Abortion: still a feminist issue

It is 40 years since abortion was legalised in the UK, yet our right to control our own bodies is still under threat. Irina Lester reports

Irina Lester, 6 October 2007

This October we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, which put an end to deaths from back street abortions. One in three of us will have an abortion. I have had one. Maybe you have had one. Most definitely there are women you know who have had an abortion, but who never discussed it and always kept it quiet.

Abortions are not that rare and yet we hardly ever talk about the experience. How come something that is a part of life for so many women is still surrounded by secrecy, and often guilt?

You might say that women's narratives are still not a part of mainstream discussion, that they are still something marginal that you can read only in the specialist women's media. And that experiences of abortion and unplanned pregnancy, like anything 'about wimmin' are therefore not as well articulated as anything man-related would be.

But when I came to UK, I was greatly surprised at the notion that it is not only something you should keep secret, but also be ashamed about. It was shockingly new to me and couldn't be more different from my personal experience.

No, we are not ready and willing at any time. Not with any partner. We do not owe children to society. Motherhood is not our duty

When I discovered at the age of 22 that I was pregnant, I felt sick with despair and was utterly devastated. It felt surreal and scary at the same time, as if my body was snatched away from me because something alien was growing inside of it and taking over me and my life. The pregnancy felt like an intruder, therefore I never had the slightest doubt as to what to do about it. People often say that abortion decision is not taken lightly, but for me it was the only option. Abortion was such a great relief, as it was the cure of a psychological trauma caused by unwanted pregnancy.

So everybody knew about it, friends, family and my boyfriend: it was impossible not to, due to the state I was in. Out of self-respect and personal dignity I would never pretend for anybody else's sake - neither then nor later - that it didn't happen, when in fact I suffered a lot. In situations of great distress, people don't pretend that nothing ever happened, and that's how it was for me.

My pregnancy definitely was a traumatic experience, so imagine how surprised I was when I realised that I might, in fact, feel ashamed of terminating it! Years after, I have completely forgotten about my abortion and never looked back, never regretted it. Yet I now realise that not every woman has the same guilt-free experience of her abortion and many are pressured into apologising and justifying themselves, even if abortion was a relief. As soon as I realised that there are people who would say that I, or any other woman in similar situation, must have an unwanted baby, I became really angry. How dare they even suggest that we must express completely different feelings about our abortions from those that we truly had? How dare they think we should be forced into motherhood just on the whim of our left or right ovary?

I think media is a powerful tool in promoting post-abortion guilt. If you look at personal stories in newspapers and magazines, you will notice that the majority of them speak about abortion in tragic tones. You would think that overwhelming public support for the right to abortion, which stands at 76%, would make modern women less scarred by their experiences, that they would look at abortion as a way out, a correction of a mistake.

If the dominant idea promoted in society is that abortion causes regret and depression and these are the only possible and valid post-abortion feelings, there is little surprise that women are finding it hard to cope

I want to stress specially, that I have full sympathy for women whose abortions left them with feelings of sadness and loss. I wish they never had this experience in their lives. But what is a completely different matter, and what makes me really angry, is that the media clearly loves stories where women feel guilt and shame. What's more, in constantly peddling the notion of abortion as trauma, today's media is responsible for mental suffering of future women who will seek abortion.

If the dominant idea promoted in society is that abortion causes regret and depression and these are the only possible and valid post-abortion feelings, there is little surprise that women are finding it hard to cope. Even pro-lifers accidentally reveal themselves, admitting that many women start experiencing depression long after the abortion. No wonder they do, after all that propaganda about how they really should feel about it.

The media is constantly reinforcing the idea that "abortion is a tragedy and a murder", which makes it easy for those who don't experience abortion themselves to abuse women in a vulnerable situation. Many women see abortion as a practical step, a way out, but then face a hostile reaction which in itself makes the whole thing traumatic. One anonymous woman says in The Guardian: "It was only then, facing other people extreme opinions, that I was affected badly. It wasn't the abortion itself, but the reactions of my family that made it difficult - being told by them that I had killed, that I was a murderer".

Other difficulties a woman seeking abortion might face include long waits which are due to financial difficulties in some NHS trusts. In some places, patients have to wait until they are 15 weeks pregnant. Those in favour of a compulsory counselling before a termination clearly ignore some women's dire state in which any prolonged wait causes only unnecessary distress. One woman told the BBC: "I had to wait four weeks to have my operation, which was just awful. Not for one moment did I think I was doing the wrong thing, but waiting put me in a state of temporary paralysis. I just wanted it to be over - I couldn't move on, get on with anything."

The worrying trend is also that doctors, who are too young (or too ignorant) to be aware of the situation before the 1967 Abortion Act, are now unwilling to provide terminations. They cannot see, "why they should clear up the mess if women can't be bothered to use contraception".

This echoes the media's portrayal of women seeking abortions as those who have casual unprotected sex and then casual terminations. In fact, the truth is the opposite: a survey carried out in the New Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, found that only a quarter of all women presenting for abortion got pregnant because of unprotected sex. Most blamed contraceptive failure.

And it is quite believable: if Britain had much lower rates of contraceptive use or no free contraception, like Russia, the abortion rate would be much higher. In Russia, there are two abortions for each birth, instead of four births for each abortion, as in Britain. I find it absolutely incredible that some doctors think that a woman who used contraception and still got pregnant should have an unwanted child, when it's exactly what she was actively trying to avoid!

The fact that a fully-formed adult can be pitted against a foetus demonstrates how little value and respect this society has for a woman

This stinks of nostalgia for the time before the invention of the pill, when fear of pregnancy could be more easily used to suppress female sexuality. All this moronic self-righteous talk of "responsibilities" is nothing but the a wish to punish women for having a good time, and it is especially seen in case of pregnant teenagers seeking abortion.

Anti-choice attitudes are just part of the general misogyny in our society. For example, around 77% of abortions are carried out on single women, yet there is, at the same time, a well documented distaste towards single mothers in this society. Truly, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

But the most favourite topics are, of course, the amazing foetus, "recent scientific developments" and the upper time-limit debate. Having done their share of ridiculing women as reckless thicks who couldn't be bothered about contraception, the right-wing press turns its gleeful gaze at our insides and sees there smiling, dancing, singing national anthem foetuses. Which instantly, without a second thought, makes them more important and valuable than women who carry them.

Armed with gory images, pro-life propaganda constantly shifts the focus away from a woman. It becomes almost a blasphemy to insist that no matter what a foetus can do and feel, it isn't right to sacrifice a woman's needs, and financial and social security for it. But that is what I strongly believe.

In my view, the fact that a fully-formed adult can be pitted against a foetus demonstrates how little value and respect this society has for a woman. What we dream about, aspire to, how our life will change if we have (sometimes yet another) baby don't matter. The biological ability to churn out new life, at all costs, no matter what, does. This is the a new glamorous face of the old misogyny.

This 'save the foetus' campaign results in manic obsession with the upper time limit and late abortions, despite the fact that they are extremely rare (only 1.6% of abortions are performed after 20 weeks, while 87% are done before 12 weeks of gestation). Viability is another straw they clutch to, although, as Evan Harris MP (Liberal Democrat) quoted from the EPIcure study of 1995, only 9% of 23 weeks old premature babies and only 19% at 24 weeks survived with various degrees of disability.

Forcing a woman to become a mother against her wishes comes from the same place as banning her from opening a bank account in her name or excluding her from the right to vote

Besides, it still remains impossible to diagnose many foetal abnormalities before 20-week anomaly scan, which is sometimes not available until 21 or 22 weeks. So, the current limit at 24 weeks gives a woman (and her partner) some time to make a difficult decision. Not suspecting one is pregnant due to irregular periods in teenagers and pre-menopausal women, obstructions from some doctors, who are not legally obliged to declare their objections, and long waits in some areas also contribute to why this small number of women presents themselves for abortion at a quite late stage.

For those who still have time for the upper time limit debate, I'd like to say three things. First, behind the idea of compulsory motherhood on the grounds of foetal development lies not so much care for a resulting baby (pro-lifers, being simple people as they are, don't bother to think what sort of life this child will have, as they are not interested in the conditions his mother is in) as their distaste towards an idea that a woman may choose when to become a mother. For centuries women didn't have such freedom and the more backward minds today still struggle with the change. Forcing a woman to become a mother against her wishes comes from the same place as banning her from opening a bank account in her name or excluding her from the right to vote.

Second, banging on about the foetus is so popular among politicians and any self-proclaimed guardians of justice precisely because they themselves realise that it costs them nothing: they don't need to provide anything for a foetus as it, unlike a child, doesn't need food, clothes, education and shelter, i.e. any money spent on it. So, you can appear gloriously moral and conscientious without actually spending any penny. Who would miss such a brilliant opportunity? That's why the outcry about child poverty in UK is no-where near as loud as laments about foetuses.

Think of the 25,000 women a year who will be unable access abortion if the limit is set at 12 weeks

And third, what masks as care for foetus, is in fact a sly trick to limit an access to abortion. Only they cannot ban it altogether in one go, so the only way it to do it is step by step. And many who speak about lowering the upper limit are open about an underlying ultimate goal: as the notorious Lord Alton says: "I have never made any secret of my total opposition to all abortion".

Similarly, Professor Stuart Campbell reveals true intention behind his highly publicised and emotive 3D scans of foetuses: "Eventually we ... will want to reduce the upper limit for abortion for social reasons to before 12 weeks of gestation. However a sensible first step would be to set the limit at 18 weeks".

So, falling into a trap of pity and focusing on a foetus will result in a right to abortion severely eroded even further. As you see, they will not stop at reduction of upper limit. If you think that by giving in on upper limit you will be left alone by pro-lifers, you are mistaken: in the same debate in the Parliament sparked by Evan Harris, another MP, Steve Webb (Liberal Democrat), rushed to reassure pro-life MPs that: "We should not just assume that if we are going to reduce the upper limit, we have to make abortion easier in the early days."

Think of the 25,000 women a year who will be unable access abortion if the limit is set at 12 weeks.

If you still have doubts that this anti-abortion stance is a part of general backward and reactionary ideology, hear MP Jim Dobbin (Labour), once a leader of All-Party Pro-life Parliamentary group, saying: "My personal view is against contraception". And the other gem from MP Philip Davies (Conservative): "I certainly do not accept that more sex education in schools is the way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and abortions." Anti-abortion MPs are also most likely to vote against gay rights and are somehow miraculously absent from lists of votes in support of women issues.

Just like in the US, the staunch pro-life views which lead to picketing of abortion clinics in UK are also associated with religious nuts from organizations like Christian Voice, which openly displays offensive homophobic and misogynist ideas. Its leader, Stephen Green, who campaigns against sex education in schools and is an author of virulently anti-gay book, says: "Homosexuality is a pathology, an emotional or psychological disorder. It was a bad day when they let homosexuals in the Armed Forces." He continues: "It was an even worse day when they let women on the front line. They should be in the home. The man should be the leader in the family and the woman should be the daughter or wife under the authority of her father and then her husband."

This is the same Christian Voice that harassed a cancer charity to return a donation of £3,000 from the London performance of Jerry Springer: the Opera and which was thrown out by the Co-Op bank for its homophobic hate speech.

So, by buying into 'foetal rights' one unwittingly pours water that turns the mill of downright scum.

Nobody falls pregnant in order to have an abortion. And despite all attempts to avoid unwanted pregnancies, they will happen. Sadly, it is a side effect of active sexual life, which can be reduced but doubtfully ever eliminated. No contraception is 100% safe (even sterilization doesn't work in some rare cases). As Polly Toynbee says: "The pill is only 99% effective and since 3.5 million women take it, at least 35,000 efficient pill-users will get pregnant accidentally every year."

The requirement to get the signatures of two doctors to access abortion patronises women who know best what to do with their bodies and lives

Also almost a third of primary care trusts are now restricting access to long-term contraception like the implant and coil which are good methods for women who forget to take a pill. We need a strong campaign for proper funding in order to have good contraceptive and abortion services. As 82% of terminations are carried out on the NHS, it is clearly the main provider women can rely on. Private health sector cannot be relied on due to the obvious reasons of costs, as well as the fact that one cannot put oneself at the mercy of private individuals controlling the provision of services, knowing that nothing can stop them from exercising their conservatism. One only needs to consider the actions of the Howard de Walden Estate, owner of most Harley Street clinics, which refuses new licences to clinics that perform abortions.

No matter what restrictions, women will always try to control their fertility. Before the 1967 Act in the UK, that meant unsafe abortions resulting in thousands of deaths. And these conditions still prevail in much of the world. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 186 women die in the world as a result of unsafe abortion. In Russia, the right-wing government cut the time-limit on access to abortion to 12 weeks, already resulting in some deaths reported in the news.

So, the way forward is not to restrict the existing law but to liberalise it to match the 21st century mentality. The requirement to get the signatures of two doctors to access abortion patronises women who know best what to do with their bodies and lives. It is humiliating to be at mercy of two complete strangers, making not a medical judgment but exercising their will based on subjective personal values.

We also need to challenge the idea underlying all the anti-abortion debate that a woman must always be potentially ready for motherhood, under any circumstances, at any stage of her life and regardless of her wish.

Women have abortions because they don't want a (sometimes yet another) child. The reality is that four out of five abortions are performed for social (and not medical) reasons, and the law must reflect it by making it clear: not wanting to have a child now, at this time, is enough reason. The mere fact that pregnancy was unplanned must be enough if a woman wants to terminate it. This must be drilled into society's mentality as Mori polls show that public support for the right to abortion is lower in cases where a woman simply doesn't want to have a child, than to abortion on medical grounds.

A total ban on abortion is one of the first steps the Nazi and Soviet regimes took

While weighing on one hand, a destruction of a potential human being, and on the other hand, a life and health of a fully formed adult in all its complexity, knowing that carrying pregnancy to term has certain risks which are only justified in case of it being wanted, consideration for the woman must win.

For the sake of women, their children and other members of the family we must make sure that motherhood is only a wanted, happy experience one could look forward to, and not something which just happens and one has to reconcile with. Stating the opposite is just biology winning over reason.

We must stop apologizing for rejecting motherhood that is not on our terms. No, we are not ready and willing at any time. Not with any partner. We do not owe children to society. Motherhood is not our duty.

It becomes a duty only in cruel totalitarian regimes like Nazist Germany and Stalin's USSR where it existed on par with compulsory subscription to army for every male in the country. A total ban on abortion is one of the first steps these regimes took. Do we want to live in one? As Jackie Ashley in the Guardian accurately put it: "We shouldn't look away from the awful, ruined lives of children who are unwanted, and mothers who couldn't cope. They may not be cute. But what kind of a world is it, where they are ignored for the rights of the foetus?"

Having advanced our rights in many fields, from anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws at work to raising and addressing issues of domestic violence and rape, from being aware of and resisting pressure to look certain way to reclaiming our true sexuality and right to pleasure, we have made ourselves freer. It is a big achievement of feminists that it has become more difficult to restrict women's freedom. The anti-abortion debate is one of the few remaining attempts to do it while looking 'respectable'. But the more we achieve for ourselves the stronger the backlash channelled through few topics like abortion. We mustn't forget that without control over our bodies and our lives, we will remain slaves.

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