In the UK in recent weeks, the abortion issue has flared up again, thanks to the call by Women’s Minister Maria Miller to lower the legal time-limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks after the start of pregnancy; the statement of the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that he favours a limit of 12 weeks; and the surprise article in the Huffington Post by Mehdi Hasan, former political editor of the flagship left-wing periodical New Statesman, arguing that being ‘pro-life’ does not prevent him from being left-wing.
As an atheist from a left-wing background, my ‘pro-choice’ loyalties were once clear. But as on so many other issues, greater learning and personal experience have forced me to reevaluate my position on this one as well. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has seen pictures or ultrasound scans of even 12-week-old fetuses can be quite so categorical that they are not little human beings, rather than just disposable ‘clumps of cells’. This does not invalidate the contemporary feminist call for women to have control over their reproduction and be spared the horrors of backstreet abortions. But it does require some reconciling of the rights of adult women vis-a-vis those of unborn babies. As the pro-life feminist writer Rachel MacNair has written, ‘There should not be a conflict between women and unborn children. The rights of both must be asserted against a society that is cruel to both.’
Unfortunately, while ‘pro-life’ groups and websites do frequently address the issue of women’s rights and interests – albeit from a standpoint that is sometimes a bit too right-wing or religious for my own taste – ‘pro-choice’ writers in liberal publications such as The Guardian remain brutally categorical in their refusal to recognise the humanity of unborn children. Yet there are reasons why hardline ‘pro-choice’ advocacy clashes with genuine liberal and, indeed, feminist values.
To begin with, abortion is a practice that is quite literally used to exterminate large numbers of female human beings, forming a central element in what is known as ‘gendercide’. In China, as many as 9 million abortions, possibly as many as 13 million, are carried out every year. These abortions disproportionately target baby girls. According to the website All Girls Allowed, which campaigns against China’s One Child Policy, there are 120 boys born in China today for every 100 girls. The One Child Policy, combined with the traditional preference for boys over girls, ensures the mass killing of baby girl fetuses through abortion, resulting in a vast gender imbalance in favour of men over women. According to the same source, in 2005 there were 32 million more men than women under 20 in China. Abortion is not the only reason for this imbalance; outright infanticide, too, is practised. Thus, in China’s Liaoning province, a newborn baby girl was discovered this summer in a plastic bag in a rubbish bin – her throat cut, but still alive. Sometimes the border between abortion and infanticide in China is a fine one: ‘In other cases, midwives have been reported to deliver “stillborn” girls by strangling the female infant with the umbilical cord as she is delivered.’
In terms of the legal time-limit for abortion, China is more ‘liberal’ than the UK, and abortions are legally allowed up to twenty-eight weeks after the start of pregnancy – and frequently performed later than this. This is not, it should be said, always on the basis of the ‘woman’s right to choose’ – woman are frequently forced to undergo involuntary late-term abortions, as was the case for Feng Jianmei, who was abducted earlier this year by family planning officials seeking to uphold the One Child Policy. Dragged bodily to a hospital, she was physically restrained while she received an injection to kill her seven-month-old fetus. Feng describes how she was held down while ‘I could feel the baby jumping around inside me, but then she went still’. The baby’s corpse was then left on the bed next to Feng, for her family to dispose of.
India, China’s fellow misogynistic giant, is developing a similar gender imbalance, as girls and women are killed through a combination of sex-selective abortion, infanticide and bride-murder – prompted largely by the expense of providing dowries for daughters, or by the failure of families to pay them. A bride whose family fails to pay her dowry may be tortured or murdered; even burned to death by her in-laws. According to women’s right’s activist Ruchira Gupta, ‘It’s the obliteration of a whole class, race, of human beings. It’s half the population of India’. One woman, who was punished by her family for giving birth to girls instead of boys, and forced repeatedly to undergo abortions, describes her experience: ‘Kulwant still has vivid memories of the first abortion. “The baby was nearly five months old. She was beautiful. I miss her, and the others we killed,” she says, breaking down, wiping away her tears. Until her son was born, Kulwant’s daily life consisted of beatings and abuse from her husband, mother-in-law and brother-in-law. Once, she says, they even attempted to set her on fire. “They were angry. They didn’t want girls in the family. They wanted boys so they could get fat dowries,” she says.’
Every year in India, as many as 11 million abortions are carried out and as many as 20,000 women die every year from complications arising from the procedure. Female fetuses are fed to dogs by doctors. On one recent occasion, children were found playing with a five-month-old female fetus they had found in a rubbish dump and mistaken for a doll. All of which makes very prescient the question once posed, in relation to abortion, by the veteran US suffragist Alice Paul (1885-1977), who had previously played a decisive role in securing the right to vote for American women in 1920: ‘How can one protect and help women by killing them as babies ?’ (quoted in Angela Kennedy, ed., Swimming against the Tide: Feminist Dissent on the Issue of Abortion, Open Air, 1977, p. 23).
In the poorer and more rural parts of India, unwanted children are often dealt with without the restraint of pesky conservative time limits for abortion, through the practice of infanticide after birth. According to one account: ‘Largely it is women—the mothers themselves, midwives, mothers-in-law or paternal grandmothers—who preside over the murders, sometimes with the stoic indifference of pagan goddesses, at other times with the limp desperation of sacrificial victims. They talk about the intolerable shame of not having produced a son or the unbearable future of daughters and they push the rice grain into the baby’s windpipe, or shake it until its neck snaps, or drown it in a bucket of water.’ Liberals in the West would probably lament the tragedy of Indian women being forced to behave in this way, not celebrate their ability to do so as a sign of emancipation. But we would be hypocritical, for our own system for getting rid of unwanted babies is merely more moderate, not fundamentally different, and we have not liberated women from the huge economic and social pressures that lead them to engage in it.
Thus, here in the UK, we have not succeeded in making unwanted pregnancy less terrifying for many women. We have not removed the stigma or shame from unwanted pregnancy. We have not provided enforceable guarantees that women’s careers will not suffer from having children. We certainly have not provided working women with proper childcare provisions. In short, we have not pressed society to adapt to support pregnant women and mothers. Instead, the pressure is on women to stifle their reproductive powers and maternal instincts, and for unborn babies to be stifled altogether, more or less literally – nearly 200,000 abortions are performed in the UK each year. This is spoken of in terms of the ‘women’s right to choose’. It is a moot point just how much ‘choice’ a British woman struggling to support existing children on a limited income, with an unsupportive family and non-existent male partner, really has.
One of the consequences of portraying abortion in terms of a ‘woman’s right to choose’ is that it absolves fathers of any responsibility for unwanted children. Without legalised abortion, an unwanted child is the responsibility of the man who impregnated the woman, as much as of the woman herself. With legalised abortion, the man may feel that it was solely the woman’s ‘choice’ to proceed with the pregnancy, and feel no compulsion to support her motherhood. Or he may feel he is legally entitled to pressurise her into having an abortion. Catherine Spencer has written of her guilt and remorse in allowing pressure from her partner and fear of single motherhood to lead her to seek a termination: ‘I am a woman who had an abortion after intense pressure from my partner. In other words, there was an unborn child – or if that word seems too emotive, too shocking, a potential child – and the parents of that child, or potential child took a decision for it to die… As I write, the “understanding” and the rationalizations are back in place and I once more feel the compassion for myself that I have trained myself to feel. Yet somewhere within, beyond the reach of my rational mind, the sense of horror continues unabated and is apt to resurface.’ (Catherine Spencer, ‘Obstinate Questionings: An Experience of Abortion’, in Kennedy, Swimming against the Tide, pp. 96-97).
There is no straightforward correlation between the legal ‘right’ of women and girls to do things and their emancipation; we need only think of the ‘right’ to marry a man who is already married, or the ‘right’ to marry a much older man while still in one’s early teens – ‘rights’ that are available to women in some non-Western countries. Nor do we necessarily view ‘the right of women to control their own bodies’ as reflecting their emancipation. For example, the ‘right’ to have breast implants; the ‘right’ to starve oneself half to death in order to pursue a career as a model; the ‘right’ to sleep with men in exchange for money. The French porn star Lolo Ferrari controlled her own body by having such huge breast implants that they prevented her from breathing properly, which helped her career but possibly contributed to her death at the age of thirty-seven, as Germaine Greer has written. Generally speaking, the ‘right’ of women to undergo brutal, frequently traumatic and potentially harmful surgical procedures that are medically unnecessary is not seen as indicative of their emancipation.
Abortion is, therefore, something of an anomaly for liberals and feminists. Yet it was not always so: up until about the 1960s, feminist opinion predominantly saw abortion in negative terms, from Britain’s Mary Wollstonecroft and Sylvia Pankhurst to the US’s Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul. In the words of the left-wing suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), ‘It is grievous indeed that the social collectivity should feel itself obliged to assist in so ugly an expedient as abortion in order to mitigate its crudest evils. The true mission of society is to provide the conditions, legal, moral, economic and obstetric, which will assure happy and successful motherhood.’
Feminist supporters of female reproductive freedom championed contraception as an alternative to abortion. In the words of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the founder of Planned Parenthood in the US, ‘While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization… If the laws against imparting knowledge of scientific birth control were repealed, nearly all of the 1,000,000 or 2,000,000 women who undergo abortions in the United States each year would escape the agony of the surgeon’s instruments and the long trail of disease, suffering and death which so often follows… For contraceptive measures are important weapons in the fight against abortion.’ According to Marie Stopes (1880-1958), the British pioneer of contraception, ‘The desolate effects of abortion and attempted abortion can only be exterminated by a sound knowledge of the control of conception. In this my message coincides with that of all the Churches in condemning utterly the taking of even an embryonic life.’ (Marie Carmichael Stopes, Wise Parenthood: The treatise on birth control for married people – a practical sequel to Married Love, 8th ed., Putnam, London, 1922, p. 10). It is ironic that both Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes International are today major providers of abortion.
As indicated above, sex-selective abortions in India and China are used overwhelmingly to kill baby girls. Yet even in these brutally anti-woman, pro-abortion societies, sex-selective abortions are formally illegal. In the UK, which does not suffer such a gender imbalance, they are similarly not permitted. Somehow, the callousness with which Western liberal opinion treats unborn life does not quite extend to supporting the right to abort a baby just because it is a girl and the parents wanted a boy, though if one really believes that a fetus is just a clump of cells and that all that matters is the mother’s right to choose, it is unclear why not.
Yet if we do not deliberately target girls for extermination through abortion, there is another underprivileged group we most certainly do target: the disabled. Here in the UK, the overwhelming majority of unborn babies screened as having Down’s syndrome, spina bifida or cerebral palsy are aborted. British law discriminates against unborn disabled babies, whose lives can be legally terminated beyond the normal 24-week limit and all the way up to birth – even if their ‘abnormality’ is very minor. A decade ago, the Reverend Joanna Jepson, a woman born with a deformed jaw and whose brother has Down’s syndrome, sought justice for a 28-week-old fetus who was aborted because it had a cleft palate; a baby that could have been born, grown up, gone to university and had a career and a sex life, instead had its life ended, because it had a minor deformity that could have been easily corrected by surgery. In Jepson’s words: ‘This law needs to be tightened, it isn’t right that babies lose their lives for trivial reasons.’ Yet instead of improving our society to give due respect and freedom for disabled people, we usually kill them before they are born. This is the same Britain that indulged in an orgy of self-satisfaction this summer over our Paralympic Games.
Image: Mandeville probably would not have survived his mother’s pregnancy in the UK.
In sum, abortion is a tragic symptom of society’s failure to support mothers, babies, the disabled and the poor. Criminalisation is not the answer; as a general rule, women who seek abortions should not be judged, let alone put in a position where they feel compelled to break the law. A gradual solution may perhaps be sought through better education about sex, reproduction and ethics, and social improvements for pregnant women and mothers. But this will not happen so long as liberal opinion views abortion as reflecting women’s emancipation, rather than the incompleteness of their emancipation.
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