When the personal isn’t political: abortion as taboo

// 14 May 2008

Access to abortion in the UK is not as good as it should be. In less than a week, MPs will be voting on whether to make the situation worse by reducing the time limit. Kit Roskelly has dissected the issues for us; Sunny Hundal has outdone himself with a great banner and piece on ‘science abuse’ as practiced by some of the anti-choice lobby; and Laura has flagged the pro-choice protest that will be mounted for those able to be in London on Tuesday. Come!

Despite the excellent work that these and other writers have been doing, there is a worrying rumble just under our feet. It’s the rumble of public opinion that is being inundated with well packaged and emotionally persuasive mythology that is tapping into something deeper: a taboo.

For example, the terms of the public debate on the HFE bill have been largely set by anti-choice campaigners. Pro-choice campaigners seem to be on the back foot a lot, arguing why a reduction on 24 weeks is problematic. Yet our abortion law is 40 years old – and deeply behind the times. Even the shadow health secretary is proposing scrapping the two doctor rule; no other medical procedure requires the permission of two doctors.

Why aren’t pro-choice campaigners leveraging the time spent on the bill to visibly take the cause forward? The debate on the abortion law should be about improving access and advancing more progressive policies: in addition to eliminating the two doctor rule, restrictions on who can conduct abortions and where they can happen really need to be reviewed. Where is the campaign on any of this? Where is the surge of energy and lobby effort aimed at easing restrictions and promoting adequate access to this most important procedure?

The taboo is at work and the anti-choice lobby is using it to its advantage: what is actually an ideological campaign is being framed as being about science and medical advances. The result? The assault on women’s rights is being masked and there is a very real danger that the reduction in the time limit will be de-politicized. While Labour has a majority, this may not prove disastrous. Not so if the tides change at the next election.

Take a look at comments on recent pro-choice articles by ‘pro-choice’ readers: how many of them say, ‘I wouldn’t personally have an abortion, but I respect the right of another woman to make that choice’? What’s going on here? People are laying down their ‘pro-life’ credentials in the same breath that they espouse being pro-choice. They are playing into the idea that there is something shameful about having an abortion, assuring others that they would not be part of that, but still trying to maintain the ‘pro-choice’ label.

Why do I need to know whether someone would personally ever have an abortion or not? How is that relevant to the debate on whether abortions should be legal and available as needed? It’s not. It’s self-absorbed – a clear signal that one is conscious of the taboo and is feeling ashamed.

Don’t be fooled. Sometimes the personal isn’t political.

Photo by Laurie Pink, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Sarah // Posted 15 May 2008 at 9:20 am

The thing about the ‘I would never have an abortion but…’ claim is that it’s meaningless, because no one knows what they would do until they’re actually in that situation. There are many reasons a woman might need an abortion, even when the pregnancy was welcomed, and indeed many (most?) late term abortions are due to something going terribly wrong during a wanted pregnancy.

Also it’s irrelevant, even if you are absolutely certain you will never need or want an abortion, that has no bearing on whether it should be available when required.

So why say it? Only to distance yourself from that ‘other’ type of woman who has abortions?

Laura // Posted 15 May 2008 at 10:37 am

My thoughts exactly, zohra. This whole idea that abortion is absolutely awful, that it will always be one of the hardest decisions a woman has to take etc etc also betrays the taboo and our pandering to the pro-life position. Yes, I’m sure it can be awful and it can be a terribly difficult decision for some women, but not necessarily: personally, if I was pregnant right now I’d be straight down to my doctor’s, banging on doors to get those two signatures and get an abortion ASAP with no ethical qualms whatsoever – my life is more important than a potential life (which has a 1 in 3 chance of being miscarried anyway). The framing of abortion as such a terrible thing, such an intrinsically difficult decision is part of pro-life tactics to put women off having abortions, to blame us and make us feel guilty. Fuck that.

Nina // Posted 15 May 2008 at 10:44 am

Thanks for the links, I have finally emailed my MP, better late than never.

Abortion is a very serious thing but the ability to focus it so entirely on an unborn life rather than the women who carry a foetus and sacrifice significant parts of their lives to bringing a child up constantly astounds. Perhaps the pro-lifers would like to explain the orphanage system and public funding for that system that they’re going to set up as a priority rather than whining about morals. There are a few practical issues they consistently fail to address.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 15 May 2008 at 11:45 am

Why is this not the personal being political? Surely, that even pro-choice women feel the stigma of abortions enough to distance themselves from it is very political.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 15 May 2008 at 11:56 am

Important note – if you’d like to do something constructive about the issues raised in this article please head over to http://www.abortionrights.org.uk you have only a couple of days now to contact your MP before the vote comes round.

V // Posted 15 May 2008 at 12:35 pm

I think that this is being too harsh to women who support ability of women in this country to choose but hold their own opinion about abortion itself (however distasteful it might be to some pro-choice supporters).

We can’t dictate conditions to which people can express their own thoughts before we accept them as valid or useful, the pro-choice agenda isn’t a catechism that must be learnt and recited verbatim. We want to encourage women to sue their voices and challenge voices we disagree with, not seek to silence those who do not toe the party link – which is what this is starting to sound like.

What can be acted upon is whether people are informed or not, not what they are allowed to say. Who has the right to dictate to me what I can and cannot say?!

Anyway, expecting someone to either fully agree or not at all with any policy, without nuance or qualification, is either naive or authoritarian. Its a sign of epople thinking. What’s more, I think it is more persuasive for the choice agenda to be able to say that it is key that people think women should be able to choose, whether or not you personally agree with abortion, and then it becomes about how you enable that choice.

That’s what the majority of people (outside the debate and living their daily lives…) actually feel in their gut anyway.

There are too many other things I’d like to pick up on but the post would be huge!!

Sian // Posted 15 May 2008 at 12:36 pm

This drives me mad, I agree, and it’s certainly typical politician speak. I’m of the same opinion of Laura Woodhouse above-I wouldn’t have an ethical qualms whatsoever, and I wouldn’t see it as a difficult decision.

However I do have a very nice pro-choice Catholic friend who is immensely uncomfortable with the idea of abortion because of her religious beliefs but supports it because of what happens when it’s illegal. I’d rather she were on our side, even if she definitely wouldn’t have an abortion herself.

Cara // Posted 15 May 2008 at 12:39 pm

The thing about the “I wouldn’t personally have one” line is that I think often people don’t mean it literally. As has been said, how can you know what you would do in that situation? It expresses more of a discomfort or squeamishness about abortion.

I think it is vital that people support choice *in spite* of that – to say that even if they might not make that choice, that other women must still have the right to do so.

And having an abortion often is a hard decision to make. Not always – every situation is unique – but often it is.

I know what you are saying about the taboo surrounding abortion, though.

While women shouldn’t feel obliged to feel guilty about having one, or to feel anything at all…pretending that an abortion is a nothing like getting a tooth pulled for *all* women only plays into the hands of misogynists who try to restrict it with images of empty-headed women trotting happily to get an abortion in high heels, having not bothered with contraception.

For the record – if I was pregnant now – I would most definitely have an abortion. That doesn’t mean it is a simple decision that I would feel nothing about. But ultimately, not bringing a child into the world you are not equipped to bring up, emotionally, financially, any other way is a responsible decision.

a // Posted 21 May 2008 at 6:51 pm

‘I wouldn’t personally have an abortion, but I respect the right of another woman to make that choice’ is a little bit like saying, ‘I wouldn’t personally kill someone, but I respect the right of another man to make that choice’… and I guess this is the taboo being written about. A soldier returning from war wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about the people he or she killed in the general public. Killing is taboo.

It’s difficult for women (and men) to reconcile their pro-choice beliefs with our shared cultural idealization of babies and children — and mothers.

It seems that there is more discussion over the killing of an unborn foetus than over the killing of adults; but this debate is informed not just by what is being “destroyed” (is it a human being or a collection of cells) but also by who is in control of the process. It is this nuance that many people (especially anti-choice supporters) fail to appreciate (isn’t it an irony that many anti-choicers are also staunch supporters of individual rights – to bear arms/ pay less taxes/ you get the picture?).

I am a mother of two and I have also had an abortion and a miscarriage. In medical terms, I have been described as being pregnant 4 times with 2 terminations. My choice to have an abortion was the right one. I did not take the decision lightly, but certainly what did not enter into it was a discussion about whether or not I was killing a person.

I am not ashamed nor do I hide it, but I am always aware that mentioning the fact I’ve had an abortion alters people’s perception of me and invites judgment. However, I’ve also discovered that by simply being a mother I invite judgment.

There are many taboos associated with motherhood and with death — the discussions around abortion touch on them all, and more.

zohra moosa // Posted 21 May 2008 at 7:00 pm

V, I totally agree that we shouldn’t be silencing people and I hope I haven’t suggested that I would like to dictate what someone can and cannot say. My point is not that I think that I/we should ignore the fact that some women do make the point of saying, ‘I wouldn’t have one, but…’, but rather to highlight what this prefacing means in terms of the politics of abortion rights. And in particular, I wanted to highlight the power of the taboo.

Sian, agree, much better to have your friend on the side of pro-choice. Again, my point isn’t that I don’t like that she has feelings about abortion, but rather that her need to foreground the fact that she wouldn’t have an abortion before she says she’s pro-choice is problematic.

Rachel // Posted 21 May 2008 at 9:05 pm

i think people preface with “I wouldn’t have one but” to signal support for your choice, but indicate distance from it for themselves. I wouldn’t have one either but recognise my circumstances, feelings, maybe are different from yours – I would however help you as a humane act. I have taken part in both early and late abortions. Part of being prochoice is accepting peoples difference of opinion. Unfortunately peoples opinion can be very distressing either way. I hope you would all support someone who chooses to keep the child in the same way. Unfortunately making abortion more readily available will affect those who choose to keep the baby. For eg social pressure mounts for women to abort even if its not that womens real choice. Its hard to have a baby with “you are not being responsible” ringing in your ears!!

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