Step number one to being a feminist: accept that women are people. Step number one to being an actually good feminist: accept that women aren’t just people like you. And that’s where Deborah Orr falls down in this column for the Guardian addressing the political debate around abortion. “Oh, Lord, the right to choose,” she writes. “There’s no more powerful and predictable way to invite the left to start looking like a bunch of intransigent extremists than to whistle up yet another round of ‘debate’ about abortion. But the left doesn’t lead the debate. In allowing the right to set terms, the left remains forever on the defensive.”
I find it hard to accept this characterisation of the “debate”. Discussion about abortion rights is constant. Medical research into foetal development and viability is ongoing, and every round of results initiates brow-scrunching about whether or how this should affect legal access to abortion. The fact that anti-abortion voices attract the most controversy doesn’t reflect a failure of the left to engage: it reflects the fact that mainland UK has a pro-choice consensus and those who wish to break it are forced on the attack. The pro-choice contingency’s failure to take seriously anti-abortion claims of “new medical evidence” reflects, not leftish intransigence, but the fact that there is no new medical evidence.
But what would it mean for the left to “lead” this debate in Orr’s terms, then? Well, apparently, she would like the left to campaign for abortion on demand and accept a lower time limit for abortions. This is rather between the lines in the piece itself, but she clarified in a tweet: “I feel strongly that especially in the first trimester a woman should be able to get an abortion simply because she wants one.” Outside the first trimester? Orr’s sympathy runs dry: “Is it completely mad of me to wonder if perhaps these abortions could be done earlier, if the imperative was there to make a decision sooner? At nearly six months, a woman is pretty seriously pregnant. And we all know that the earlier a termination is carried out, the better. Might an earlier limit actually be of benefit to women? Isn’t it even worth discussing? Apparently not.”
I agree with Orr that the “two signatures” requirement should go, but as someone who managed to get 12 weeks pregnant without realising, her easy surrender of late-term rights terrifies me. Yes, six months is “pretty seriously pregnant”. Over 90% of abortions are performed before 12 weeks; only 1.4% at 20 weeks or over. Orr suggests that women are waiting to have abortions simply because the option is there – because they lack an “imperative” to decide sooner. But that disregards the many and complex reasons for that 1.4%. Some of them will have been procedures chosen with sadness because a much-wanted baby proved to have a profound abnormality. Some will be performed for women whose lives are especially strained – drug addicts, victims of domestic abuse, women forced to save and travel in secrecy from Northern Ireland, the kind of women we should be proud to offer choice to at the very last pass.
Some will be like me. In retrospect, the fact that my stomach was growing and my periods had stopped seems very obvious, but at the time I had just enough doubt (I was on the pill! How could I be pregnant?) and enough fear of being pregnant to make me hug that doubt against all evidence. I was 20, a student, completely unprepared for dealing with being pregnant. When my GP told me, I felt the bottom fall out of me world. I can still remember watching her jaw drop as she saw the lines appear on the dip test. And when she examined me and told me how far along I was, I thought: that’s it, I’m done.
You see, I didn’t know what the time limit for abortion was then, though I had a vague idea that 12 weeks was too late. I wasn’t idling about because I knew I’d have a chance to reconsider. I was in full, shutters-down, yes-I’ll-have-another-pint-please-oh-go-on-make-it-a-Jägerbomb denial. And that was a mild case. If your circumstances are really unsympathetic to having a baby – if, say, you’re a soldier on the front line – it’s possible to keep that denial going right up to the labour pangs. I know that seems extraordinary to anyone who’s had a baby she wanted and has watched her body anxiously for all the signs of pregnancy. I chose to continue my unplanned pregnancy, and such extremes of denial seem extraordinary to me.
But there we are. People in circumstances unlike yours don’t do things like you would. That should hardly be a shocking discovery. Orr seems to see a terrible contrast between the measures taken to save wanted babies at 20-24 weeks and the fact that abortions are available then, as if wanted or unwanted were an irrelevant detail rather than the thing on which a child’s life and happiness is contingent. (Doctors will also try to prevent the miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy at 12 weeks, but Orr doesn’t seem to see a conflict with abortion rights there.) Good law on abortion has to be designed to serve everyone: not just the sensible ideal subject deciding whether to have a baby or not, but real women. Flaky, deluded and desperate as we can be, we need our right to choose most of all.
Photo by Three-Legged-Cat, used under Creative Commons