Respect the Rights of Disabled Pregnant and Parenting Students

Carrie Buck deserved better. She deserved better when her foster family withdrew her from school before she could finish sixth grade so that she could do housework for them. She deserved better when she was sexually assaulted and impregnated at age 17 by a relative of that foster family. She deserved better when the state deemed her “feebleminded”— a nonmedical term that reflected distaste for allegedly promiscuous behavior. And she most certainly deserved better when, in 1927, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law and held that Carrie could be sterilized against her will. That case, Buck v. Bell, is a prime example of how forms of bias can impact policy and legal rulings. 

All students deserve to complete their education in a nurturing school environment. But disabled girls face a wide variety of barriers to success at school, including disproportionate discipline, sexual abuse and violence, and restraint or seclusion. Importantly, disabled youth are more likely than their peers to become pregnant—and we need better data collection on student parents to fully understand the number of disabled pregnant and parenting students and their experiences. 

Disabled students are entitled to a free appropriate public education, which should not be derailed by pregnancy and parenthood. Yet too often, pregnant and parenting students are overlooked, stigmatized, and face outright discrimination—like unwanted touching, verbal assaults, being pressured to withdraw from classes or activities, and being punished for taking time off to recover from childbirth. This oppression is compounded for disabled pregnant or parenting students, and additional intersecting identities like race or LGBTQIA+ identity present unique systemic harms as well. 

It is essential that disabled youth have access to a full range of reproductive health care, free from coercion. Comprehensive sex education is critical to ensure that they have the information and tools needed for greater control over their own sexual experiences and reproductive choices. It is important that disabled youth are informed about consent, contraception, pregnancy, and abortion so they may make the best decisions for themselves. Horrifyingly, forced sterilization of disabled people is ongoing, reflecting ableist assumptions that disabled people aren’t (or shouldn’t be) capable of making their own decisions about sex, pregnancy, and parenthood. 

Federal laws exist to protect access to education for disabled pregnant and parenting students, including Title IX—which ensures that students are not discriminated against due to pregnancy or parental status—and Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provide protections for disabled students in educational settings. Nevertheless, these protections are insufficient to ensure that disabled pregnant and parenting students can break through the aforementioned barriers to graduation. 

Students deserve better, and through policy changes and supportive programs—like lactation accommodations, accessible and affordable child care, and flexible attendance policies—we can ensure that pregnancy and becoming a parent does not present an insurmountable barrier to a disabled student’s education.  

Carrie Buck deserved better: she deserved to finish her education, to be safe from sexual violence, and to make her own reproductive health care choices. On this Disability Reproductive Equity Day, we must center disabled pregnant and parenting students in our advocacy and commit to ensuring that they have the necessary support to complete their education and prepare for their futures.