No, actually, I won’t be “even-handed” when it comes to debating abortion rights

So it’s all kicking off about Jeremy Hunt’s 12-week abortion limit pronouncement. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s all about making Maria Miller look reasonable. Maybe it’s all about drawing attention away from massive NHS cuts. Maybe David Cameron’s played his hand too soon by disagreeing with Hunt but revealing he’d like to lower the limit, too. Maybe … Well, we can all speculate. I’m just a bit worried that “spot the distraction” is become the distraction itself.*

Amidst all this, one thing in particular has started to annoy me. It’s the emergence of an ever-growing number of pro-choice “voices of reason”. In this particular case they tell us that yes, Hunt is wrong, and no, we don’t want a return to the bad old days, but hey, let’s not get carried away. It’s not as though all this is going to happen tomorrow. It’s just a thing Jeremy Hunt said and besides, it’s not as though abortion isn’t a complex moral issue. And then comes the part where pro-choicers are encouraged to be that bit more honest about the whole debate and to stop pretending that it’s just about “a woman’s right to choose”. After all, it’s way more complicated than that. We need to come clean and confess that weighing up the pros and cons of preserving a woman’s bodily integrity and taking the life of a potential baby is hard. We need to be more open. We need to acknowledge that no one likes abortion. We need to –

Well, no. No, we bloody well don’t. If anything, we need to stop apologising and start pushing a hell of a lot harder.

I don’t particularly want to link to any commentators who are doing the “voice of reason” routine right now, as I don’t wish to single out people with whom, essentially, I agree and who are on my side. Even so, they’re not hard to find. Harking back to Bill Clinton’s “safe, legal and rare” ideal, there are a whole host of pro-choicers who are more than happy to reveal their moral qualms, as though this somehow backs up, rather than undermines, their case. I’m pro-choice but I’m not happy about being pro-choice. This always strikes me as disrespectful to the women whose choices we seek to defend. We have chosen to put their bodily integrity first. Let’s do it properly, bravely and honestly, with faith in these individuals and their decisions, and not with sad, disapproving eyes. Our abstract regret betrays, not some hidden “truth” about life, but an ongoing expectation that these women should be giving more than anyone has ever had the right to ask of them.

One of the great lies about the abortion debate is that everyone is lying. Anti-choicers lie about depression, suicide, breast cancer. Pro-choicers lie about fetuses not being babies. Except the latter don’t. I am yet to find anyone of a pro-choice persuasion who would deny that the usual alternative to abortion is the birth of a real, live human being.** The term “fetus” is not dishonest.  To speak only of “unborn children” – as though pregnant women are mere  waiting rooms – is dishonest. I would no more consider a baby inside me to be merely “unborn” – which denotes process, not dependency – than I would now consider my own children to be extra-uterine fetuses. The whole reason why so many of us support a woman’s right to choose is because we know that pregnancy and birth are real things, not ideas. Their impact is enormous. That’s why we have no right to ask women to make sacrifices to support the life of another when we would not do the same in any other situation.

The abortion debate is not about re-evaluating the status of the fetus or the baby or the unborn. It’s not about whether it is human or alive or merely a potential life. Of course it is a human entity. Of course it is alive. Of course it would grow up to be a person just like you and me. This has never been hidden from sight. The elephant in the room is the myth that there even is an elephant in the room. What matters is letting women who need support – women who may be conflicted and who may experience regret – know that they are trusted and never judged. That it is their right to have agency over their own bodies. That we’re not ashamed of defending their ability to make choices.

If Jeremy Hunt is just willfully pushing abortion dates back in order to make a smaller reduction appear reasonable, perhaps it is about time that pro-choicers had a go at pushing the envelope themselves. Let’s stop saying sorry, for starters. Let’s stop putting ourselves one step behind. Above all, let’s stop pretending this is a balanced debate in which one side is being as reasonable as the other. We don’t owe this to those who would devastate the lives of individual women while diminishing the status of all.

* I realise that by the time I press “publish” this post will be totally out of date, with a whole new twist having emerged.

** Unless of course a pregnant woman is being forced to carry a dying baby to term.

6 thoughts on “No, actually, I won’t be “even-handed” when it comes to debating abortion rights

  1. The “voices of reason” are always so scary. They insinuate that somehow one loony (or several) gives the ideas less power, yet those one or two loonies are often in positions of power… and therefore able to effect change at the highest levels in the land.

    And, of course, it took only one loony to murder George Tiller, in cold blood, *in church.*

  2. You are absolutely correct, glosswitch.

    Abortion is not a “morally complicated” issue at all.

    It is about the right of women to control, firstly, our own bodies, and, secondly, our own destinies. In this case, it is about our absolute and inalienable right to decide whether to use *our* bodies as incubators in which to grow a child … or not.

    As long as we ‘compromise,’ ‘impartially’ listening to both sides of the “complex argument,” to laments about “fathers’ rights” or to twaddle about “killing/saving babies,” “…precious new life” or “… the consequences of having sex,” we will be on the back foot playing by conservatives’ rules. And as long as we let the Maria Millers and Jeremy Hunts argue over 20 weeks or 12, we are providing them and their ilk with a wedge with which to diminish our right to abortion at all.

    We must declare abortion, performed under the strictest conditions of medical hygiene, legal *at any stage in pregnancy* and refuse even to consider laws giving the foetus human rights.

    We must demand rational education on sex and sexuality and proper contraceptive advice for all – female and male alike – and unrestricted access to information on our own health.

    We must demand *all* our rights – not only our right to freedom of choice and bodily autonomy, but also our right to wear what we want, go where we want and do what we want (just as men would), our right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and have our decisions respected, our right to bear children *and* our right not be forced to carry children we do not want.

    And this time, we must keep up the struggle until we are recognized *everywhere* as full human beings, socially and economically as well as merely legally.

  3. This issue is something I have felt conflicted about for some time. It’s an emotional subject and I have to admit I wrote and rewrote this comment several times before getting to this point. Maybe when I can see through my tears I’ll post on it in more detail, because I feel I should represent those who are ‘pro-choice but not happy about being pro-choice’. However, in the meantime I just wanted to thank you for helping me realise I’m involved in two debates, not one. I do believe that a foetus is a life, but I absolutely believe a woman should have control over her body. The two beliefs are contradictory but needn’t be mutually exclusive.

  4. not being happy about having to make that choice is not the same as not being happy about being pro choice.

    if any woman is in the unhappy situation of having to make a choice, it should be entirely her choice and not the choice of the government of the day.

  5. This is the letter I wrote to the Guardian in 2011.
    I’m saddened and horrified that I keep having to say it.
    Sinead Connolly
    AKA TheRealThunderChild @anticameron on twitter
    • What the “pro-life” lobby fails to be honest about (which is why their influence is increasingly dangerous) is that – unlike the “pro-choice” lobby – they seek to remove from women their ability to choose a course of action best suited to their own circumstances and conscience.
    I am a Catholic. I am against abortion. But – as the mother of a girl – I’m fervently “pro-choice”. As much as it’s every woman’s right to choose not to terminate a pregnancy, it’s also her right to choose the opposite action. Every person has the right to complete sovereignty over their own body, and the right to deal with whatever consequences exercising that choice involves. “Pro-choice” only advocates a woman’s right to a termination if that’s what she chooses and, unlike “pro-life”, seeks neither to coerce or legislate (or coerce via legislation) over a person’s ownership of their reproductive destiny.
    Medically speaking, allowing choice is ethical; removing it is not. Along with the abolition of the death penalty and the creation of the NHS, the 1967 Abortion Act stands out as the most ethical, humane piece of legislation in British history. It’s about time we of the “liberal left” grew a backbone and defended it as such.
    Sinead Connolly

    1. Sinead, I really agree with what you have just written. I am Christian and I do identify with pro-choice ideas. Here is what I often grapple with though: I find it hard to consider a fetus as not having human rights just because it is dependent on its mother for life, an elderly person with dementia who is unable to live without a carer still has the right not to be killed by the person who supports their living? What do you think?

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