The real abortion question: Are pregnant women people?

Way-hey! Richard Dawkins – who is male and science and think-y – is pro-choice ( sort of)!  He may not be big on women’s rights and consent in general, but he knows an opportunity to have a pop at Catholics and the disabled when he sees one. Let’s send him over to Ireland forthwith, to sort out the issue with reason and logic where all those shouty women have failed.

And yet I do wonder whether boorish, imperialistic tweeting, topped off with some smug-but-irrelevant science facts, is the right way to go about these things. Apart from anything else, the whole angle of analysis seems to me somewhat off – an obsessive focus on what the foetus is (can it suffer? Does it feel pain? What is its chromosome make-up?) and very little on the context of its surroundings. While this makes for a pleasant parlour game, I’m not convinced it gets to the heart of the matter: are pregnant women people?

The abortion “debate”, such as it is, continually revolves around the personhood or otherwise of the foetus. Personally (and I’m a woman so I may have got this wrong) I’ve always thought the pertinent issue was the personhood of the foetus container. After all, person or not, you wouldn’t just destroy something for no reason. And since overall it is considered impermissible to breach another person’s bodily integrity in order to give life to another – rendering forced blood, bone marrow or kidney donation illegal – surely the same should apply to pregnancy, assuming pregnant women are to be accorded the same status as everyone else. Of course, this is an enormous assumption to make, one which flies in the face of our general expectations of womankind (Richard’s in particular), but let’s just explore it for one moment.  Are they actual people or just, conveniently, walking wombs?

To start with, we have a substantial body of evidence showing that pregnant women are responsive to external stimuli and capable of feeling pain. Nonetheless, the same could be said for hamsters or baboons, therefore one might reasonably discard this as a measure of personhood.

Similarly, the fact that pregnant women appear capable of making independent decisions cannot be taken as proof of personhood; it has often been shown that the choices women make are random, ill-informed and often downright bloody stupid, hence directed not by any inner sense of self but by hormones or periods or something similarly shite.

We do of course have the testimony of pregnant women themselves, who would argue that their individual thoughts, ideas and memories offer evidence of some unique subjectivity that is equivalent to “being a person”. Alas, this is where matters get complicated. Adult human females are, as we know, unreliable witnesses when it comes to describing what they really are. The pregnant woman might think she is a person – or rather, she might appear to think it – but do we have any absolute proof that this so-called thinking matches that which constitutes thinking in the objective, male sense of the word? Until a male objectivity test is objectively developed, to be objectively administered to females in an objective, male-centric setting, I believe it is best we take all female testimonies of “thought” and “experience” with a hint of caution (I asked a man to confirm this).

This leaves us in something of a quandary regarding abortion legislation. All foetuses are, as we know, potentially male – thus potentially people – whereas all foetus carriers occupy some liminal zone, certainly in need of some demarcation and control. Whereas the resistance some foetus carriers have shown to this external intervention has been taken by some to be yet more evidence in favour of the “women as people” hypothesis, others have seen it as proof of the “women as vindictive, witchy harpies who have no fucking idea of the consequences of taking a pregnancy to term” theory, as put forward by Life, SPUC and other learned organisations. The middle ground that politicians have taken so far (otherwise known as a total fucking fudge, leaving some women in control of their own bodies while others remain in the shit) might be dissatisfactory to some, but it does at least leave some space for men to indulge in onanistic conjecture regarding “what pregnant women are” (brood mares, yes, but is that all they are? Who knows? It’s a debate that could run and run).

Meanwhile there are pregnant women right now whose choices – but are they choices? – and feelings – real feelings? – are being ignored. It’s a terrible situation, one in which one does not know quite what to do. What if women were people all along? What then? Such thoughts, alas, must remain the burden of the objective intelligent male.