#Disabled and Child-Free: Disability and the Right of Reproductive Choice

Today on the Weekly Wisdom blog, I’m going to share something personal.

I’m 33 years old. My husband and I just celebrated our five-year anniversary. We have no children, and that’s by design. We’re a “child-free couple” as some might say. And, this afternoon I will be receiving a birth control implant in my arm, which means there’s a 99.95% chance that we will be staying child-free for at least the next 3 years.

So, why am I sharing something this personal on my professional blog? What’s this got to do with disability?

Absolutely nothing. Zero, nada. And that’s the point.

Sometimes it’s assumed that disabled people shouldn’t have children. It’s thought that we can’t be fit parents or provide good homes. Or, it’s thought that we shouldn’t pass “bad genes” on to the next generation. Not too long ago, some disabled people in the United States were involuntarily sterilized. Even today, a disabled person’s right to parent is only protected in a handful of states. On the flip side, when a disabled person does have kids, some people assume that the kids are supposed to act as helpers or even take care of the parent. The kids may be seen as means to an end.

My and my husband’s choice to be child-free has nothing to do with my disability. I know I could be a good parent with the challenges of my disability, and I couldn’t care less if somebody inherited my blindness. I am child-free because I simply have no desire to be a parent. I’ve never been a “kid person” and the idea of living with kids 24/7 and having them depend on me for their basic survival terrifies me. I’ve felt since adolescence that I have skills and talents in other areas, but childrearing isn’t one of them. I’ve never felt the biological drive that other women say they have to pass on their eggs. I do care deeply about the coming generation, I love my niece and nephews and care about my friends’ children, I have generative and nurturant instincts I follow in other ways. I am in awe of the vital work that parents do, but it’s just not for me. Perhaps there’s a deep reason related to my own childhood and the fact that I couldn’t wait to grow up, or perhaps it’s just an orientation I have, in the same way that some people have always longed to become moms or dads and see that as fundamental to who they are. Although I haven’t wanted kids, I’ve always wanted to marry a man ever since I read the proposal scene in Little House on the Prairie when I was in third grade.

People with disabilities run the entire gamut in terms of our orientations toward gender, sexuality, and parenting. Our families, partners, friends, and healthcare providers are wise when they support our freedom to make choices about our own bodies and our own lives.

Three years ago I had just moved to Seattle and I had a well-woman exam with a new doctor. At the end of the exam, she told me that if I ever did decide to become pregnant, I could come to their prenatal clinic and that she would be happy to prescribe prenatal vitamins. I could have gotten offended that she was just assuming I would want babies someday, but instead, I was delighted that this doctor didn’t see my disability as an impediment to parenting if that was what I wanted. She offered me the same services that she would offer her other 30-year-old female patients, and was willing to provide support so that I could have a healthy pregnancy. This helped us establish a higher level of trust in our patient-physician relationship.

The freedom to choose a child-free married life is not one I take lightly. Around the world, many disabled and nondisabled women cannot choose this life for a variety of reasons. Others long to become parents, but face physical, attitudinal, financial and other barriers. As much as I will defend my own right not to have kids, I will fight to the end so that my disabled brothers and sisters who want to parent have the right to do so.

I am grateful that, as a blind girl, I received early sex education at home and braille books about birth control so I could learn about all of my options without the information being filtered through another person. I am grateful that I grew up hearing that any orientation I developed toward sexuality and parenting would be valid. I am grateful that my spouse respects what I want to do with my body. (Even when we were toying with the idea of parenting, he suggested we could adopt if I didn’t want to deal with pregnancy and birth). As I prepare for my appointment today, I am grateful that the White Cane laws will allow me to get there independently, and the Americans with Disabilities Act means I can get help signing the informed consent and reading the aftercare instructions for my implant. I am grateful that my implant will only cost $30. I am most grateful for systems and supports protecting my basic agency to make decisions.

Many of my disabled brothers and sisters still struggle to realize their family dreams. Some are barred from romance by well-meaning, or ill-meaning caregivers. Others have suffered sexual abuse that has a lasting impact on their experience of relationships. Still others are isolated and go to bed each night longing for a partner they cannot find. Some of my disabled brothers and sisters have fallen quickly into marriages or parenthood they didn’t really want, because they feared they could find nothing else. Our family freedoms are still restricted by widespread lack of transportation and accessible, affordable housing; healthcare barriers; and the widespread belief that we can’t or shouldn’t govern our own family lives. Let’s work together to build a world where all of us, including the disabled among us, can have the family lives we want.

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