MUNICH — There's common agreement within the feminist movement that women should have the right to abortion. Which is why German author Kirsten Achtelik, who considers herself a feminist, has sparked controversy with a new book entitled "Selbstbestimmte Norm. Feminismus, Pränataldiagnostik, Abtreibung" (Self-Determined Standard: Feminism, Prenatal Diagnosis, Abortion) that denounces diagnostic prenatal testing, claiming it can lead to selective abortion. She doesn't pit disability rights against women's rights, but instead demands more self-determination for all.
SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: You consider yourself a feminist, but you view abortion critically. Can you explain?
KIRSTEN ACHTELIK: If a woman is pregnant, and she thinks it's not the right time for her to have this child, she should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy. What I consider a lot more delicate and critical is when a woman does want a child, but not this one. At that point, diagnostic prenatal testing becomes a quality check for future babies. This is generally left out in feminist debates.
Why is that?
In Germany, abortion is a criminal act, and only under certain circumstances is it exempt from punishment. Today, feminist activists are still busy obtaining women's unrestricted right to decide what happens with and in their bodies. Many believe broaching the ethically critical aspect of abortion represents an attack on their self-determination.
Why argue against knowing as much as possible about an unborn child? Knowledge alone won't make people abort.
Not many parents actually think about their possible reactions should an abnormality be discovered. The reason for doing the tests is to ensure that everything's OK. And if it's not, then they seek clarification, answers and options. And ultimately they have to make a decision. What do I want to know? And why?
Here you're on the same wavelength as those who want to punish abortion, arguing the right of the disabled to live. Are those your allies?
By no means. Their argument is dishonest. They misuse the rights of disabled people as a pretense for pressuring women. They try to present themselves as the only true ambassadors of humanity. On the other hand, what I'm saying is that there should be an absolute right to abortion, but I reject selective diagnostics.
What kind of examination do you consider critical?
I don't denounce prenatal diagnostics in general, but rather the hidden intention to sort out babies who deviate from the norm. And that's why I can't qualify types of examinations — ultrasound's good, amniocentesis is bad, that sort of thing. What's more important is the intention.
Obviously it makes sense to check how the fetus is positioned. Some disabilities require prenatal examination — for example, if the child needs to be medicated immediately after birth. To decline such examinations would catapult us back into pre-modern times with extremely high infant and maternal mortality rates. But I do disapprove of risk calculation, the constant quest for abnormalities. There has been a tightening, but not many doctors respect it.
But in Germany, selective abortion is prohibited.
That's right, justifying an abortion because of a child's handicap is illegal in Germany. But they get around it by making exceptions, claiming, for example, that there's a possible risk to the mother's health.
In other countries, there is even more selection going on — many more girls than boys being aborted, for example. Feminism certainly adopts a clear position concerning this, right?
There is no such thing as a single "feminism," but it's a fact that most feminists are against gender-based selection. That's how we can see the inconsistency of the female viewpoint: Aborting a girl, simply because she's a girl, is discriminatory and sexist. But aborting because of a baby's disability is part of a women's self-determination? It's just as discriminatory. Requesting a "normal" child isn't feminist.
Can you possibly compare those things? Many would argue that life with a disabled child is a lot harder than with a girl.
Equating a disability with problems is wrong. Life with a disabled child is not necessarily harder than with a child who has no disability.
Then there are situations when a female fetus represents a problem for women. For instance, if the family asks for an heir to the throne but instead the fifth princess is on her way. If the woman herself would also prefer a boy, then the principle of self-determination would allow her to abort until she carries a male fetus. It doesn't work like that. In my opinion, sorting out babies because they might be disabled is just as unacceptable.
What needs to change?
Prohibiting selective abortions is not an option. Quite the contrary, we need to legalize abortions for any reason. I would attack the problem at an earlier stage, at the point at which parents are trying to determine whether there's a defect. According to a study, women have on average eight ultrasounds during their pregnancy. Standard care in Germany stipulates three, and that's above the international average.
This diagnosis loop needs to be interrupted. Most of the tests during pregnancy aren't useful from a medical point of view. That's why I suggest we remove from medical primary care any selective prenatal diagnostics.
Selective diagnostics should be forbidden all at once. They can be qualified as "harmful methods," according to the UN disability convention, because they promote the belief that disabilities are directly linked to suffering and pain and unbearable situations that can be escaped by abortion.