Encyclopedia of Reproductive Technologies

By Annette Burfoot | Go to book overview

Women, Disabilities, and Genetic Screening

To live as a disabled woman in Western society means being exposed to many different forms of discrimination. Because of their ability to conceive and bear children, women with disabilities have experiences to which men, whether disabled or not, cannot relate. Nor can nondisabled women relate; disability as a way of life is often so foreign to them that they sometimes reject it in others. Also, a disabled woman is far more likely to be unemployed than a disabled man or a nondisabled woman. It is often impossible for the disabled woman, however, to fall back on the standard female alternative of a career as a spouse, housewife, and mother. Most disabled women are not considered attractive enough in the normative sense to be serious contenders as future wives. Moreover, there is usually doubt about whether they are mobile enough or psychologically and physically strong enough to function as housewives and mothers. Finally, society has difficulty accepting that such women may have childbearing capabilities, and this attitude has resulted in a kind of child- bearing "prohibition" for the disabled.

Herein lies one of the reasons for the independent-living movement's opposition to genetic counseling and screening. If disability is a socially constructed problem, then the idea that the problem must be solved by eliminating the problematic person before birth is hard to buy, especially by women with disabilities. Yet medical doctors tend to reinforce this childbearing "prohibition," and often their message is unmistakable: Disabled women should not bring disabled children into this world. As a result, women with disabilities were one of the first targets of genetic screening and counseling in the interests of preserving a healthy, "qualitatively functional" population. This is just one example of how genetic consultation with its implied birth preferences and prohibitions can affect women by controlling reproductive behavior and sexuality. This form of counseling may at its deepest level be not only handicapping but misogynist.


Conclusion

In both the early science of eugenics with its political applications in World War II Germany and the contemporary genetic science, the principle of selection plays an important role. But whereas formerly only those already born were subject to evaluations of their quality, today the unborn are judged as well. Decisions that at first glance appear to be purely medical emerge, upon closer examination, as socially based. Since 1945 there have been extensive scientific developments in the field of human genetics. Gene technology has revolutionized its methods and contributed greatly to the acquisition of knowledge. However, despite mod

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