Abortion as the "Kinder Choice": Able-Bodied Rhetoric, Veganism, and Reproductive Ethics


I am stating my social and ability position right now: I am an ‘able-bodied’ USA born woman and have been ‘able-bodied’ my entire life. I know I benefit from structural ableism, and as a child and younger adult, I was unaware of just how much being constructed as an ‘able-bodied’ human being ‘earned’ me privileges of being seen as ‘productive’

In addition, I have had slim-body privilege my entire adult life. I bring this up because ‘being fat’ or ‘obese’ has really shifted in the USA over the past decade: it is now common for a significant number of medical and alternative health communities to suggest that ‘being fat’ equals ‘disabled body’ which are then constructed  as being ‘inferior’ and ‘impure.’ 

I actually want to start a spin-off dialogue about what it means for able-bodied vegans to construct being “kinder” with “harmlessness” (principles of Ahimsa based veganism) and then making the argument that a life of “living with a disability” would be “cruel”; hence, if one can “prevent” this “happening” to a fetus (in utero), they should seriously consider abortion.

“But that said, I do think that sometimes there are times when abortion may be a kinder choice. Sometimes there might be medical reasons for an abortion. Maybe the unborn child gets diagnosed with a really severe disability which will mean a very unhappy and/or short life for the child. ” -emily

Thank you for those of you who joined the discussion “Vegans: Are you ‘pro-life’, ‘pro-choice’, or have an alternative perspective on abortion?” that I posted on June 25, 2013.  The quote above was one of over 40 comments posted on the June 25 blog topic. It made me think of several things:

  • Who determines what a ‘really severe’ disability is?
  • Is a life of happiness only possible if a fetus is determined to meet some benchmark of ‘healthy’?
  • Most importantly, are you a person who was born as being diagnosed with a disability or disabilities, and how has this lived experienced, as well as living in a society of structural ableism (at least here in the USA) informed your own sense of Ahimsa, kindness, living a life of happiness etc, as well as the argument by able-bodied people about promoting abortion for “disabled” fetuses?

Even though Emily’s statement is focusing on ‘severe disability’, I do not know much about Emily. After all, emily could be a person living with disability too, but I’m wondering if this person speaks from the positionality of not being ‘diagnosed’ as ‘severely disabled’.  Furthermore, and even though it is not completely the same premise that reflects Emily’s comments, I have found the rhetoric of ableism quite pervasive in the mainstream vegan movement in the USA. There is an overal fear of how certain eating habits will or will not create a ‘pure’ or ‘impure’ human being. Such ‘purity’ rhetoric not only focuses on ‘disability’, but also traits such as ‘being tall’ and  ‘being slender’ as being an ‘abled body’. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I come across these assumptions about what makes a ‘superior’ or ‘healthy child, particularly through dietary habits amongst those who practice veganism, vegetarianism, and raw foods:

  • Eating a plant-based diet has been shown to increase IQ, so be sure to go vegan or vegetarian while pregnant! (What you’re really saying—> Because only ‘smart’ children, whose intellect is based on a socially constructed test, are most productive and contribute the most to society)
  • Eating a plant-based diet rich in protein and greens has been proven to make sure your child will be tall and slender (What you’re really saying—? Because short and/or children who are ‘fat’ are not going to be happy and are not superior to tall slender children).

(Updated on July 6, 8:35 am PST) So, here’s the thing: I am not asking people to necessarily start a dialogue about whether or not the person carrying an embryo or fetus SHOULD OR SHOULD not abort. This post is more about how particular regions, cultures, eras, etc., in the USA PRODUCE rhetoric around who is ‘normal’, ‘healthy’, and ‘able-bodied. Hence how does this normalized rhetoric influence our perceptions and ethical belief systems when making choices about their pregnancy and birthing? How does this influence how we perceive and relate to themselves (whether they have been ‘diagnosed’ as an abled bodied or a disabled bodied person)? This dialogue, doesn’t have to be focused on the pro-choice and pro-life debate, but rather, it can also engage in serious and mindful dialogue around the reality that here in the USA at least, there is a strong rhetoric of ‘fear’ and ‘panic’ when potential human beings (embryo and fetuses), as well as living ‘post-birth’ human beings, do not fit into socially accepted norms of ‘able-bodied’.

So, let’s talk about this, and I’m going to ask, if you are comfortable, to state you social and ability locations like I did. If you are unfamiliar with the goals of Sistah Vegan, we seriously engage in how our social, geographical, etc locations affect our experiences, consciousness, and how we view our reality.

In addition, if you’re interested in hearing more about applications of disability studies and vegan studies, I invite you to join the first annual Sistah Vegan conference, which takes place as an interactive web conference on September 14, 2013. Click here to learn more about it: Sistah Vegan Conference, September 14 2013. 
If you enjoy the work of the Sistah Vegan Project, please help us become an official non-profit organization. Please contribute what you can by clicking on the GOFUNDME Link below. If you do not want to use this method, but prefer paypal, click on the link on the right upper corner of this blog page to donate via PAYPAL.


27 thoughts on “Abortion as the "Kinder Choice": Able-Bodied Rhetoric, Veganism, and Reproductive Ethics

  1. A multitude of people can determine what a really severe disability is but I think the supreme opinion is that of the person who will be caring for this individual.
    If I were pregnant and was told my fetus had some sort of genetic abnormality that would cause a poor quality of life, I’d have an abortion.
    I know myself well enough to know that I cannot be a full-time caregiver-I just can’t. I have chronic pain issues, and my health is hit and miss some weeks.

    I’m a USA born woman. I am seen as productive because when you look at me, you don’t see any health issues. I’m slim, so that earns me privileges.

    1. If you can’t be a full-time caregiver then being a parent, period, is probably not something you should be considering.

  2. Non-medically diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder, officially almost-diagnosed with a range of disorders until I stopped getting medical help because I calculated that the diagnosis would do more harm than learning to adapt without assistance; Socially I’ve been lots of places “active duty military (low-status but high disposable income)”, to “student (exactly the opposite)”, low-wage peon, contract worker, couch surfer, frank homeless, to upper working class.

    Ever since I bothered to seriously consider what my position on abortion should be, I’ve been of the opinion that it should be the sole discretion of the pregnant person. If one chooses to have an abortion because the fetus would likely develop into a retarded child, that is one’s own choice. Likewise, if one were to choose to abort a fetus because it would otherwise develop into a Virgo, that is also one’s exclusive choice.

    I would back both of those people in their choice, even if I had to make personal judgements about their character on the basis of their revealed preferences.

    Likewise, diet and other habits are exclusively up to one’s own arbitrary discretion, even during a pregnancy. If one chose one’s diet mostly because of the expected impact on the intelligence of the person that a fetus will become, or if one chose your diet because one wanted one’s menu choices to rhyme, I will support one’s choice (again, even though I might have to make a personal judgement about one’s character based on revealed preferences).

  3. I’m able-bodied, average weight (not super slim, but not “fat” either) I guess “productive” in the sense that I’m relatively healthy. As for the abortion in the case of a child having a disability. As far as I’m aware, there is no way to conclusively prove that they have or will have a disability pre-birth (again, this is to the best of my knowledge), and many disabilities show up post birth.

    I realize that unfortunately we do still live in an able-ist society, so perhaps that would be a disadvantage for them. However, there are a large number of children that develop “severe disabilities” or mental illness that could severely be a disadvantage for them in life, many years after birth. There are many things that can be disadvantageous for any individual in life: poverty, sexuality, race, society, etc.

    HOWEVER, I feel that if for any reason, a woman feels that she is unable, unwilling, unfit to raise a child, or for any reason does not want to be pregnant, she should always have the option for a safe abortion.

    1. This is such an interesting discussion, thank you for starting it.

      In my last comment I argued that every woman should have the right to decide if she wants to carry out a pregnancy or not, since not granting her that right means exercising tremendous power over her, which potentially creates severe harm.

      In my eyes, statements like “a vegan diet during pregnancy will raise your child’s IQ / make sure your child is slim and tall” stem from the same mindset, which makes animal exploitation possible to begin with. Both ableism and speciesism originate from this perceived superiority, which allows us to other anyone, who does not own the traits considered superior.

      I am a white, able bodied, slim and healthy woman, born to middle and upper class parents in a very rich country, which obviously makes me privileged in every way, except that I am not male.

      1. “… which allows us to other anyone, who does not own the traits considered superior.”

        But don’t we do this with a fetus/baby/unborn child?

        This fetus is dependent and therefore sub-human. Because it is dependent its life is “less than”. As an adult, I’m more important, even though at one point I myself was in that very dependent position. But I’m not now, so tough luck for this fetus!

        Isn’t that perceived superiority right there?!

      2. Interesting point Amy.

        My veganism is based on the belief that sentient life has inherent value. In general I feel that moral and ethical consideration have to be based on sentience. In the “pro-life or pro-choice” debate I argued that most abortions are carried out before the unborn can experience pleasure or pain. I also feel that othering and sentience are connected. Is it possible to other objects? Or non-sentient life?

        Furthermore, in some situations, like abortions which are carried out later, our moral consideration has to be weighed: there is the woman carrying the baby, who is already a person with feelings, thoughts and emotions, and there is the baby. As I said before, I believe that forcing that woman to give birth against her will, is creating harm and potentially causing a lot of pain and suffering. Of course there is no right answer, but for me this outweighs the harm, which is created by not giving the baby the chance to life.

      3. Therese: When you say “[S]entient life has inherent value.”, do you meant that it is inherently better for more sentient life to exist than for less, or do you mean that it is inherently better for each sentient life that currently exists to exist for longer?

        Is each sentient creature considered equal, or are some creatures less sentient than others without being meaningless?

      4. Decius: These are difficult philosophical questions and I am not sure if I can sufficiently answer them for you. I don’t believe that more sentient life is better or desirable, especially in a world with limited resources to ensure a certain standard or quality of life. I meant that sentient life does not only have utilitarian value (and thus the decision whether or not to kill someone can be made by simply considering the positive and negative outcomes for all involved parties), but value in itself. This is the basis of animal rights theories, which argue that every sentient life has inherent value and thus should have the right not to be used as a means to an end. What do you think?

      5. First, I think that I define ‘sentient’ differently from the way you do. I;m pretty sure I understand you to be using it to mean ‘having the capacity to suffer’, consistent with other animal rights activists.

        What do you believe should happen on the cases where the lives of sentient creatures are exchanged? Is it permissible e.g. test the effects an experimental antibiotic in healthy animals to accurately determine effectiveness and side effects, if the added accuracy of controlled studies is expected to save more lives and QALYs (Quality Adjusted Life Years) than are lost in the testing?

        I’m somewhat more specific in the where I draw the line; I consider only entities which can perform goal-directed thought to have intrinsic moral protections. There are a lot of edge cases on that.

        Do you believe that it is theoretically possible for a computer or other Turing Machine to be sentient, by your definition?

  4. I believe the choice must rest solely with the mother to be. However I am concerned that the numerous scans and tests a pregnant woman is put through at the OBGYN’s office in order to determine that a fetus is developing normally, creates a climate in which “abnormality” is associated with negativity.

    I am a able bodied, and I am not slim, I consider myself chubby.

  5. I am pro life based on my spirituality. It is my personal belief that God does not make mistakes and the development of a child is devine. I believe it directly correlates to my reason for being vegetarian, for respecting all forms of life from an oyster or shrimp to a dog. So with that being said, if someone were to be pregnant with a disabled child, my advice would be to love and care for that child because who is to say that their life is less valuable than if she were pregnant with an “normal” baby.
    That is my own personal views based in my beliefs, but I would never force my opinion on anyone. People make their choices based on their own rationale and personal beliefs.

    1. I really don’t understand how you can believe in a God that does not make mistakes, but I can’t phrase my confusion concretely without looking like I’m trying to attack you.

  6. I am an able-bodied female identified white person born and raised in Canada.

    My young sister, however, is mildly cognitively impaired. Her psycho motor abilities are influenced buy this. She was born out of rape and her mother consumed marijuana while pregnant. (My sister and I are adopted) I do not know if marijuana impacted her development, but I am guessing it did.

    She does not run like most of us, or talk like most of us. She has difficulty finding “even” a “regular low income job”. She was picked on during most of her school years and never had many friends. She was an outcast.

    She is now 23 years old, finishing her high school diploma, drives a car, has a boyfriend and has quite a few friends. All of which “everyone” thought she could not get or achieve. And I think she achieved (she considers her accomplishments as sufficient for her) all these things because people who truly cared about her told her she could, that she was able to live a life that could make her happy.

    I have noticed she is in a place where much of her self-esteem is based on what she does. Has society help nurture this type of reasoning ? Why did she not feel “good” about herself for just being a person ? Or mayb she does, and I am just misreading her…

    She may not fit in to our standard of what it is to be “able”. She might not go to college. But what does it change ? For me, given her “disability” she has achieved so much more. My definition of “productive” is trying to do the best you can with what you have. And she did that and some.

    It might take her much more time to “get somewhere” than some of us, but whatever she lacks in cognitive or psychomotor skills, she makes up in spirit.

    Her name is Jessica, and she is one of the most inspirational and influential person in my life. And I love her just the way she is.

  7. I’m extremely able-bodied (never had to take medication, and don’t even have anything so much as an allergy), white, born & raised in the US, went to college in Europe, Catholic. Very privileged.

    For a long time I disagreed with my religion on this issue, particularly in instances of rape. Then I realized that most of society approaches becoming a mother as something that happens only after birth, which doesn’t make sense. The moment you become pregnant you are a mother, whether that happened by force, you were drunk and don’t even remember having sex, or you had been trying for this to happen for many years. Either way, that baby is here. It’s done.

    In the case of a fetus being diagnosed with a disability, I think it’s really a slippery slope when we as individuals get to decide which lives matter and have value and which ones don’t. I’ve worked with disabled people in the past and I could not honestly look any of them in the eye and say “Your mother should have had you removed from her, so that this pain you are in now would have never been experienced.”

    Like I said, it really is a slippery slope. I think it’s really interesting when people see movies set during the Holocaust when Nazis would show up and throw people in wheelchairs off of their balcony just because they were in a wheelchair. How is aborting a fetus for having a disability any different?

  8. There is a lot to tackle here and I’m not sure how to jump into it—I don’t want to go on and on but wow, this hits so close to home and most specifically conversations surrounding being “healthy.” At this point, I believe “healthy” is a social construct similar to race. Someone who is “healthy,” has a look—it’s a perceived appearance that mostly includes being slim, being able bodied (no visible handicaps), and being attractive—which I think tends to be the LARGEST determining factor behind someone’s health. It is implied both directly and indirectly that “looking good” is a side effect of being in “good health.” That if you have physical or mental ailments, these are signs of poor health that can manifest in “ugly” physical traits, such as being overweight, being crippled, having acne, hair loss, tooth decay, talking to yourself, having mood swings and a host of other “unpleasant” traits.

    I think people with a healthy self-esteem are not weighed down by these perceived “flaws” and love themselves whether people accept them or not. But in this age of increasing “health” awareness, I find it more and more common that physical signs of “ugliness” are regarded as outcomes of being “unhealthy.” I recently read in a book which promotes veganism something that asserted if you have acne as an adult, “there is something wrong with you.” As if it it’s a person’s choice to have acne and that they can “fix” themselves from this “sickness.” Most commonly, being “fat” is regarded as being “sick.” If a “fat” person were to just eat the “right” foods, exercise and “take better care” of themselves this person would not be “sick.” But in both cases, with acne or obesity, these are “flaws” that are associated with being “unattractive,” because being “attractive” is what everyone is supposed to aspire for, because it’s “healthy.”

    Now I recognize there are documented illnesses which have physical traits such weight gain. I also recognize that there are a variety of physical symptoms of illness that can be treated—but I also recognize that not every physical symptom means a person is “sick.” Being “overweight,” does not always mean a person is “unhealthy.” I’ve had acne since I was in the eight grade, but I don’t think there is anything “wrong” with me. I am diagnosed with being both bipolar and having major-reoccurring chronic depression—and I still don’t think there is ANYTHING wrong with me. What I think the problem is, is this obsessive push for “optimum” health which forces everyone into some box labeled, “thin, able-bodied and attractive.” For some reason, this is what society wants to accept as what “healthy” looks like—demonizing everything which falls outside of that. And what is worse is that I find this box of “perfect health” VERY common within the vegan community and even something to aspire for once becoming vegan.

    What Dr. Harper brings up today is just how far things can go—where our obsession with “perfect health” goes into the womb and we can only produce children who will be “perfect.” And in the USA, perfection is equated with being white, being upper class, being heterosexual, being god-fearing, being able-bodied, being of specific gender, or just being extremely privileged…At a point I felt it would be foolish for me to have children because I was such “damaged goods,” being a woman of color with a disability and a family history of chronic illness and disease. I didn’t feel I had any “good” traits to pass on to a child that wouldn’t make their lives extremely complicated. I’m not young, I also don’t have a spouse or a significant other, I am working-class and when all is said and done I have as much to offer a child as I do my dog—just some love.

    But despite all my “imperfections,” my “sickness” and my apparent choice to remain sick as I have not “purified” myself of my “ailments,” I would have ten children. Now I am pro-choice and advocate of it but the rhetoric surrounding being “healthy” which strives to make me product of “bad” choices, is not the truth. And I refuse to believe it would be a “bad” choice to have a child who might be “imperfect”—this would absolutely not be reasons for me to terminate a pregnancy. Somehow believing the opposite of that, would mean my own existence isn’t meaningful, but it has and will continue to be. And I want to add that I do not and would not obsess about trying to have a “perfect” pregnancy–I would just do my best despite the results.

  9. Hello Dr. Harper. I mean this with total respect… I appreciate your writing but it can be frustrating to read because you use so many ‘scare quotes’. I was wondering if there was a reason that I’m just missing. It seems that you would get your point across much more clearly without them, especially because most people use them derisively – they tend to suggest that one thinks the terms being quoted are illegitimate concepts.

    1. Dear Mel,

      What are ‘scare’ quotes?. Please give examples by what you mean in case I misunderstood the question.

      I use quotes to be mindful that these are social constructs loaded with a history; that they do not come from out of no where and are not ‘objective.’


      1. Hello. Scare quotes are when people put quotes around a word, usually to suggest that they don’t think the word is legitimate or has the meaning others use for it. Eg. ‘able bodied’, ‘earned’, and ‘productive’. I was just saying that it’s often used to dismiss things, like when someone uses finger quotes when talking. I didn’t mean to make it into an issue, I just wasn’t sure if you knew it might come off in that way.

        1. Dear Mel,

          I actually use the quotes not to dismiss, but to make clear that many of these terms/concepts are socially constructed and that their meanings and values change over time, region, culture, etc. But, thanks for bringing it up. It’s not a small issue, as you brought it up because it was obviously important to you. I know I can’t control how my words/writing/style is received, but appreciate the comments that people have.

  10. Hi Breeze, thank you so much for all your hard work on so many tough issues.

    I am vegan, white, female, from a rural lower-class background, and I have a severely autistic brother. I am thin and able-bodied. And I am a stutterer, which has weighed on my decision to bear children. I am very sensitive to the ablism that arises in conversations about abortion. I believe that life begins at conception, but I am ultimately (and sadly) pro-choice because of issues of bodily autonomy and access to health care for mothers and their babies. I have never been able to get behind the rhetoric of “clump of cells” or “parasite” for human fetuses, and I am very troubled by how people talk about Down Syndrome. I would never, ever shame a woman for having an abortion, but it is an issue that makes me angry with the world for not being more accommodating and compassionate.

    That said, I am against in vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research on moral grounds. My father used to participate in clinical drug trials to make money for our family, and I see it as humiliating and enraging that he offered up his body to science in exchange for money. So many vulnerable people are exploited for what use their bodies have for the rest of society. Basically, I don’t like the idea of creating life just to experiment on it, and that includes lab rats as much as it does human embryos.

  11. This is Emily. lol. I was not expecting to spark this much thought/debate.

    My brother was born with moderate cerebral palsy. I watched my mother dedicate her life to helping him achieve independence as an adult. It was not an easy road for both of them, and there are MANY much more severe disabled people than my brother. I’m just saying I’m not sure if it’s something I could do. I grew up around disabled children, as my brother would have to spend many hours a day doing physio at a special centre and I would go too as there was no one else to look after me. All disabled children possess a beautiful uniqueness that all children have and they are no less than any other child in my opinion. I’m not saying that I would definitely abort if I found out I was pregnant with a disabled child – it is something my partner and I would have to access as each case would be unique. But there are many things to consider such as – If your child requires full time care for the rest of their lives what will happen to them after you, the parent, dies? Would it be left up to your existing children who may have busy lives of their own? My brother required a lot of specialist care and operations at a very young age, special equipment. There were times when my mum would have to force him to do 6 hours of physio a day even though it hurt him and he would cry for most of it. We had to move house for a year to be close to the physio centre after one of his major operations. There is a lot of expense involved too and you have to ask yourself if you can afford to give the child what they need.

    That is my position. Might be considered ableist, apologies if I offended anyone.

  12. I forgot to say that I think you have to be a very strong person to do right by a disabled child but I think its pretty much implied. Just “not aborting” isn’t enough, obviously, it’s very big commitment to have a disabled child for the rest of your life. It’s a bigger commitment than anything else I can think of, it warrants some thought before you go ahead, in my opinion.

  13. using the term “kinder choice” in my initial response to the first article was a bad choice of words on my part too

  14. sorry to comment YET AGAIN but I did want to say that mum’s and brother’s hard work paid off and my brother now lives independantly and has a relatively normal life. There was no diagnosis before birth with him, it did not come until he was 15 months old, but my parents had known from early on that something was not quite “normal” (for lack of a better word). I am definitely very blessed to have him in my life. His disability does not affect him anymore in most ways. He’s 25, lives alone, drives a car, goes to gym and is really fit and healthy and looking for some part time work.

    Now employers – THERE is someone that is ableist!!!

    On this issue of ableism- my brother walks with a slight limp, the only sign of his disability now apart from fine motor stuff. Like any other young guy, he went out to the pub one night. He got assualted by bouncers because they thought he was drunk because of his limp. They did not tap him on the shoulder or engage with him verbally, they just grabbed him. He did not realise they were bouncers as it was dark and their uniform was not very visible, he thought that he was being mugged so he resisted. More than one bouncer hauled him outside roughly and hurt him in the process, my poor brother so so scared because he didn’t realise they were bouncers until afterwards. True he had had a couple of drinks, but no more than anyone else in the pub that’s for sure! I was so freakin mad, we went to the police but after investigating they said nothing would come of it. So my poor brother got an apology and a free meal from the pub for being assaulted.

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