When the Personal is Sometimes Political: Abortion on Demand

// 21 May 2008

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I’ve been thinking about Zohra’s entry on the personal not always being political in the abortion debate but wanted to make sure we won the battle to retain the 24 week limit before I voiced my thoughts about it, as they specifically relate to how I think personal preferences and convictions on later abortion intersect with the need for abortion on demand.

While I think Zohra has very astutely highlighted the unfortunate apologist rhetoric of some pro-choicers, I also agree with some of the comments in response to it. I would say we need to stand alongside those people who support the right to choose, regardless of their own inkling with regard to what they think they might do and/or have done when faced with an unwanted pregnancy.

For example, a woman might personally feel that she could never have an abortion beyond a particular point, while also realising that there are many situations where a woman might want and need one beyond it. She can wholeheartedly support that woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy at a later time but have her own personal reasons not to do the same. I think such a standpoint is significant in the fight for abortion on demand because, as the law currently stands, that woman could

1) go to her doctor when just a few weeks pregnant, saying she needs an abortion as soon as possible because she doesn’t want to allow the pregnancy to develop to a point where she would feel unable to terminate it, and

2) still end up a lot more pregnant before she can get one.

I would like to see the medical profession adopting a code of ethics that views allowing a woman who emphatically says she doesn’t want to be pregnant to remain so for even a couple of weeks longer as wrong. Surely the apparent risk of regret that anti-abortion campaigns so like to draw attention to is worth it if every woman is given a better opportunity to terminate an unwanted pregnancy before it develops into anything resembling a “baby”? Okay, so this one is a bit of a no-brainer if someone is against abortion full stop but, despite the recent attempts to lower the limit, I still suspect that plenty of anti-abortion campaigners would prefer a woman to go through a later abortion rather than an early one. I would even go as far as to say it is actually in their interests for unwanted pregnancies (even those which -against their wishes- eventually end in abortion) to develop as far as possible. I think there are some people out there who genuinely want abortion to be really horrible, difficult and traumatic and that they know this is somewhat more likely to happen if unwanted foetuses are forced to develop beyond a cluster of barely discernible cells.

The campaign to reduce the limit was arguably little more than a diversionary tactic. I didn’t see those who argued for a reduction of the time limit loudly saying that early abortion should be made easier to make later abortion less likely. As Zohra noted, the debate on abortion law should be about improving access and advancing more progressive policies but that particular campaign has been sadly lacking. I’d say this has happened because pro-choice energy and effort has had to be put into defending a time limit that already had medical backing and really did not need to be challenged in the first place.

The recent threat to go backwards has conveniently put the need to go forwards on the backburner. As Laura and Jess said earlier today, that battle must now recommence.

Photo by Labour Youth, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments From You

zohra // Posted 21 May 2008 at 7:05 pm

Good post Holly.

My point wasn’t that we shouldn’t stand in solidarity with women. It was that the conversation on abortion rights should be about that: abortion rights.

In terms of your example, this is still about the fact that there is an unwanted pregnancy and a woman should have the right to have an abortion to terminate it. The fact that one woman personally feels she can only take such a decision at x week while another woman would feel ok about taking it at y week is neither here nor there for me. Women who want and need one should have access to abortions.

Suggesting that feelings about when a ‘baby’ becomes a ‘life’ for some women should be linked to the case for why abortions should be available to women on demand is a dangerous line to take in my opinion because it opens the door to the notion that access to abortion should depend on definitions about foetal life rather than women’s rights.

More on what I meant in the comment I posted under my post.

Cara // Posted 21 May 2008 at 7:55 pm

Agree with every word, Holly. Well said.

If you support choice with qualifiers, you still support choice.

Yes, there is a point at which I would feel uncomfortable about having a termination, I think. However, it would depend on the circumstances.

I don’t believe foetuses are human beings, but they are *potential* human beings and the further advanced the pregnancy, the more it has developed towards becoming human. Absolutely, adult women who already exist take precedence. Women are not incubators. This is not to say that the foetus merits no consideration at all. Yeah that’s not palatable, but unless you go around not stepping on or swatting insects and are vegan…you can’t claim to be “pro-life” and not be a huge hypocrite.

‘Cos anti-choicers are not about cute ickle babies, it’s about controlling women’s behaviour. I don’t see Dorries etc. offering to adopt unwanted babies that would end up being born, and many of which would undoubtedly end up in care, if the limit was lowered.

It’s irresponsible to bring a child into the world you can’t care for, and don’t want. It’s not that women who have terminations *don’t* care about the life (hmmm, I hate to use the term but a foetus is a life, not in the sense anti-choicers mean, but it is) they could create – but that they *do*.

It is about choice, and because some choices are not the same ones othersw might make, might be hard ones to make, might even be regretted, is no reason not to make that choice available. Women aren’t stupid, and can generally make the right decision.

We need proper sex education, so that people actually use contraception – but also termination on demand, no judgement, no prevarication, on the NHS. It would take little investment to reduce waiting times. I read that waiting times on the NHS can be 4-5 weeks, and that is appalling. I don’t see why GPs should be involved. (Afaik family planning clinics can also refer for terminations, but I’m not sure…and anyway, waiting times would be no better).

Because yes, it is cruel to make a woman carry a pregnancy she does not want for several weeks while she waits for an abortion. It is utter misogyny. If men got pregnant, waiting times would be days, I guarantee it.

Holly Combe // Posted 21 May 2008 at 8:50 pm

I see what you mean, Zohra… Linking women’s personal limits on abortion to the case for abortion on demand could lead anti-abortion campaigners to twist the debate into a direction that ignores women’s rights. That’s a frightening thought that I perhaps hadn’t considered properly when I posted this entry (though, of course, I did wait until after yesterday’s vote in an attempt to make sure my words weren’t misconstrued as a nod towards lowering the limit).

However, I also think that allowing a pregnancy to hurtle ever further towards what an individual woman views -perhaps incorrectly- as ethically fraught territory is an immoral thing for the medical establishment to do. More to the point, I would see it as an infringement of her right to utilise the medical advancements available in order to determine what happens to her body on her own terms. I don’t think my view is completely incompatible with yours and agree that the common “I wouldn’t have an abortion” preface before the expression of pro-choice views is indicative of the general taboo against abortion. I think it shows just how influential those emotive anti-abortion campaigns can be and that you were right to flag it up as problematic.

I used your post as a starting point for mine because it re-stimulated a debate that had already been going on in my mind recently. I hope it didn’t seem like I was completely attacking your argument. I certainly didn’t think for a moment that you were suggesting that we shouldn’t stand in solidarity with pro-choice women who say they wouldn’t have an abortion themselves!

Holly Combe // Posted 21 May 2008 at 9:36 pm

Cara: I hadn’t seen your post when I wrote the above and agree with what you say about foetuses developing towards becoming human beings but women taking precedence. The trouble is that we have to deal with anti-abortion rhetoric sentimentalising the foetus and using emotive terms like “baby” and I think that tends to cloud any consideration of this issue.

Shea // Posted 21 May 2008 at 10:43 pm

There were plans at some point to have nurses administer the abortion pill, Mifepristone or RU486 which induces a miscarriage and can be used up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, (it is considered the least traumatic form of abortion). But I suppose the GMC will get incredibly territorial about it if it should ever come about.

But it could provide a way to make access to abortion easier. I think we should definitely do away with the two doctors requirement and I say that as a medic. Two ethics modules in med school do not a veritable Plato make and I have always thought it was a sheer arrogance to presume that one uber stressed GP who has met a woman for ten minutes can better comprehend the multitude factors affecting her decision than she can.

I think we should have some requirement that doctors declare their position on abortion and those who conscientiously object pass referrals on to another GP, or else face being fined for delaying a referral. At the end of the day I don’t believe we should be giving alcoholics liver transplants, but it won’t mean that I delay or just don’t refer them.

Sorry to veer off point at bit, but I am in agreement with you Holly.

zohra moosa // Posted 22 May 2008 at 12:14 am

Hi Holly

I took your post as a critique of my argument, not an attack. I just happen to disagree with your critique:)

I think I just want to hold a firm line on women’s rights on this one. Eg:

Cara, you write: “I don’t believe foetuses are human beings, but they are *potential* human beings and the further advanced the pregnancy, the more it has developed towards becoming human.” But then you go on to talk about why women should have access to abortion when they want it. So what purpose does this first sentence serve? It’s not like there’s anyone running around saying a pregnancy isn’t going to lead to a ‘potential human being’ (is there?!).

And where you say, “If you support choice with qualifiers, you still support choice.” I would say, if you support choice, why are there qualifiers? If you want to only support choice in certain circumstances, then I would want to engage with that and we could discuss. But if your qualifiers are about your own personal potential decisions in future hypothetical scenarios, these qualifiers don’t, as far as I can tell, add anything to the conversation on whether and how to liberalize access. They’re not actual qualifiers at all, in terms of the debate. They are about whether you personally would (hypothetically) choose to have an abortion – which has no bearing on me and therefore the issue at the political level.

Again, it’s not that I don’t want women to talk about their feelings about abortion. It’s that I think the (increasing?) tendency to unload about personal opinions in this particular way is a distraction and is a reaction to the way the anti-abortion arguments are framed, which play on and entrench the taboo. We are following their lead instead of maintaining a clear focus on what we (me and at least some other pro-choice campaigners) are fighting for: the right to access for all women who want it.

Nina // Posted 22 May 2008 at 10:16 am

I really agree with Zohra here, the abortion debate is clouded with discussion of individual action rather than emphasising women’s rights over their bodies in law. Men wouldn’t necessarily be able to get abortions more quickly but their wouldn’t be the same discussion of whether they could have them because men unquestionably own their bodies and bodily functions.

There is a point then at which we have to separate our personal feeling about our bodies and their functions, including reproductive functions and think about legislating to protect all women from a society that expects them to be enslaved to children. That is the function of government and law and it’s important that we don’t forget how close we came to losing that protection because too many MPs didn’t regard that as their main responsibility on Tuesday.

Toni // Posted 22 May 2008 at 12:32 pm

Excellent post Holly.

There has been alot of arguing about when the foetus becomes viable and this seems to cloud over the facts of the matter. The arguments are futile and frustrating because they will never ever be resolved. There are those who say it’s a life at the moment of conception, and there are others who say it’s when it takes the first breath.

My argument is that no matter where the foetus is on the path of development, if the woman it’s inside (remember her Dorries?) requests an abortion it’s still not wanted. Pro lifers seem to take delight in wailing about how they can kick at 18 weeks and suck their thumbs etc. But surely if it’s unwanted it doesn’t matter if the foetus is able to quote Hamlet and do somersaults? The trauma of carrying an unwanted pregnancy and bringing a baby into a situation where it’s a burden is inhumane to both mother and child, and I am yet to hear a pro-life argument that relies on logic and reason rather than emotional blackmail.

Cara // Posted 22 May 2008 at 1:49 pm

Holly:

“The trouble is that we have to deal with anti-abortion rhetoric sentimentalising the foetus and using emotive terms like “baby” and I think that tends to cloud any consideration of this issue.”

Yes, I am quite aware of that thanks, I do not require lectures in feminism 101.

Zohra:

“So what purpose does this first sentence serve? It’s not like there’s anyone running around saying a pregnancy isn’t going to lead to a ‘potential human being’ (is there?!).”

My point was that abortion should be available on demand with as short a wait as possible – making it easier for the woman who is carrying the foetus, since, as Holly states in the article, the more advanced the pregnancy, the more she is likely to have qualms about the abortion, and the more ethical issues there are.

I was simply acknowledging that a foetus is a potential human in response to the “it’s just a bunch of cells, no different to having a tooth out” type rhetoric. I’m not saying that anyone is saying that here. But there are people “running around” saying that, and frankly, yes it does sound as if they forget that a pregnancy leads to a human being! (At that point, it would not be potential any longer, of course”.

By “qualifiers” I meant anything other than abortion on demand right up to birth, no questions. An

I don’t think women’s feelings about termination should be dismissed as silly and sentimental.

There is a middle ground between buying into sentimental crap about “ickle babies OMG walking in the womb and sucking its thumb!”, believing that even the earliest embryo is a baby – and viewing a termination as no different to having a tooth removed.

While there may be social pressure to feel terribly guilty for having a termination, go on about how sad it is, etc. as stated in the original article and I get that – the way to oppose that is *not* with this gung-ho it’s just a bunch of cells rhetoric, and to claim that no woman feels the tiniest bit conflicted or bad about a termination, ever, which is patently false.

Rather, I support acknowledging that termination is often emotional for the woman and may not be an effortless decision, but explaining the reasons for choice despite this. If the anti-choicers take some of that out of context – so be it. They will have far more of a field day with “heartless terrible women say abortion is like having a toenail removed!” type thing.

I am saying that the less faffing around and prevarication, the earlier the termination happens, the better for all involved.

That position has nothing to do with whether I, or anyone else, would personally have a termination, and how we might feel about it if we did – but I can’t see where I said it did. I am not buying into the sentimentalisation and “must feel grief-stricken” stuff.

Just to be very clear to everyone, I am absolutely pro-choice, although I can’t see where I said anything otherwise.

Cara // Posted 22 May 2008 at 1:54 pm

Shea: completely agree with you re: RU486. I would also remove the requirement for 2 doctors to agree to a termination (not a requirement for any other medical procedure).

Doctors who object to abortion should make this clear, and should pass the referral to another doctor without delay. I also agree there should be disciplinary procedures.

Because, as I have said, it is extremely traumatic for a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy and this should not be made any longer than necessary.

Cara // Posted 22 May 2008 at 2:10 pm

Sorry – got sidetracked. To continue:

“By “qualifiers” I meant anything other than abortion on demand right up to birth, no questions.”…And I think everyone would agree that there should be some limit.

I think 24 weeks is right, if not too strict. It is still pretty early – less than 6 months.

And before anyone picks up on it, by no questions I don’t mean that a termination should have to be justified to anyone, certainly not by maligning one’s own mental health. However, the circumstances do make a difference as to the appropriate limit.

What I am trying to say is that no important choices in life are easy, issue-free, unemotional, whatever…but those choices should still be available. This is what I meant by believing in choice with qualifiers (perhaps within limits would be a better way of phrasing it) still being pro-choice. Frankly, alienate those people and the choice campaign is screwed. Then the Tories will start eliminating choice by stealth, incrementally reducing the time limit and placing ever stricter conditions on terminations.

Alice Dale // Posted 22 May 2008 at 3:07 pm

I am so relieved that enough MPs stood up for the 24 weeks limit. The abortions at such a late stage in preganancy are generally more traumatic (denial because the conception was traumatic due to rape/incest or because the father-to-be has turned violent – you should read some of the stories the BPAS have heard.) I think the focus of some Members are completely misplaced: the focus should be on reducing the need for an abortion in the first place with better sex education and access to contraception. And if someone finds themself pregnant then there shouldn’t need to be two doctors permission. It only prolongs the agony.

Holly Combe // Posted 22 May 2008 at 4:57 pm

Cara: I can see you’re pro-choice so I have to admit I’m quite taken aback by your defensive comment about not requiring lectures in feminism 101. I was merely saying -perhaps overly simplistically- that I find it hard to talk about this sort of thing without the concern that it’s going to be twisted by anti-choice rhetoric (i.e the “sentimental crap” you mention above).

I wonder… does female bodily autonomy matter so little to society that we actually can’t afford to discuss foetal development and the importance of abortion on demand in relation to it?

Cara // Posted 22 May 2008 at 7:17 pm

Holly – your comment did sound a bit over-simplistic, as if you felt you had to explain something that is pretty obvious, and which I thought I had acknowledged. But perhaps I wasn’t clear that I had understood. I certainly didn’t mean to be defensive. Apologies if I sounded terse :-)

Glad it is clear that I am pro-choice, at least to you – I meant the comment generally, it was not directed at any specific person. I have spent enough time arguing with anti-choicers online to be pretty amazed that my comments could be taken as being anti-choice or at least not pro-choice enough in any way.

I can see your point and understand your concern that anti-choicers may twist almost any mention of foetal development, any tiny reservation about abortion – but I don’t agree that means we as the pro-choice side should avoid any mention of foetal development. We should simply counter by explaining how they have twisted our points. We should engage their arguments. As I said in an earlier comment, I think acknowledging the foetus’ existence is necessary, and that ignoring it is counterproductive – it only leaves the anti-choicers more room to sentimentalise “babies” and portray women who have terminations as happily trotting to the clinic, instead of real people who thought about their decision – and ultimately made a responsible one, not to bring an unwanted child into the world.

I just don’t see a conflict between that and female bodily autonomy…it’s the woman’s body and her right to choose, but it’s not as if it’s black and white. It’s not that either the foetus is nothing *or* the foetus is a “baby” and the woman who has to carry it doesn’t matter, and is just an incubator. I see what you mean – it is difficult to say these things without sounding anti-choice, isn’t it?

I think there is a lot of common ground in the middle, since most people support the right to choose without necessarily supporting unlimited abortion up to birth.

I understand your concerns – women should definitely be central in the debate, and our bodily autonomy certainly *should* matter to society. Whether it does – hmmmm. I have met people who don’t see the problem with forcing women to continue pregnancies, sick as that is, but I don’t believe that is the majority view. I may be too optimistic *sigh* but there we go. And anyone who doesn’t value women’s bodily autonomy is going to be unconvinced unless their arguments as to why the foetus is a baby are countered. So just telling them that women should have the right to choose, unfortunately is not going to work – arguing in terms of foetal development might. Again, it isn’t necessarily a conflict between seeing purely the woman and purely the foetus – both matter, but one has to matter more. Of course, to me that is always the woman. That is an uncomfortable truth, which is why it is uncomfortable to talk about abortion.

Jess // Posted 22 May 2008 at 10:26 pm

“I can see your point and understand your concern that anti-choicers may twist almost any mention of foetal development, any tiny reservation about abortion – but I don’t agree that means we as the pro-choice side should avoid any mention of foetal development. We should simply counter by explaining how they have twisted our points. We should engage their arguments. As I said in an earlier comment, I think acknowledging the foetus’ existence is necessary, and that ignoring it is counterproductive – it only leaves the anti-choicers more room to sentimentalise “babies” and portray women who have terminations as happily trotting to the clinic, instead of real people who thought about their decision – and ultimately made a responsible one, not to bring an unwanted child into the world.”

This has come home to me very strongly today. If I get into arguments with anti-abortionists these days, it tends to be online, not in person. But today I rashly mentioned the protest on Tuesday over lunch – it turns out our intern at work is strongly anti-choice, life begins at conception, etc.

Anyway, I enjoy a good heated discussion every now and again, so I was merrily engaging with her, but stopped quite soon so as not to be rude to my coworkers. As we left, she patted me on the arm and said something about it not being personal.

It was only walking away that I started to get really angry about this – because I *did* have an abortion when I was just turning 18, and I *don’t* regret it, so it *is* personal. It occurred to me – how would this quite nice woman react if I told her? Again, work environment, so I didn’t act on the temptation. But maybe I should have done.

I think that the flip side of this that I do agree it’s really actually important whether or not women say “ohh, I wouldn’t do it, but I support the right”, because it actually shores up the anti-abortionists moral objections.

Not that I am saying that women shouldn’t articulate their personal feelings about whether or not they would have an abortion, and whether that would change depending on the stage of the pregnancy. But I’m saying that an argument with anti-abortionists is not a good time to do so. The point is choice, it’s not how you would exercise it.

For example, it wouldn’t even occur to me to say “oh, well, I wouldn’t go into the royal marines, but I support the right of women who want to”!

Anyway, I don’t honestly think our intern would have equated me saying “I had an abortion” with “I am a murderer!”, even though that’s what she was arguing in general. In retrospect, I do regret not asking her if she thinks I should be clapped in chains for my high crime of murder, rather than mooching around our office.

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