Skewed Stories and Difficult Choices

Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)

Reproductive justice is not just about choice,” is a phrase that I’ve found myself repeating again and again. The right to choose though, is a staple in the vocabulary of those who fight for reproductive rights –and understandably so with its associations of free will and self-determination. What happens though when someone is deemed to be incapable of choosing due to mental incapacitation?

Earlier this month, a district court in Nevada ruled that the adopted parents of a woman with fetal alcohol syndrome, epilepsy, and the mental capacity of a six-year old could decide  to have her continue a medically risky pregnancy. Residing in a group home, the woman wandered away and was raped (News outlets report on the uncertainty of whether the sex was consensual.  I’d like to ask how someone with the mental capacity of a six year old can consent?). The Associated Press news article on this story, was reprinted everywhere from ABC to CBS, and even showed up in Daily Women’s Health Policy Report email I receive from the National Partnership for Women and Families. This article is provocatively titled “Nev. judge won’t order abortion for impaired woman.” Further digging, however, showed that all that had been proposed were evidentiary hearings to determine what was best for the health of the pregnant woman.  The misleading AP article highlights the fact that anti-choice groups view this as a victory “that the court recognized that childbirth is a natural process and is the generally accepted course of treatment for pregnancy,” and frames the story as an unwanted intrusion of the state into a personal family decision. This narrative is warped in such a way that it characterizes the choice aspect as overzealously choosing abortion for everyone, rather than looking at people’s individual circumstances and seeking to protect the most vulnerable members of society. That protection requires an examination of whether it is in her best interest for her adopted parents to choose for her, based on their beliefs, to continue a pregnancy that put her health and the health of the fetus at risk.

In fact, reproductive justice is highly conscious of and abhor a history of forced sterilization on the basis of mental ability, sexual orientation, race, and drug use. Considering that the threat of this type of sterilization is still very real for women with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, advocates of reproductive rights must speak as loudly or more loudly than the opposition to explain the complexities of a movement not just about choice.