Today, ‘disability justice is reproductive justice’ — but that hasn’t always been the case

Historically, the disability and reproductive rights movements have operated separately, “just ignoring each other,” as one advocate put it, as they pursued aims that at times felt contradictory: While one movement fought for full abortion access, the other sought for people to stop ending pregnancies where disabilities were detected. A new House resolution announced Thursday by Rep. Ayanna Pressley highlights shifts in the movements’ relationship accelerated by the end of federal abortion rights and growing acknowledgement of common ground: bodily autonomy and self-determination.

Advocates for reproductive and disability rights and justice were set to gather with Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, outside the U.S. Capitol to announce the Disability Reproductive Equity Act. The resolution would establish an annual Disability Reproductive Equity Day in May to highlight the unmet reproductive health care needs of the disability community.

“Disability justice is reproductive justice, and we cannot have one without the other. I am so proud to work with advocates from all walks of life and put forward this necessary, intersectional legislation,” Pressley said in an exclusive comment shared with The 19th.

A matching resolution is being introduced by Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington.

“I’m proud to introduce this resolution alongside Senator Murray and Congresswoman Pressley to help ensure all of us in the disability community are seen and are not left behind in getting the reproductive care we need,” Duckworth told The 19th.

The resolution introduction itself is not necessarily groundbreaking – if passed, the measure would not establish any policy changes around reproductive health care access for people with disabilities. What’s remarkable is the coalition between disability and reproductive rights and justice groups who shaped the resolution’s text alongside Pressley, Duckworth and Murray.

Thursday’s gathering is a culmination of years of work from many advocates to move past disability and reproductive rights organizations “just ignoring each other,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, director for the Disability Justice Initiative at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

“This is the first event of its kind,” she said.

Ives-Rublee attributes the beginnings of that work in progressive and broader disability spaces to her predecessor, Rebecca Cokleywho founded the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress in 2018. She will be speaking at the event. Cokley now heads up the U.S. Disability Rights Program at the Ford Foundation.

“Rebecca Cokley started the conversations between the disability and reproductive communities,” Ives-Rublee said.

It isn’t just left-of-center and progressive disability organizations that are now more focused on reproductive rights and justice. The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), one of the largest groups representing the interests of disabled Americans, has a history of being nonpartisan — and has traditionally avoided public comment on abortion policy. Former Sen. Bob Dolea lifelong conservativewas a key figure in the founding of AAPD alongside Democrats like former Rep. Tony Coelho.

Maria Town, the organization’s current president, notes that nonpartisanship was not the only consideration in the silence on abortion and other reproductive issues.

“In parts of the disability community, there’s a very large contingent of pro-life people,” Town said, highlighting the Down syndrome and developmental disability communities in particular and concerns about what some call “disability selective abortion,” or the decision to abort a fetus based on a prenatal diagnosis.

Down syndrome is a condition caused by an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. People with Down syndrome usually have intellectual disability and distinctive facial features like almond-shaped eyes. They have higher rates of heart, digestive and hearing problems and are more likely to develop dementia later in life. Many can also work, get married and lead full lives.

Because Down syndrome is highly detectable before birth and is routinely screened for in developed countries, the abortion rate for the condition is high. Because the United States does not have a centralized, socialized health care system, it is more difficult to estimate the abortion rate for Down syndrome than it is in some European countries. The most recent systematic research pegs it between 67 and 85 percent in the United States.

“I think it is very difficult to find a self advocate with Down syndrome who supports abortion rights,” Town said, noting that anti-abortion events like March for Life will often have messaging about people with Down syndrome and other disabilities that can be detected in utero. Because AAPD represents a wide coalition, that consideration was part of the decision to stay silent. Because there was no polling, it was also difficult to tell what the majority opinion of the disability community actually was.

That changed in 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. AAPD made its first ever statement about abortion rightsopposing the decision. More followed. Town notes that some prominent developmental and intellectual disability organizations followed AAPD’s lead. A dam had opened up.

“The thing that we really centered was the fact that the core principles of the disability rights movement are bodily autonomy and self determination. And core to those ideas is the right to safe and accessible reproductive care. That includes abortion,” Town said.

Ives-Rublee and Town attribute the shift many disability organizations have made on abortion, including their own, to the growing number of women in disability leadership.

“A lot of the organizations within the disability community really relied on the belief that disability was a non-partisan issue, meaning both Republicans and Democrats could work together to address issues impacting disabled people. These organizations were mostly led by White men,” Ives-Rublee said.

At AAPD, Town also attributes part of the decision to take a position on abortion rights to the leadership of late disability rights icon Judy Heumannwho served on AAPD’s board until her death last year.

I think it probably would have happened if she hadn’t been on our board, but she played a huge role in making sure that the statement happened. I continue to be grateful to her for that,” Town said.

It isn’t only disability organizations that largely favor some form of legal abortion. In 2022, shortly after the decision that would end a federal right to abortion was leakedleft-leaning polling firm Data for Progress conducted the first-ever poll of disabled people’s thoughts about abortion. They found that half of both non-disabled people and disabled people thought abortion should remain legal in most circumstances.

Data for Progress uses online-only polling, so it may not fully capture the entirety of the disability community — only those who can and would fill out an online poll. People with limited access to the internet or limited literacy, like some people with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities, may be missed, for example. However, it is important to note that traditional polling may also miss this population and it is difficult to work out exactly how many people might be left out.

A new Data for Progress poll on the topic, commissioned by the Center for American Progress, was exclusively shared with The 19th in advance of Thursday’s announcement. While the questions are not similar enough to draw any comparisons with the polling from 2022, it does show a similar result: The opinions of non-disabled people and disabled people on abortion are still largely similar. Sixty-one percent of non-disabled respondents and 55 percent of disabled respondents said that they believe abortion should be legal in most cases.

The new poll also shows disabled opinion and non-disabled opinion are similar on a host of other issues, ranging from fertility treatment to contraception to decisions made about reproductive autonomy for people under guardianship. For example, when it comes to in vitro fertilization, a form of fertility treatment that has recently been under fire by some conservatives83 percent of non-disabled and 79 percent of disabled people believe it should be legal.

“A majority of disabled people support access to abortion and support being able to make their own choices around reproductive rights and justice,” Ives-Rublee said.

While it is unlikely the resolution will pass in the Republican-majority House, disability advocates feel positively about it and the future of their partnership with reproductive rights and justice groups.

“I just want folks to understand that there is an incredible overlap between disabled people’s want for bodily autonomy and the work that women and nonbinary individuals have been working on around bodily autonomy (in the reproductive rights and justice movements). And I think there’s a lot of overlap. The crux of the work is creating and maintaining that bridge,” Ives-Rublee said.
Note: The Ford Foundation has been a financial supporter of The 19th.

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