warning: forced abortion.
on this assessment, the judge has ruled that it is in the woman’s ‘best
interests’ that the pregnancy be terminated. I beg to differ, and do so based
on some experience. For I am an intellectually disabled woman’s son.”
had a mother who was dedicated to my life, overcoming significant obstacles—and
profound heartbreak—to ensure that I was raised in the best home possible. She
taught me about the beauty of difference, the value of non-comformity, the
dangers of seemingly ‘well-meaning’ people to our most vulnerable populations,
and the power, and purity, of a parent’s love. Without her being a part of my
life, I would be less creative, less kind, less intelligent, less good.”
week, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that a pregnant woman with
intellectual and psychiatric disabilities must have an abortion-even though the
woman wanted to give birth and the woman’s mother was willing to raise the
child. Fortunately, the ruling was quickly overturned in an appeals court.
However, before the ruling was overturned, Harold Braswell wrote this powerful
response, reproduced below and linked at the end of this post. Harold has a
valuable perspective to share, as the son of an intellectually disabled woman.
Although Harold, too, was raised by his grandmother, his mother played an
important role in his life. Harold’s story not only sheds light on issues
facing disabled parents and parents-to-be, but it also helps us take a broader
view of what it means to be a mom.
I was a kid, a strange woman would visit our house. Short, with stubbily cut
hair, she would almost never turn to you, not responding even if you called her
name. She dressed flagrantly, in patchwork clothing that she had sewn herself,
and spent the entirety of her visits in a maelstrom of cleaning. Whipping the
record player with a rag, banging colored pencils into a souvenir plastic cup,
she appeared as some hybrid of the Tasmanian Devil and a hobo clown. Yet she
did appear, every month, and at the end of her appearances, I would hug her,
tell her I loved her, and give her two kisses: one on each cheek. A strange
woman, a strange ritual—even stranger because, as I knew, this strange woman
was my mom.
a British judge, Nathalie Lieven, ruled that an intellectually disabled woman
should be forced to have an abortion against her will. The woman—who remains
unnamed, ostensibly out of respect for her privacy—wants to have the child,
but, because of her disability, she is presumed incompetent to make this
decision. Attending medical doctors have judged that her giving birth and
eventually having the child removed from her custody would be extremely
traumatic because of her intellectual disabilities. Based on this assessment,
the judge has ruled that it is in the woman’s “best interests” that the
pregnancy be terminated. I beg to differ, and do so based on some experience.
For I am an intellectually disabled woman’s son.
mother, Andrea Braswell, acquired her intellectual disability as a result of
her education. She was deaf, but the school she attended as a child did not teach
sign language. She was “taught”—via a method called “oralism”—to lip-read and
enunciate words that she could not hear. She did not finally learn a language
until her mother removed her from school when she was eleven years old. By
then, the damage had been done. Children who do not have language access during
their formative years experience what is now called “language deprivation
syndrome.” This condition has been analogized to brain damage, and found to
underlay a range of psychiatric disorders with which deaf people are
disproportionately diagnosed. With regard to my mother, its effects were
severity makes me extremely skeptical of this judge’s ruling. I do not doubt
that the UK woman’s intellectual disability will perhaps make the process of
giving birth complicated, and that it may hinder her from raising her child
herself. But, like my mom, she, too, can be a mother, and her being so can be
very worthwhile for both her and her child.
own birth was difficult, perhaps even traumatic, for my mother. It left her in
a pelvic sling. And my family was so certain of her inability to raise me that
they had me circumcised by a mohel on the third day, not the eighth: They
assumed that I would be given up for adoption, and wanted ensure that, wherever
I ended up, I would be a Jew. Ultimately, I was removed from my mother’s
custody, but instead of being given up for adoption, I was taken in by her
mother, my maternal grandmother.
though she did not raise me herself, my mother remained, always, my mom. She
visited me monthly, sending, almost every week, postcards and gifts. These
visits, postcards, and gifts were, at times, confusing for me, even unwelcome.
But not always, and, over time, I came to appreciate them and also her. We
developed a strong relationship, and, on becoming an adult, it was I who began
visiting her, and sending her my own postcards and gifts. When my grandmother
took me in, I did not lose my mom as a mother. I merely—and miraculously—gained
another one. And my mother, though she did not personally raise me, never lost
situation of this young UK woman is analogous. Her mother supports her decision
to carry the baby to term. Perhaps, with appropriate accommodations, she
herself can raise the child. Even if not, there are ways to ensure that the
woman remains a part of the child’s life. It is notable that the attending
social worker also supports the woman’s decision, against the decision of the
doctors. Doctors are not trained to evaluate the psychosocial factors and
family dynamics most relevant to this case; they also, studies show, frequently
underestimate the abilities of disabled people and devalue their very lives.
The social worker’s expertise should be privileged. This is particularly the
case because this expertise supports the woman’s own expressed desire.
it is this desire that judge Lieven throws into question. “I think she would
like to have a baby in the same way she would like to have a nice doll,” Lieven
said. This statement is ignorant, condescending, and, yes, bigoted. My mother
did not know all the particulars of parenting (no parent does), but she wanted
a child for years prior to my birth. She knew the difference between a baby and
a doll. This woman does too, and her wish should be honored.
mother’s wish was. She had a son, and she was, to him—and always will be—his
mom. Her impact on me was profound, and beneficial. I had a mother who was
dedicated to my life, overcoming significant obstacles—and profound
heartbreak—to ensure that I was raised in the best home possible. She taught me
about the beauty of difference, the value of non-comformity, the dangers
of seemingly “well-meaning” people to our most vulnerable populations, and the
power, and purity, of a parent’s love. Without her being a part of my life, I
would be less creative, less kind, less intelligent, less good. Because I was a
part of her life, she was able to live her dream—a dream that few people
believed achievable, one that, even today, too many, too easily, would deny.
public outcry about the denial of this young UK woman’s dream has been largely
led by what might gently be called “Catholic Twitter.” Catholic commentators
have interpreted it as symptomatic of the evil of a secular liberal society
that devalues life, purporting such ills as “Drag Queen Storytime” and abortion
on demand. As a basically secular, liberal person (albeit with intermittent
internal conflicts about my status as such) and recent attendee of “Drag Queen
Story Time,” I reject these arguments.
reality, this ruling should be recognized as evil by anyone. It is baldly
“anti-choice,” and fails even the thinnest liberal commitments of opposing
bigotry and protecting minorities. It shows an utter lack of creativity, a
disturbing closure to the dynamism of life, an unwillingness to even minimally
accommodate difference. Thus, though this story began as yet another entry in
the so-called “culture wars,” my hope is that it end up somewhere else: as a
“unicorn,” the rare, perhaps impossible, issue that really everyone can agree
experience with my mother has shown me that such cross-“culture war”
understanding can, in some instances, be achieved. In my early twenties, I had
a “quarter life” crisis, provoked in part by the seemingly incompatible conflict
between my relationship with my mother and the categories of the world that I
had just entered as an adult. I began seeing a therapist and, with her
encouragement, started volunteering at a Catholic home for intellectually
disabled women. Working at the home was, among other things, a way for me to
“work through” the seemingly indigestible feelings that I had about my
relationship with my mom.
did that. But it also did something more. I watched, with wonder, how, with
minimal resources, a group of nuns cared for women who, otherwise, might have
been abandoned to institutions or even dead on the streets. But “caring for” is
perhaps not the right term, for the nuns lived with the women, viewing them as
equals and providing an environment in which their basic equality, and value,
could be perceived as such. I perceived it. And, by doing so, I became better
able to perceive, and value, my own mother. I deepened my relationship with
her; I also began to study with Catholic religious sisters, and, with time, to
work at a Catholic institution myself.
a secular Jew at a Catholic university—in a department with substantial
theological commitments—I sometimes wonder what I’ve gotten into. I have no
intention of becoming Catholic, and I disagree strongly with many of the tropes
dominant in American Catholic discourse. But I also appreciate many Catholics
and, in a way, Catholicism itself. In a society that, too often, undervalues
disabled people—making their very status as “persons” a topic for
debate—Catholics have consistently advocated for the intrinsic worth of
their lives. I may not agree with the theological presuppositions based on
which they do so. But I am grateful nonetheless.
is my hope however that this does not remain “just” a Catholic issue: That
there is a broad public outcry both in England and internationally, and
that the decision is reversed. If that doesn’t happen, I hope that the Vatican
does what it can to intervene. It may not come to that. But my fear is that it
Braswell is an assistant professor of health care ethics at Saint Louis
University. He is the author of The Crisis of US Hospice Care, which will be
published by Johns Hopkins University Press in August 2019. He can be reached
on Twitter at @haroldbraswell.
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