Monday, August 31, 2009

Contested Motherhood - Ms. Jo Chopra, LRF

Dear Friends,


Ms. Jo Chopra, Latika Roy Foundation, Dehradun is a fond mother and activist for the inherent human rights of those experiencing disabilitiies and particulary intellectual disabilities. This is subsequent to my earlier post reflecting my senior colleague Collin Gonsalves, Advocate, Supreme Court of India presenting the legal views and social implications of the judgement.


Click here to read from source: The Hindu - Contested motherhood
JO CHOPRA

Can the State order an intellectually-disabled person to have an abortion even though she wants to have the baby? A look at some of the issues regarding sexuality and disability…

What kind of sexuality education do children with disability need? Do people with disability even have sex lives? Do they have the right to reproduce and raise their own babies?

Of the issues confronting people with disability, sexuality is the most charged. A recent case brought many of the most compelling strands of this complex tapestry together and it took the Supreme Court to settle it.

A young woman with a mental handicap, living in a government institution as a State ward, had been raped repeatedly by two guards there. At 19, she became pregnant. When her condition was detected, the State determined she should have an abortion. The woman insisted she wanted to keep the child.
The matter went to court and it was decided she should be compelled to have the abortion. An advocate for the woman filed an appeal in the Supreme Court where, given the urgency, a speedy verdict was rendered: no woman, even one with a mental handicap, can be compelled to have an abortion.

Many people weighed in on this case but many important issues were ignored or not analysed:
A disabled woman was raped. People with mental handicaps are statistically more likely to be sexually abused. They are accustomed to being dependent on adults for many of their basic personal needs and submissive in their response to them. Vulnerable People with developmental disabilities may lack the social skills to assess a dangerous situation and the judgment to get out of it or raise an alarm. They are exposed to more “caregivers” than typically developing people. The more people one is intimately involved with, the higher the chance that one will be an exploiter.

The woman became pregnant. People with developmental disability are often assumed to be both asexual and infertile. While some disabilities do have an associated infertility component (only around 50 per cent of women with Down Syndrome, for example, are fertile), most otherwise healthy adults have the same chance of being able to reproduce as anyone and many have the same sex drive as normal people.

Her pregnancy was ordered to be terminated by the High Court, in spite of her insistence that she wanted the baby. Here is the heart of the issue. Can a person with an intellectual disability make a decision? Is intellectual capacity required for parenthood? What about the baby’s right to life? Is the State justified in forcing someone to undergo an invasive procedure?

Many who agreed with the court’s decision nonetheless believed the baby would have to be taken from the mother and reared by the State. It’s important to look carefully at biases and assumptions here.

Are we sure that a woman with a cognitive disability is incapable of taking care of her child? In theory, there is no reason to assume she couldn’t manage, albeit with support. Most able women need support to bring up their babies too. Motherhood is demanding and a high IQ may be one of the least important pre-requisites. As long as the mother is loving and attentive, as many mentally handicapped women are, and, crucially, has support from the community, a baby could prosper in her care.

Granted, that baby might not get the perfect intellectual environment, but is academic success the only goal in life? Does it guarantee happiness? A child brought up by a mother with intellectual impairment might still be deeply loved and cared for and might be satisfied and content — not things to be lightly discarded.

In spite of such logic, arguments were made about the State’s compelling interest in seeing that this child not be born. Because the baby would have to be brought up by the State, better not to allow it to be born in the first place. This reasoning is both specious and dangerous.

Many people who are not wards of the State might still be judged incompetent to bring up children. The socialite more interested in parties than in a baby’s needs, the workaholic whose ambition supersedes her parenting responsibilities, the habitual drinker, the poor woman living hand to mouth, the child bride, the list goes on.


Are we prepared to terminate the pregnancies of such women? The Supreme Court said no. Human rights cannot be granted to some people and denied to others without ensuring that eventually they will be denied to all.

What if the baby were born with a disability, as many opponents of the Supreme Court decision hinted darkly was likely?The real issue

What if it were? And here is the true heart of the matter. Disability is, I believe, “The Last Frontier” in the battle against discrimination and injustice. While people are indeed denied basic human rights for all sorts of reasons all over the world, no civilised person ever tries to justify it. When women are raped, when prisoners are tortured, when children are abused, when war crimes are committed, the civilised world recoils in horror. We speak out against human rights violations wherever we see them and so we should and so we must. Except when it comes to people with disability.

Abortion of girls because they are girls is called what it is: murder, brutality. Abortion of babies with disability is routine, sanctioned and worse, expected. In the U.S., it is estimated that 95 per cent of babies detected with Down Syndrome are aborted. Women who elect to have their babies anyway are made to feel irresponsible, reckless and unfairly burdening society. Chilling decisions
Eminent philosophers (Dr. Peter Singer of Princeton is one example) speak openly of the moral right of parents to abort handicapped babies before they are born and afterwards too. At the moment, it is acceptable only in early infancy, before parents have gotten “attached”. But as ethicists admit, if it’s acceptable to abort a disabled baby before birth, what’s wrong with doing it later? This opens the door to chilling possibilities.

Sexuality offers a prism through which we can better understand ourselves, the people around us and the values we hold most dearly. When we use it to look at disability, we may find, to our dismay, we are not the people we thought we were. Although we speak of tolerance and diversity, many of us are uncomfortable with people with disabilities making choices in their lives, distressed by the idea of them having sexual relationships and appalled by the vision of them bringing more people like themselves into the world.

The Last Frontier. It’s later than we think.

The writer is the Director of the Latika Roy Foundation ( http://www.latikaroy.org/) in Dehradun, a Resource Centre for People with Special Needs.

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