Return to Sender: How Sexual Politics Continue to Oppress People with Disabilities

by Matthew P. Cavedon:

Baby Gammy is lucky to be alive. An Australian couple paid his mother $15,000 to be their surrogate. Gammy’s twin sister, born healthy, was welcomed by the couple. Gammy, born with an extra chromosome and, thus, Down’s Syndrome, was not. On finding out his condition, the couple asked his mother to kill him through an abortion.

Baby Gammy 2Gammy is lucky, because his mother’s Buddhist beliefs led her to say no and raise him with love instead. Many other people with disabilities have not been so lucky, thanks to the “progressive” and “liberal” models of sexual politics that have shaped the last century. Because neither model places the human rights to functioning bodies, family upbringings, and human life first, each threatens people with disabilities.

The progressive model is the older of the two. Beginning in the 1910s and 1920s, sexual progressives sought to better the human race through state control of human reproduction. The law would decide whose bodies were allowed to function and whose would be sterilized. Progressive policies ultimately led to the sterilization of 60,000 Americans in thirty states.

Arch-progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a majority opinion for the Supreme Court upholding the practice, because states could protect their citizens against “being swamped with incompetence.” “It is better for all the world,” he wrote, “if… society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” The last state-mandated sterilization of a person with a disability happened in Virginia just four decades ago. Justice Holmes’ opinion has never been overturned by the Court, though some states have come to regret the evil they did and offer reparations to sterilization’s survivors.

Progressive sexual politics are mostly a thing of the past, with the exception of an occasional oddity like the 2012 Massachusetts case where a state judge ordered a woman with mental illnesses to abort her baby and undergo sterilization, suggesting that she could be “coaxed, bribed, or even enticed… by ruse.”

Modern sexual politics is much likelier to declare “my body, my choice” or “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” than “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Modern sexual politics have left progressivism for liberalism, insisting on choice in all reproductive matters.

Liberalism does not threaten the fertility of people with disabilities—if it leaves them alive long enough to develop it. The liberal world guarantees choice in conception, abortion, and surrogacy. Every level of liberal sexual politics threatens children with disabilities. Choice in conception, through in-vitro fertilization, features “selective reduction.” That means more fetuses are conceived than a couple wants, so some are killed prior to birth. Thanks to recent advances in genetic testing, unborn children with disabilities can be—and are—identified and targeted.

Choice in abortion works in much the same way. Had he been conceived with Down’s Syndrome in the United States instead of to a compassionate Thai Buddhist, Baby Gammy would have had an 8% chance of being allowed to live until birth. An estimated 49% fewer Down’s babies were born between 1989 and 2005 than would have been in the absence of the combination of genetics testing and abortion. If not-yet-born people with Down’s Syndrome were recognized as human beings, this would be atrocious. (For that matter, if they were even treated as well as some strands of earthworm or eagle egg, they could at least qualify as an endangered species and receive legal protection.) Instead, parents now have a legal right to know if their unborn child has a disability, for the precise purpose of deciding whether or not they will let the child live.

Liberalism contains one last landmine, for those children with disabilities who do survive through birth: families are given broad leeway to accept or abandon them. Adoption has long been an option for parents who do not believe they can raise their child well, and long may it remain so. But the logic of choice through surrogacy means that the couple who paid Baby Gammy’s mother to carry him can ditch their contract, because he does not meet their expectations. Children with disabilities become botched orders returnable to sender, instead of family members to be welcomed in love.

One tyranny over disabled bodies replaced another last century, as liberalism took over the position progressivism once held. Dominance of our lives replaced power over our reproduction. Until there is a new sexual politics honoring bodily and family integrity over abstract doctrines of control and autonomy, people with disabilities will remain, at best, lucky to be alive.


Matthew Cavedon is a graduate of Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in both law and theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

One Comment

  1. To suggest that women are “returning” disabled children the way they might return defective merchandise is extremely callous to the women who struggle with the choice. If a major reason that women are choosing to abort disabled children is because they legitimately believe that they will not be capable of supporting said child, then the problem is capitalism (the same as with gender selective abortions, another huge problem) since people are simply acting in their own economic self interest. I would then propose that the “new sexual politics” would be little more than treating a symptom and/or wishful thinking that society will change on its own. Instead, developing a culture of support for children as opposed to one that appears to treat babies as punishments for sex (for example, by expanding a medicare like program to children under a set age) would not only reduce the number of abortions but also reduce rates of infant mortality. Since infants (1 month to 1 year) are, of course, considered individual humans by the overwhelming majority, saving their lives should count for something also.

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