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Chris Ford: On Michael Laws and eugenics

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Michael Laws has come out yet again and practically called for a mass eugenics campaign against people with learning disability and, in this case, Down's Syndrome.

First off, let me say that I endorse a women's right to choose. This includes the right to choose an abortion or contraception. What I do believe, though, is that the current legislation around abortion, sterilisation and contraception is outdated and heavily medicalised. This gives medical professionals far too much control over the decision making process surrounding women's fertility and reproduction. That's why I believe that the existing grounds for termination should be abolished and that abortion should be permitted should a woman request it for any reason. I would also add that advising for and against an abortion on the grounds that the child may either have or could potentially acquire an impairment should be banned. I would still permit this information to be passed onto a pregnant woman but it should be illegal for a medical professional to suggest to a woman that she abort or not abort on these grounds alone. I fundamentally believe that, in these circumstances, women should be able to reach decisions about whether to give birth to a potentially disabled child or not on their own.

Furthermore, I am not opposed to the concept of pre-birth screening per se but I believe the choice to undergo screening should be left to women alone to make as well. Fundamentally, I am concerned about Ministry of Health plans to introduce pre-birth screening for Downs Syndrome and other impairments into New Zealand. Already, the United Kingdom (a country currently in the grip of anti-disability campaigns being waged by their government and sections of the right-wing media) have introduced mass pre-birth screenings as a first step towards eliminating Downs Syndrome births within their population.

These developments are in line with views that have historically prevailed about the role and value of disabled people to society. Historically, disabled people like me have generally been viewed negatively through spiritual, medical and charitable lenses as being less worthy than other human beings. I am aware that negative views about disabled people have been around since time immemorial. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, anti-disability sentiment increased following the evolution of eugenic theories by Francis Galt, a half-cousin of the evolutionist Charles Darwin. Eugenic theories served the purposes of the then emerging laissez-faire style of capitalism which sustained the Industrial Revolution which, in turn, spawned mass production techniques. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, though, disabled people had been greater participants in the heavily labour-based systems of agrarian-based economies. However, with the change to modern mass production techniques based on machines, disabled people (in Marxian terms) became surplus to requirements and were gradually ejected from the labour force.

Thus, the change from agrarian to industrial modes of production saw disabled people expelled to the margins of society where they became even poorer and, subsequently, began to be viewed as 'burdens' upon society. Galtonian eugenics gave early industrial societies the chance to effectively legitimise the euthanisation and pauperisation of whole disabled populations producing the conditions which led to the hardening of societal attitudes against disabled people. This, in turn, produced the mass discrimination and prejudice experienced by disabled people which has persisted up to this day.

And that's why Michael Laws' views on this subject are nothing new as far as disabled people like me are concerned - but they are still shocking and should be fought nonetheless. Disabled people, like myself, are involved in movements which seek to project the real voice of disabled people and fight for our rights. That's why I'm proud to say that the Disability Rights Movement and its allies are around to contest these comments. Therefore, as a disability advocate, I have no problem in speaking out against the views of Laws and those others who support eugenics. I think that eugenic ideas should be ideally cast aside in this modern day in age but since the emergence of neo-liberalism in the mid-1970s and its particular ascendancy in the wake of the post-2008 Global Financial Crisis, they are gaining renewed currency. And that's why, for me, it's no surprise that the articulate proponents of eugenics, such as Laws, have gained a new and increasingly sympathetic constituency among people who themselves are feeling economically squeezed by a system which serves the needs of an elite few while the poorer and middle class many scrap among themselves for the crumbs. These ideas are also re-gaining some ground due to the ideological desire of governments to retrench health and social security spending and one of the best ways of doing this has been through introducing rigorous social assessment regimes (as will be witnessed when UK-style work assessments are deployed for some disabled and sick WINZ clients from next year) and medical assessment regimes, such as mass pre-natal testing.

But I am also aware that not every non-disabled New Zealander shares Laws' extremist views on disability. Millions of New Zealanders will experience impairment (either short or long-term) at some point in their lives. Millions of New Zealanders will know of a family member, friend, colleague or neighbour who lives with impairment. More importantly, thousands of New Zealanders will know of someone who lives with a learning/intellectual disability and/or a significant health-based impairment. They will know the value these people have. They will know the love and respect these disabled people receive from their families, partners, friends and colleagues and about how much they contribute to their communities.

That's why I say that while hate speech is still legal in New Zealand, we have a duty to fight it. We have a duty to counter bigotry, prejudice and discrimination wherever it rears its head. And in a society which values free speech, I would expect Laws to not listen (as I know he won't) but to at least know that his words and those of bigoted others will be contested vigorously. Above all, I hope that our policy makers will see sense and abandon the encouragement of mass testing and change our legislation to ensure that people have the right to make reproductive and birth choices based not on bigotry or false preconceptions but on real facts about what disability actually means. In that respect, I know one thing disability certainly isn't - it's not a death sentence for families or individuals. In fact, it's about experiencing life differently but I want to ensure that disabled people are not judged differently for being different or families penalised for electing to bring disabled people into the world.

My challenge to Michael Laws is that all people have a right to make choices - and one of them should definitely be the right to have disabled children if they want to and without being judged for it!




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