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Love and Other Disabilities

A British judge is forcing a disabled woman to have an abortion. As the son of a disabled woman, I can tell you: The decision is evil.

Harold Braswell
June 23, 2019
Courtesy Harold Braswell
Harold Braswell and his mother, AndreaCourtesy Harold Braswell
Courtesy Harold Braswell
Harold Braswell and his mother, AndreaCourtesy Harold Braswell

When I was a kid, a strange woman would visit our house. Short, with stubbily cut hair, she would almost never turn to you, not responding even if you called her name. She dressed flagrantly, in patchwork clothing that she had sewn herself, and spent the entirety of her visits in a maelstrom of cleaning. Whipping the record player with a rag, banging colored pencils into a souvenir plastic cup, she appeared as some hybrid of the Tasmanian devil and a hobo clown. Yet she did appear, every month, and at the end of her appearances, I would hug her, tell her I loved her, and give her two kisses: one on each cheek. A strange woman, a strange ritual—even stranger because, as I knew, this strange woman was my mom.

Yesterday, a British judge, Nathalie Lieven, ruled that an intellectually disabled woman should be forced to have an abortion against her will. The woman—who remains unnamed, ostensibly out of respect for her privacy—wants to have the child, but, because of her disability, she is presumed incompetent to make this decision. Attending medical doctors have judged that her giving birth and eventually having the child removed from her custody would be extremely traumatic because of her intellectual disabilities. Based on this assessment, the judge has ruled that it is in the woman’s “best interests” that the pregnancy be terminated. I beg to differ, and do so based on some experience. For I am an intellectually disabled woman’s son.

My mother, Andrea Braswell, acquired her intellectual disability as a result of her education. She was deaf, but the school she attended as a child did not teach sign language. She was “taught”—via a method called “oralism”—to lip-read and enunciate words that she could not hear. She did not finally learn a language until her mother removed her from school when she was 11 years old. By then, the damage had been done. Children who do not have language access during their formative years experience what is now called “language deprivation syndrome.” This condition has been analogized to brain damage, and found to underlay a range of psychiatric disorders with which deaf people are disproportionately diagnosed. With regard to my mother, its effects were severe.

This severity makes me extremely skeptical of this judge’s ruling. I do not doubt that the U.K. woman’s intellectual disability will perhaps make the process of giving birth complicated, and that it may hinder her from raising her child herself. But, like my mom, she, too, can be a mother, and her being so can be very worthwhile for both her and her child.

My own birth was difficult, perhaps even traumatic, for my mother. It left her in a pelvic sling. And my family was so certain of her inability to raise me that they had me circumcised by a mohel on the third day, not the eighth: They assumed that I would be given up for adoption, and wanted ensure that, wherever I ended up, I would be a Jew. Ultimately, I was removed from my mother’s custody, but instead of being given up for adoption, I was taken in by her mother, my maternal grandmother.

But though she did not raise me herself, my mother remained, always, my mom. She visited me monthly, sending, almost every week, postcards and gifts. These visits, postcards, and gifts were, at times, confusing for me, even unwelcome. But not always, and, over time, I came to appreciate them and also her. We developed a strong relationship, and, on becoming an adult, it was I who began visiting her, and sending her my own postcards and gifts. When my grandmother took me in, I did not lose my mom as a mother. I merely—and miraculously—gained another one. And my mother, though she did not personally raise me, never lost her son.

The situation of this young U.K. woman is analogous. Her mother supports her decision to carry the baby to term. Perhaps, with appropriate accommodations, she herself can raise the child. Even if not, there are ways to ensure that the woman remains a part of the child’s life. It is notable that the attending social worker also supports the woman’s decision, against the decision of the doctors. Doctors are not trained to evaluate the psychosocial factors and family dynamics most relevant to this case; they also, studies show, frequently underestimate the abilities of disabled people and devalue their very lives. The social worker’s expertise should be privileged. This is particularly the case because this expertise supports the woman’s own expressed desire.

But it is this desire that Judge Lieven throws into question. “I think she would like to have a baby in the same way she would like to have a nice doll,” Lieven said. This statement is ignorant, condescending, and, yes, bigoted. My mother did not know all the particulars of parenting (no parent does), but she wanted a child for years prior to my birth. She knew the difference between a baby and a doll. This woman does too, and her wish should be honored.

My mother’s wish was. She had a son, and she was, to him—and always will be—his mom. Her impact on me was profound, and beneficial. I had a mother who was dedicated to my life, overcoming significant obstacles—and profound heartbreak—to ensure that I was raised in the best home possible. She taught me about the beauty of difference, the value of noncomformity, the dangers of seemingly “well-meaning” people to our most vulnerable populations, and the power, and purity, of a parent’s love. Without her being a part of my life, I would be less creative, less kind, less intelligent, less good. Because I was a part of her life, she was able to live her dream—a dream that few people believed achievable, one that, even today, too many, too easily, would deny.

The public outcry about the denial of this young U.K. woman’s dream has been largely led by what might gently be called “Catholic Twitter.” Catholic commentators have interpreted it as symptomatic of the evil of a secular liberal society that devalues life, purporting such ills as “Drag Queen Storytime” and abortion on demand. As a basically secular, liberal person (albeit with intermittent internal conflicts about my status as such) and recent attendee of “Drag Queen Story Time,” I reject these arguments.

In reality, this ruling should be recognized as evil by anyone. It is baldly “anti-choice,” and fails even the thinnest liberal commitments of opposing bigotry and protecting minorities. It shows an utter lack of creativity, a disturbing closure to the dynamism of life, an unwillingness to even minimally accommodate difference. Thus, though this story began as yet another entry in the so-called culture wars, my hope is that it end up somewhere else: as a “unicorn,” the rare, perhaps impossible, issue that really everyone can agree is bad.

My experience with my mother has shown me that such cross-“culture war” understanding can, in some instances, be achieved. In my early 20s, I had a “quarter life” crisis, provoked in part by the seemingly incompatible conflict between my relationship with my mother and the categories of the world that I had just entered as an adult. I began seeing a therapist and, with her encouragement, started volunteering at a Catholic home for intellectually disabled women. Working at the home was, among other things, a way for me to “work through” the seemingly indigestible feelings that I had about my relationship with my mom.

It did that. But it also did something more. I watched, with wonder, how, with minimal resources, a group of nuns cared for women who, otherwise, might have been abandoned to institutions or even dead on the streets. But “caring for” is perhaps not the right term, for the nuns lived with the women, viewing them as equals and providing an environment in which their basic equality, and value, could be perceived as such. I perceived it. And, by doing so, I became better able to perceive, and value, my own mother. I deepened my relationship with her; I also began to study with Catholic religious sisters, and, with time, to work at a Catholic institution myself.

As a secular Jew at a Catholic university—in a department with substantial theological commitments—I sometimes wonder what I’ve gotten into. I have no intention of becoming Catholic, and I disagree strongly with many of the tropes dominant in American Catholic discourse. But I also appreciate many Catholics and, in a way, Catholicism itself. In a society that, too often, undervalues disabled people—making their very status as “persons” a topic for debate—Catholics have consistently advocated for the intrinsic worth of their lives. I may not agree with the theological presuppositions based on which they do so. But I am grateful nonetheless.

It is my hope however that this does not remain “just” a Catholic issue: That there is a broad public outcry both in England and internationally, and that the decision is reversed. If that doesn’t happen, I hope that the Vatican does what it can to intervene. It may not come to that. But my fear is that it already has.

Harold Braswell is an assistant professor of health care ethics at Saint Louis University. He is the author of The Crisis of US Hospice Care, which will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in August 2019. He can be reached on Twitter at @haroldbraswell.

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