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Realising Reproductive Rights for Persons with Disabilities in Ireland.

Updated: Aug 28, 2020


This blog discusses research being undertaken at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at NUI Galway. Dr. Áine Sperrin, Sibéal Board Member and Post-doctoral Researcher on the Re(al) Productive Justice project[1] writes about the barriers for reproductive justice for persons with disabilities in Ireland which the project seeks to highlight.

‘The Re(al) Productive Justice project at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, NUI Galway is a three-year project from 2019 to 2022, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The primary aim of the project is to make visible the reproductive experiences of disabled people in Ireland. If you identify as having a disability and have an experience of the reproductive topics discussed below, we welcome your involvement. As a guide, we include persons with physical, intellectual, sensory and psychosocial disabilities, autistic and neurodiverse people, users and survivors of psychiatry and Deaf people. We also welcome contributions from people who identify as disabled and who are members of the LGBTQI community, are in Direct Provision, identify as a Traveller/Mincéir or belong to other ethnic minority communities. The project takes a social model approach to disability - recognising that society creates the barriers to fully inclusive lives. Society is the cause of disability, rather than an individual’s ability[2].

Ross and Solinger describe reproductive justice as the right to choose whether to have children or not, to parent your own children, and the right to any supports that might be required to realise these decisions[3]. While for many the primary struggle around reproductive justice in Ireland has been access to abortion, for persons with disabilities there are violations in realizing all aspects of Ross and Solinger’s understanding of reproductive justice.

Protectionist attitudes by some families and service providers has disempowered many disabled people, including those with intellectual disabilities, to explore their reproductive lives[4]. Under the guise of eugenics, access to reproductive health services for people who do not fit within a heterosexual, middle-class and abled norm has been limited[5]. Writing in the early 1990s, Waxman recognised that the stories of resistance against ableist reproductive policies have been mostly limited to those with physical disabilities residing in the community – those who had not been forced into institutional settings[6]. It remains extremely difficult to capture the experiences of persons with disabilities who continue to be segregated from society in congregated settings.

There have been failings by both the feminist and disability movements to adequately address reproductive rights for women with disabilities[7]. The focus of the disability movement has centred around gaining fundamental supports to choose where to live, to personal assistant services and non-discrimination legislation, at times without considering the more intimate parts of disabled people’s lives. The issue of abortion has been distorted for women with disabilities. Prilletensky’s qualitative research indicated that some disabled women have encountered assumptions that they would have an abortion, where the same action would be considered taboo for non-disabled women[8].

Physical, linguistic and information accessibility[9] as well as more discriminatory practices were perceived by mothers with disabilities while engaging with UK maternity services. This varied from a failure to provide reasonable accommodation, lack of respectful interactions with staff or inadequate awareness of disability[10]. Discrimination while providing care to their children pervades their lives. Families headed by someone with an intellectual disability in the UK are up to 50 times more likely to be involved in court proceedings around childcare than non-disabled parents, despite making up less than 1% of family population[11].

In addition to reviewing existing literature, the Re(al) Productive Justice project is interested in the operation of international and domestic laws and policies on the reproductive experiences of disabled people in Ireland. International laws outline the obligations for state intervention in the areas of healthcare, maternity protection and the protection of private and family life[12]. Domestically, the Irish Constitution is the fundamental rights protection document but it permits unequal treatment on the grounds of disability[13] as well as restricting the Constitutional protection of the family to families based on marriage[14].

The outcomes of the Re(al) Productive Justice project include the development of toolkits to be used by professionals to best respect the reproductive rights of their service users in the future. To ensure that the learnings from the project are shared with the most relevant actors, Discussion Fora based on the four themes are being organised throughout the project. Each Discussion Forum will allow an exchange of experiences, recognition of barriers and potential for changing practices between people with lived experience and professionals working in that sector. These are closed events with limited numbers. Participation in a Discussion Forum is by invitation only. The next forum relates to the topic of parenting. If you would like to participate in the project as an Oral History, Key Informant or Discussion Forum attendee, please consult the project website, www.realproductivejustice.com or email the project at realproductivejustice@nuigalway.ie.’

The project comprises of Principal Investigator Prof. Eilionóir Flynn, Post-doctoral researchers, Dr. Áine Sperrin and Dr. Jenny Dagg, research assistant Maria Ní Fhlathartha. www.realproductivejustice.com [2] Oliver (2013) The social model of disability: thirty years on, Disability & Society, 28:7, 1024-1026, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2013.818773 [3] Ross, L. and Solinger, R., 2017. Reproductive justice: An introduction (Vol. 1). Univ of California Press. [4] Brown, (1994) ‘An Ordinary Sexual Life?’:A Review of the Normalisation Principle as It Applies to the Sexual Options of People with Learning Disabilities, Disability & Society, 9:2, 123-144, [5] Waxman, Up Against Eugenics: Disabled Women's Challenge to Receive Reproductive Health Service, s Sexuality and Disability, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1994 [6] Waxman, Up Against Eugenics: Disabled Women's Challenge to Receive Reproductive Health Service, s Sexuality and Disability, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1994 [7] Kallianes & Rubenfeld (1997) Disabled Women and Reproductive Rights, Disability & Society, 12:2, 203-222 [8] Prilletensky, A Ramp to Motherhood: The Experiences of Mothers with Physical Disabilities, Sexuality and Disability, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 2003 ( 2003) [9] Malouf, Henderson and Redshaw, Access and quality of maternity care for disabled women during pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period in England: data from a national survey’, BMJ Open 2017;7 [10] Hall, Hundley, Collins and Ireland, Dignity and respect during pregnancy and childbirth: a survey of the experience of disabled women, BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth volume 18, Article number: 328 (2018) [11] Booth, T., Booth, W., & McConnell, D. (2005). The prevalence and outcomes of care proceedings involving parents with learning difficulties in family courts. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 18, 7–17. [12] United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, United Nations Convention on the Elimination of the Discrimination Against Women, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child among others. [13] Article 40, Bunreact na hEireann [14] Article 41, Bunreacht na hEireann

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