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Disabled women and reproductive rights


bpas, RCOG, disabled women, reproductive rights, workshop, panelFar too often, pernicious assumptions are made and disabled women are entirely discounted as sexual people.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) hosted a workshop on the intersection of disability and reproductive rights last month, asking what reproductive rights actually mean for disabled women.

A group of distinguished individuals from diverse backgrounds – academia, activism and artists – spoke about relevant issues and their personal experiences.

They highlighted exactly how difficult it can be for disabled women to access basic, necessary sexual and reproductive healthcare. And that the obstacles they face come in a variety of forms – many invisible.

Professor Claire de Than, Law Commissioner, co-director of the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism, City, University of London, and chair of the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance (SHADA), opened the event, speaking about “Exploring the human right to have fun”.

Historically, disabled women have often had their right to have fun circumscribed, often through indirect and underhanded means.

De Than gave the moving example of the case of MM, in which a young disabled woman was placed under 24 hour surveillance in order to inhibit interaction, and therefore prevent her having sex. The pretence of surveillance as a safeguard against risk has often been used to justify the limiting of a right.

The Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) most useful in defending sexual rights are Article 8 (the right to a private life) and Articles 9-11 (rights to expression).

An array of ECHR cases has built up sexual rights, including Pretty v. UK, ADT v. UK, X v. UK, and Handyside v. UK.

The Court also included the right to education and information – a component often especially neglected for disabled people, who may not even receive any sex education.

Far too often, pernicious assumptions are made and disabled women are entirely discounted as sexual people – which impinges upon their exercise of a fundamental human right.

And although the case law has created some protections, the law is overall far too complex; these regulations, need to be simplified.

Dr Jane Dickson, Consultant in Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare and Community Gynaecology, and Vice President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health (FSRH), pointed out that disabled women face unique difficulties in accessing and utilising contraception, which often make certain contraceptive options more feasible.

And the issues which may affect or influence a woman’s contraceptive choice include weight, mobility, difficulty swallowing, desired outcome, and other medical conditions.

For example, women who use wheelchairs are often at risk of blood clots – a risk that increases with use of the pill, making that a potentially less advisable option.

The self-administered contraceptive injection is a good option for women with limited mobility, owing to its convenience and ability to be injected elsewhere besides the not-easily-reachable large muscles.

Dr Dickson highlighted the importance of doctors considering the unique circumstances of disabled women’s lives when discussing contraceptive options – and that it is crucial that doctors utilise accessible facilities.

A disabled woman may not be able to get on to an examination table, for example, and so doctors need to have other more accessible equipment so that all women can receive any necessary healthcare.

Lack of access also contributes to lack of representation — disabled women are underrepresented in smear test statistics.

And she raised the crucial question: whose responsibility is it to ensure that disabled women can access this care?

Alison Lapper, artist, television presenter and speaker, talked about her personal experience during her pregnancy, and later raising her young son.

She faced huge obstacles and difficulties owing to her disability – in particular the attitudes of other people, from doctors and family to strangers on the street, who repeatedly questioned her fitness to bear and raise a child.

And Dr Frances Ryan, Guardian journalist and political commentator, spoke of the way in which conversations around reproductive rights almost always shut out certain aspects of disabled women’s experiences, if not exclude them altogether.

These four individual presentations were followed by a question and answer panel discussion.

Dr Melanie Davies, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at University London College Hospitals, and Eleanor Lisney, founder member and coordinator at Sisters of Frida joined the four presenters on the panel.

To read the full report about the event, click here.

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