A slice-by-slice attack on women's right to choose

The campaign to ban women from terminating pregnancies after 20 weeks is only the beginning, says Kit Roskelly

Kit Roskelly, 11 May 2008

In a matter of days, the House of Commons will vote on whether to slash the current time limit on abortions from 24 weeks into a pregnancy to 20. A movement spearheaded by Nadine Dorries MP, and The 20 Weeks Campaign, and supported by The Daily Mail, is putting pressure on MPs to vote in favour of this restriction on women's rights.

A four-week gap may seem like a small issue, but this is what might be call 'salami tactics' - the reduction of reproductive rights by thin slices. This is an issue with huge repercussions, because the agenda of this campaign is not limited to that four-week gap.

You need only look at this list to see that the campaign is wholly anti-abortion. The reasons given are either heavily emotive, or rely on some pretty dubious scientific claims. (Liberal Conspiracy counters these claims here).

While the campaign claims to be founded largely on scientific advances that they claim make foetuses viable earlier on, the core concerns of the campaign do not stop at the 20-week threshold. One of the 20 'reasons' given in Dorries' campaign is: "Lowering the limit to 20 weeks for normal babies will save almost 2,300 young lives per year." It is clearly based on emotional appeal rather than reasoned debate and, of course, the implication is ever more "babies" would be saved if the time limit was lowered even more, or abortion done away with altogether. The campaign completely ignores the fact that these foetuses are not babies, and do not exist in isolation; each is reliant on the body of a woman to survive and that woman is an autonomous person with the capacity and right to make choices about her own body. Women, if they are mentioned at all in these arguments for the rights of foetuses, are ignored or blamed, and this is in itself an act of misogyny.

A woman may need a late-term abortion due to the start, or increase, of domestic violence. She may spend the early part of a pregnancy in denial, perhaps following rape, abuse or incest. She may receive a late diagnosis of serious or life-threatening illness, in either the foetus or herself

Late-term abortions make up only a small fraction of the total, a fact which pro-life campaigners seem not to have considered. If the time limit is reduced to 20 weeks, what will be next? Thirteen weeks, according to The Independent. Clearly, none of the objections of the 20 Week campaign will be silenced, even if the vote on 20 May goes their way. If MPs are persuaded once, they may be persuaded again; if this vote goes through, more limitations of women's freedom may be voted through in the future with less difficulty. And the reproductive rights which we thought we had won may disappear, one salami-slice at a time.

If the vote goes in favour of reducing the time-limit, late-term abortions, which are often the result of embattled and painful situations, will be curtailed. There are lots of reasons why the 24 week limit should be kept, or indeed extended. For example, a woman may need a late-term abortion due to the start, or increase, of domestic violence. She may spend the early part of a pregnancy in denial, perhaps following rape, abuse or incest. She may receive a late diagnosis of serious or life-threatening illness, in either the foetus or herself. She may be under pressure to continue the pregnancy. If a woman is not resident in the UK, if English is not her first language, if she divides her time between two addresses as most students do, or if she has received only the often sub-standard and judgmental sex education that reaches teenagers, she may be more than 20-weeks pregnant before she can access an abortion. Furthermore, women still have to jump though hoops to get the agreement of two doctors for an abortion - a condition imposed upon no other medical procedure, as far as I am aware - and this can delay matters still further. Even as it stands, the requirements for getting an abortion are too strict and make it needlessly difficult for women when they are already dealing with a difficult life choice.

While reasons I have listed are compelling, they do not deal with the basic assumption of the pro-life campaign that some women 'deserve' access to abortions. Reason 18 of the 20 Week campaign is: "Pregnancy testing kits are freely available at chemists and there is now little excuse for not diagnosing pregnancy long before 20 weeks." The implied judgment is that women need a very good 'excuse' for needing a late-term abortion and that anyone finding herself pregnant will find it simple to obtain a testing kit, get the consent of two doctors, and have an abortion in a short space of time.

Their assumption seems to be that only the alert and pro-active women capable of making a difficult decision rapidly and lucky enough to access the care they need fast should get access to abortion. This makes reproductive choice into a privilege, rather than a right. It is absurd and dangerous thinking, and once again shows the implicit misogyny underlying pro-life views. It discriminates against the very people most in need of support - the vulnerable and disadvantaged women who are marginalised by the law as it stands, and will be at greater risk if the time-limit is reduced to 20 weeks.

This is counter to the most basic belief of campaigners for women's rights. The right to choose is paramount. No contraception is fail-safe. At whatever stage she seeks an abortion, and whatever circumstances have led to a woman's pregnancy, she has the absolute right to that choice.

The campaign's argument that there is 'no excuse' for failing to diagnose (and by implication act on the option to terminate) a pregnancy long before 20 weeks discriminates against the very people most in need of support - the vulnerable and disadvantaged women who are marginalised by the law as it stands

And by choice, I mean choice. Currently that is not truly to be had for a pregnant woman, and will not exist even if the time limit is kept at 24 weeks. Choice includes choosing to become a mother, as well as choosing not to. It includes a woman being able to choose to have a family, to combine a career or studying with parenting, to remain at home as a full-time parent, or to continue with the work she would have been doing had she remained child-free. These are not choices woman have in the UK today.

Women who have families are put at a huge financial disadvantage and frequently discriminated against at work. Women students often have to abandon their studies if they wish to carry a child to term. Single women are often compelled to live on the insufficient benefits the government provides for new mothers. Mothers find it difficult to return to work after birth, difficult to afford decent child-care and are frequently forced to take lower-paid, part-time or casual work in order to fulfill their family commitments. The Fawcett Society is campaigning on the discrimination faced by mothers from employers, which is a huge and largely unrecognised problem.

If subsidised or free childcare were available, women wishing to combine motherhood and a career would find it easier to return to work. We need flexible jobs which would allow parents to combine work and parenting, and provisions for women to continue to study and have a child. The option should also exist for a woman to remain at home and be a full-time parent without financial hardship - an option which has been effectively curtailed by repeated attempts to get women back into work as soon as possible after they give birth.

Pro-choice campaigners want women to have a much better range of options available. Women need greater freedom to choose, but they need more support in becoming parents as well as better access to abortions.

If the pro-life campaigners have the interests of the unborn child so much at heart, surely the interests of mothers should be on their agenda?

I am not saying that financial security will remove the need for abortion, but that having these alternatives available will make life easier for thousands of women. Contrary to popular belief, women who have abortions rarely do so without serious thought and much heartache. The misogynistic stigma on abortion which is propagated by the Daily Mail and right-wing MPs adds to the difficulties of their choice, but it is no reflection on women, but rather on the society that limits their options, that so many decide abortion is the best choice they have. Until the issue of work and parenting is dealt with, government policy on the time-limit, however liberal it may become, will only tackle part of the problem.

If the pro-life campaigners have the interests of the unborn child so much at heart, surely the interests of mothers should be on their agenda? The debate has placed the needs of a pregnant woman in opposition to those of the foetus. A broader agenda could provide some common ground between those who are opposed to abortion and those who support a woman's right to chose. If pro-life groups such as The 20 Weeks Campaign gave a thought to constructive campaigning for women's rights to a freer choice, they would gain a great deal more respect and credibility than they do with appeals to the emotions and pseudo-scientific claims.

Sadly, I find it hard to envisage a world where no woman ever finds herself pregnant against her will, or at a time she did not intend. So the bottom line must be that a woman has a right to chose. No one, be they partner, relative, doctor or Tory MP, has the right to diminish a woman's sovereign control over her own body.

If changes in society mean that more and better choices exist for pregnant women, then that is to be embraced, but with no such paradise in sight, feminists will keep campaigning for the easiest possible access to abortion, and for the social changes that will make women's life choices, and women's lives, easier.

What can I do?

Check out Abortion Rights and the Coalition for Choice, for more information on how you can help protect women's access to legal abortion.

Photo by Steve Rhodes, shared under a Creative Commons license

About the author

Kit Roskelly

Kit Roskelly is a noisy bisexual genderqueer feminist, with a room of her own and no money

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