rate. Down's Syndrome, we all know has a termination rate of 90%. So if we talk about gender equity, the question then is do we have two-tiered system based on social groups where one is more important than the other, " he says. 

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The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

Why do people find it repugnant to terminate a pregnancy based on gender, but acceptable to terminate a pregnancy based on something else? 

Culture. Every culture has different hierarchies about which social groups they accept. We could say in North America, or Canada at least, is fairly acceptive of being gay. Others still treat it like a disease. Others again, still search for the gay gene, which then of course if seen in a disease narrative you would try to eliminate that also. So it's a cultural thing. In some cultures, me having a body difference might be less disadvantaged than having a certain gender. It's all about...what the system is willing to accommodate and what it isn't. 

Over and above culture, is there an equivalency to be made between terminating a pregnancy because of gender and terminating a pregnancy because of genetic illness? 

Sure. Just look at the arguments used about why gender selection is bad. One is about sex discrimination, well if sex discrimination is bad, then is ability discrimination not bad? Another one is about sex stereotyping, if sex stereotyping bad, is ability stereotyping not just as bad? So any arguments that could be used to say sex selection is bad could be used for any selection, period. 

(Provided by Gregor Wolbring)

What about the argument that the parents are doing [ability based abortions] to prevent suffering? 

You could say then in India in certain areas, where life sucks for being a girl, you're better off. Suffering is a very subjective term, it's an emotive term to get acceptance, but that also takes people away from why are people really suffering? That's a long debate within the disability field. Do I suffer because I have no legs, or do I suffer because you have legs and build everything accordingly. If you go by logic, then even if they are suffering, then is equality or equity out because of an argument like suffering. The only way to distinguish between ability selection and sex selection is that we label one as disease, and the other isn't. The problem with that is that is that disease is a moving target. It's short sighted, so if I start enhancing people then I can label the ones who aren't enhanced as diseased. 

Is it possible to be against this kind of prenatal testing and still be pro-choice? 

Sure. I'm a strong believer in you do it for everything or you do it for nothing and I come from Germany, and there the feminist movement was very much against genetic [testing] but that doesn't mean they were against abortion. The pro/con argument about abortion is a totally different debate than the argument around selective use. In North America, for whatever reason it's just mingled together and that really muddies the water. 

What do these studies and the acceptance of prenatal genetic screening tell us about the broader attitudes to disability in this country? 

Given we accept the distinction, then it's hierarchy. Given we don't have the same outcry, we're still in a position where abilities count. If you don't have the ability, then you're disadvantaged and you have to fight for things. But if you had a society where everyone was supported, then you wouldn't even go for the test. But instead, there are studies that show because women have the "choice" now, the blame factor is increasing — because people feel that they had their choice and they didn't [abort] and then the next step would be 'well you had your choice, so now you pay for it'.