Should Bree Walker conceive a child?
Believe it or not, and KCBS-TV Channel 2 anchorwoman Walker still can't, that was the driving question for two hours on a KFI-AM (640) talk show last month.
"Is that a fair thing to do? Is it fair for Bree Walker to deliver this child?" host Jane Norris asked KFI listeners.
Walker, married to KCBS-TV co-anchor Jim Lampley, is pregnant. There's a 50-50 chance that her child will be born with her hereditary physical anomaly, ectrodactylism, which results in fused fingers and toes.
"Is it fair to pass along a genetically disfiguring disease to your child?" Norris harped on the program. Later, when one caller asked if it was any of her business what Walker does, Norris stated dramatically: "It's everybody's business."
Walker and Lampley were outraged by the program and have made it their business to let people know the kind of programming that KFI considers acceptable.
Walker accuses Norris of propagating eugenics, which is defined as the improvement of hereditary qualities of a race or breed through the control of human mating.
"What she was talking about was fetal quality control," Walker said bitterly.
The anchorwoman called Norris' on-air "grandstanding" July 22 a harassment of her unborn child and a sweeping blow to a disabled community struggling for social acceptance and civil rights.
"For a decade, I thought I was a torch bearer for the disability awareness movement," Walker said Thursday. "And if I'm going to roll over now and not do anything about this, then I might as well blow out my flame."
So Walker and Lampley retained the services of EIN SOF Communications, a Los Angeles company that finds the disability-rights community a voice in the news and entertainment media, to help organize a grass-roots protest. Together, they are sending out tape duplications of Norris' radio program to 50 disability organizations and publications, reproductive rights groups, independent living centers and equal opportunity employment groups.
There are also plans by the Western Law Center for the Handicapped in Los Angeles to file a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission.
Norris does not understand all the commotion.
"I didn't say that Bree should abort her child," Norris said.
The weekend KFI host was filling in that night for the vacationing Joe Crummey, whose show she produced at the time. "I didn't say they were wrong for having a child. I didn't make those allegations. I merely asked the broader issue: 'If it were you, Mr. and Mrs. Los Angeles, would you have this child?' "
At one point in the show, Norris explained that she wore a 25-pound back brace for scoliosis--curvature of the spine--when she was young and received a lot of ridicule.
"The point I made on the show, which I still stand behind, is that I personally couldn't do this. I couldn't have that child," Norris said. "In that sense, Bree has a lot more courage than I do."
KFI management supports Norris completely.
"This is controversial talk radio. It always has been. It always will be," vice president and general manager Howard Neal said. "The one thing that our hosts do is offer their opinions, statements and feelings. And they welcome the alternative of those opinions. That's all talk radio is, that's all this was. When you're inviting calls in, you don't control the calls."
Walker is accustomed to being the subject of attention, curiousity and frequent bad humor because of her physical condition. Three years ago, when she was a TV reporter in New York and pregnant with her daughter, who did inherit her mother's disability, Walker received condemning letters from people. Veteran WCBS anchor Jim Jensen even asked her on the air whether her parents would have considered abortion had they known she was deformed.
In New York, Walker took it all pretty coolly. "The very first letter bothered me," she said. "They all bothered me. But they were all anonymous. So how long can you let something like that bother you when it's from an anonymous coward?"
But this time was different. "I heard about it the day after it aired," she said. "I got a copy of the tape and listened to it. At first I couldn't quite believe the content. It was shocking to me that anyone would make such negative public assumptions about an unborn child and his ability to cope with the world, regardless of the shape of his hands or feet. It was obvious, pure and simple prejudice, which is at the heart of the civil rights movement.
"To brand my child a burden on society before he's born is prejudicial--not against us, but against him. So I began to feel more and more terrorized by this line of thinking."
What further exasperated Walker was the incorrect information given out by Norris, who repeatedly mispronounced the name of Walker's disability and called it a "disease," when, in fact, it's an inherited genetic condition.
"It surprised me that she was spewing out such a Neanderthal attitude," Walker said. "Because attitudes like that create handicaps for people who look unconventional in some way, or for people who have special challenges. They aren't born handicapped. It's a narrow-minded society that creates handicaps."
Norris argued that she did do her homework, citing the presence of Dr. Steven York, a radio physician on KFI, who phoned in during the show and commented on Walker's disability.
"I think I handled this with a lot of sensitivity," Norris said. "I think Bree got the impression that there was some sort of diatribe going on. There was not. I have ultimate respect for her and what she has accomplished in her career, and I said that on the air."
Some disabled-rights activists who have listened to the tape are deeply disturbed by what they heard.
"I think it's a reflection of the deep prejudice and contempt for people with disabilities in this society," said Paul Longmore, a visiting assistant professor of history at Stanford, who had polio.
"The issue obviously is not one of whether this child is going to be a financial burden in this society, which is usually the argument used against the birth and life of people with disabilities. Obviously, she (Walker) has the means to provide for her child. The reality here is that many people find the very existence of a person with a disability offensive."
"People focus on the differences and want to perfect them," said Los Angeles writer and disabled activist Bill Holt, who also had polio. "For anyone to determine that Bree Walker should not have children because of one physical characteristic is to ignore all of the other wonderful things about the woman. I mean, why not say she should have lots of children because she has one of the most liveliest intellects and prettiest faces on television?"
Neal, who said that he has never witnessed such a severe reaction by an individual subject of a radio program on KFI, normally monitors broadcasts. He was out of town when the Walker segment aired. But he knew about the topic, approved it and said he found nothing objectionable when he listened to a tape later. He called Walker's motivations self-serving.
"Bree Walker is a public figure," Neal said. "She has herself talked about her situation. And all we were doing on KFI was using her as an example of a person who has a genetic disease who has to confront the issue: Do you have the child? And we used her as the scenario. I think it was postured correctly. I think probably what may have happened was that many of our callers talked more about Bree Walker the personality as opposed to the issue."
Walker and Lampley said that even if Neal had sincerely apologized to them, they would have pursued this course of action.
"What's at stake here is a general group of people who deserve advocacy," Lampley said. "This radio program was a stimulus that required a response. We don't care if KFI gets fined or penalized or just slapped on the wrist. That's extrinsic. We want them to answer to this on a deeper level."