A Lost Opportunity for Building Common Ground in the Pro-life and Disability Rights Movement
by Sophie Trist
I have wanted to participate in or organize a National Disability Day of Mourning vigil ever since I first learned about the event in 2018. The Disability Day of Mourning (DDOM) is an annual event sponsored by the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) to mourn and make space for people with disabilities murdered by family members or caregivers. In March, disabled activists and our allies gather at sites all across the country to advocate for the intrinsic worth of disabled lives and remember those we've lost. As a disabled person myself, this cause hits very close to home. This year, I had the opportunity to host a DDOM vigil at Loyola University New Orleans with my Consistent Life Ethic organization, Wolf Pack for Life, the group who hosted the 2019 Rehumanize International conference. We had a vigil for victims of ableism at the conference, so WPFL was eager to partner with ASAN to hold this event on a larger scale.
I signed up Wolf Pack for Life as a vigil coordinator, and within a day or two, I heard back from the ASAN Program Coordinator: "Thank you for your interest in planning a vigil. We see that you work on a lot of issues including abortion, assisted suicide, etc., some of which we also work on. It's common for people to ask us if they can expand DDOM to cover other issues that they work on, so we just wanted to reach out and make sure that your vigil will just focus on the issue of murder by caregivers." I replied that it would, and ASAN made no further mention of WPFL's views. They knew we were pro-life going in, and they didn't seem bothered by it. Once we got final approval from our university, we began advertising with a Facebook event listing Wolf Pack for Life and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network as co-hosts.
Soon after the event page went up, another Facebook page, Trans Autistica, began lambasting ASAN for working with what they described as an “anti-feminist, anti-choice, forced-birth” organization. DDOM has nothing to do with abortion, but they chose to make it about abortion. Rather than focusing on our common belief that filicide is abhorrent and disabled lives are worth protecting, this page chose the path of intolerance and divisiveness. They told us that because we are pro-life, we are not welcome in the disability rights movement.
A couple of hours after the backlash started, we noticed that the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network had, without notifying us, removed themselves from our Facebook event. When I emailed ASAN to make inquiries, they told me that we would no longer be listed as an official vigil site and requested that we not use their name in association with our event. In other words, they had no problem with us being pro-life when we signed up, but as soon as they received complaints, they caved to pressure and listened to a few angry voices rather than working toward a more harmonious world where every disabled life is valued. Other ASAN supporters demanded that the organization apologize for approving Wolf Pack for Life as a vigil coordinator, and though they did not apologize, they affirmed their belief in the right to abortion.
I am deeply grieved and disappointed that the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, which does so much important work for disability rights, clearly does not value all disabled lives equally and wishes to alienate allies just because of one ideological disagreement. This immediate cancel culture, the idea that an individual or organization must pass an ideological purity test in order to work with them, is harmful and dangerous. If we only work with people or groups who perfectly align with us on everything, we will lose opportunities to gain new perspectives and build coalitions to work for change. This is not to say that we should be universally inclusive; organizations with an outright hateful or bigoted message have no place in the social justice movement. But Wolf Pack for Life is very loving and respectful in everything we do, and this is clear both online and in person. I will stand firm in my belief that every human has inherent dignity from conception to natural death, and part of that belief is refusing to dehumanize those who disagree with me and acknowledging that many of them are coming from a place of genuine goodness. I consciously strive not to exist in an echo chamber, to let others challenge my beliefs and engage in respectful dialogue, and to work toward finding common ground and advocating for change along with other passionate social justice warriors, even if we don't one hundred percent agree on every issue and solution. Because without friction and dialogue and diversity of ideas, growth and change are impossible.
Wolf Pack for Life will still be holding our vigil for disabled victims of filicide on Monday, March 2 at 5:30 PM, because we will not allow other activists' divisive rhetoric to silence our message. All are welcome to join us, whether you're pro-life, pro-choice, or anywhere in-between. If you're not in Louisiana, I urge you to light a candle, say a prayer, take a moment of silence, or do whatever feels appropriate to you to honor our lost disabled family members. Or go to an ASAN vigil in your community, be the hand that reaches out in solidarity and friendship. My hope in writing this article is that my words help even one person, whether pro-life or pro-choice, to reflect on ways we can build bridges instead of burning them to create a more just, life-affirming world.