Tuesday, August 3, 2021
By Fallon Parker (Aug. 3, 2021)
Last week marked the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which seeks to affirm and protect the rights of people with disabilities. Among other provisions, the act guarantees equal opportunity to person with disabilities in employment, transportation, services, accommodations, and other areas. While the ADA has resulted in significant changes for the disabled community, persons with disabilities who use reproductive healthcare still struggle to gain access to services.
Disability rights and reproductive justice have always been closely linked. Buck v. Bell, which has not been overturned, allowed for sterilization of institutionalized persons in order to benefit the “welfare of society.” Eugenics, which was espoused as a way to “improve society” and specifically targeted disabled persons, among other marginalized groups, motivated some early supporters of birth control.
Today, it is recognized that persons with disabilities have the same reproductive and sexual health needs as persons without disabilities, and yet studies show that persons with disabilities do not access reproductive care at the same rates as their peers. According to the National Council on Disability, disabled persons reported avoiding regular gynecological visits because they were difficult to obtain, and that healthcare workers often refrained from discussing contraceptives or STD screening with disabled persons and expressed surprise to learn disabled persons were sexually active. Persons with disabilities are also likely to have fewer pap tests and mammograms than persons without disabilities. Additionally, disabled persons are poorer on average than non-disabled persons, and income is directly related to ability to access reproductive services. And some disabled persons who rely on Medicaid do not have access to insurance coverage for abortion services.
Recently there has been an influx of attention to the intersection of disability rights and the reproductive justice movement. Britney Spears, the singer who has been under a conservatorship for 13 years, finally had her day in court and revealed, among other things, that her conservatorship forces her to wear an IUD. While the exact terms and genesis of the conservatorship are not public, it reportedly followed an involuntary temporary psychiatric hold filed on her 13 years ago based on an assessment that she was a possible danger to herself or others.
This year, Spears expressed to a court her desire to have more children and her frustration with not having any control over that decision. In response to Spears’s testimony, several websites have published accounts from disabled persons noting the similarities between Spears’s lack of bodily autonomy and the restrictions that disabled persons face daily. Sara Luterman, a journalist who is disabled, was interviewed for Slate and broke down how difficult it is for people to remove themselves from a conservatorship or guardianship. Luterman mentioned Ryan King, a man with an intellectual disability who could not remove his conservatorship, even though his conservators, who were his parents, asked the court to remove it. Like it is for King, Luterman fears it will be difficult for Spears to remove herself from her conservatorship.
Spears’s conservatorship and her fight for bodily autonomy highlight a common reality for many disabled persons, especially those with reproductive needs. While the ADA was a significant moment in the fight for disability rights, it has fallen short in providing reproductive justice for disabled persons. Within the mainstream reproductive justice movement, disabled persons are often left out of the conversation. The anniversary of this landmark legislation is an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to the importance of disability rights in the fight for reproductive justice and consider how the next 30 years can be used to ensure equitable access to reproductive healthcare for all.