Misplaced Empathy

by matttbastard

Via Daisy: Brand-spankin’ new Feministe contributer Cara highlights a story that FRIDA has followed in detail (h/t cripchick), all about “KEJ”, a disabled Illinois woman whose legal guardian was petitioning to have KEJ sterilized against her will (for KEJ’s own good, of course *cough*). Thankfully, a state appellate court recently ruled in KEJ’s favour, affirming her right to bodily autonomy. Score one for the good guys, right?


Well, hold on, tiger. According to some oh-so-enlightened commenters, maybe we’re being too hasty in championing the reproductive liberty of a disabled woman. Cripchick selects the following gems (and deserves some kind of an award for not justifiably engulfing the original thread in an inferno of righteous magma):

“…Who exactly IS supposed to raise a child born to a woman who is truly incapable of doing so on her own? I realize that abuses have been and may still be rampant, and many disabilities do not affect a person’s ability to parent, but honestly, if this woman gets pregnant, who’s on the hook for raising that child? The aunt, who is already caring for KEJ?”

– Comment 4, by Ruth

Who in the world is going to raise that child? Our tax dollars? Relatives dragooned into service through state power or shame? What if the disability is congenital and the child needs as much or more care than the parent? I agree with your basic point, that forced sterilization is something to be avoided. But people who are emotionally, or physically, or financially incapable of providing a decent quality of life for their children shouldn’t reproduce.”

– Comment 8, by felagund

“…I do think it would be unfair to push that child on someone else (the mother’s parents or private caretakers). It’s unfair to the others, and it’s unfair to the child. It’s like giving a puppy to your friend, but your friend doesn’t have the time/patience/love/etc. to take care of it and pushes it off on her roommate, who grudgingly obliges because her roommate doesn’t want the puppy to be unhappy and starve to death. That’s not how children should be brought up!”

– Comment 14 by danakitty

cripchick nails it:

Many commenters on the Feministe thread have rightfully pointed out how close the argument that disabled women should not be mothers is to the long history of policies and policing based on the idea that poor women should not be mothers. By talking about who will raise or pay for the child we are already talking about class— class and disability, like race, are very much tied together. I believe there are certain aspects of disability (poverty, housing, employment) that can somewhat be canceled out by class and white privilege (look at Christopher Reeve) but recognizing this does not give people the right to determine who are “good” parents and “bad” parents. Though the discussion is on disability, it is very much about criminalizing a perceived poor woman for wanting to have children.


The ableism in these threads always scare me. Partially because it’s on feminist blogs, partially because the internet allows people to say what they really feel. KEJ’s case is a victory but I’m still left to question whether we’re making any progress.

I’m sure many people reading this remember the disturbing-yet-perversely-enlightening trainwreck that occurred at Alas, a Blog a while back over The Ashley Treatment. The ablism being expressed by many commenters who I normally have respect for was utterly disheartening. One couldn’t help but note the cruel irony of watching people who would in any other case unequivocally stand up for a woman’s bodily sovereignty suddenly balk at the notion–all because the person in scenarios such as these who many able-bodied individuals automatically relate to is the able-bodied caretaker, rather than the disabled woman.

And, once again, the empathy has unfortunately (but not surprisingly) been entirely misplaced. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the “I’m not for forced sterilization but…” peeps have chosen to let their privilege (and, I would contend, ablist squick) blind them to the basic principles of bodily autonomy that are so obviously at stake here.

Recommend this post at Progressive Bloggers

9 thoughts on “Misplaced Empathy

  1. And here I had always thought that something like “the right to bodily autonomy” was one of those… whatchamacallits… oh yeah, UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES. Guess not, eh?

    The word “fauxgressive” comes to mind.


  2. People with psychiatric labels have less and less right to bodily autonomy every year. Forced treatment with drugs in people’s own homes is on the books in almost all states now, it was not on the books in any state except for people released from prison or criminal charges 20 years or so ago. The new “assisted” outpatient treatment laws allow states to force someone who has committed no crime and is no danger to others or even themselves in most states to be forcibly drugged at home.

    These drugs can cause temporary to permanent infertility and loss of sexual desire along with diabetes and heart disease, etc.

    We are really already there but most folks aren’t paying attention. I’m really grateful for cripchick’s attention to this and yours.


  3. I can’t help but think that it’s similar to the misplaced empathy some men express for men who are accused of rape, and the refocusing of the issue on what such an accusation might do to their reputations.

    I don’t know if the victim in both of these circumstances is just too “different” (ie. female or a woman with disabilities) from the observer for them to make the leap to empathizing, or if it’s actual experiences like rape or forced sterilization that are just too much to contemplate, so they honestly just can’t even try. Like there’s something in their brains that shuts off the possibility of dealing with that option and empathizing with everything it means.

    Or, you know, they’re assholes.


  4. purtek, I think rape is exactly the issue here. If this young woman is sterilized and raped, there is no risk of a pregnancy’s exposing that rape. It’s a rapists dream: a woman who has diminished capacity to resist coupled with being sterile. This is beyond disgusting. Yay for the judge.


  5. Kate – while I’m obviously in the same “yay for the judge” camp that you are, here, I have to say I’m not quite on the same page here with the relevance of the argument you’re making. This woman has the right to bodily autonomy, which includes the right not to be sterilized against her will AND not to be raped, just for their own sakes.

    Call me a starry-eyed optimist, but I don’t think that any of the commenters on that thread, horrendous as their attitudes are, were advocating for sterilization in order to facilitate rape. More than that though, I’m bothered by the assertion that rape is “Exactly the issue here”.

    The issue of her sterilization is not a problem because it may be a “rapist’s dream” (I honestly don’t think sterility is that much of a deterrent when rapists are selecting their victims, and if the “exposure” resulting from a pregnancy were a top concern, a condom works pretty well, too). The sterilization is a problem in itself, because *it* is a violation of her bodily autonomy. I can’t get behind any argument being made on any basis other than that one. It’s not okay to force surgery on other human beings. Period.

    The argument that I was making in the above comment is an analogy only, and it’s an analogy based on the “misplaced empathy” Matt is describing in the post.


  6. With everything that has happened recently in the feminist blogworld (Seal Press, discussions of intellectual appropriation, BFP quitting her blog), and Angry Black Woman’s proposal for a Carnival of Allies (link: http://theangryblackwoman.wordpress.com/2008/04/09/allies-talking/), I’ve been thinking a lot on “empathy”, what exactly it is and how far it can get us in understanding each other.

    In being effective allies, I don’t believe empathy can get us where we want to go. It’s a good place to start. Probably the best and only place to begin, but even with a generous definition of empathy as something that encompasses all manner of attempt to put oneself in another’s shoes, it still relies on the limits of an individual’s imagination. One has to be able to think of whose shoes to stand in and have some inkling of how they might feel. And privilege limits imagination.

    Privilege is the ability to look around a room and not notice who is missing, because they weren’t invited, couldn’t take time off work, didn’t have the means to get there, or weren’t allowed in the building because of, oh, dress code or lack of ramps. CripChick notes in comments to her own post that she doesn’t feel able to participate in a discussion like the one over at Feministe that questions her own right to parent, and she’s not alone in that sentiment. Why show up for a debate where your personhood is in question? Why keep blogging when you (and the people you write about) are not given equal footing in discussions about your own lives? Why keep trying to bulldoze your way into parties where your absence/silence is apparently unnoticed?

    What I’m saying is that the misplaced empathy and the silencing: they’re related, you know.


  7. When I was reading your selected comment, what I was thinking was, “who should provide care for the child of a disabled woman·? well obviously the father!” It’s not surprising that everybody conveniently forgets that women don’t reproduce on their own.


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