Abortion isn’t about left and right, it’s a matter of life and sex

I don’t care whether being anti-abortion is of the left or of the right. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few days, and can see no reason why your position on progressive taxation should affect your ability to see women as people rather than fleshy incubators.  There are ways in which an anti-abortion stance is profoundly at odds with a leftish position of sexual equality and self-determination, but then it’s also in contradiction with a right-wing libertarian stance, so the left/right classification seems disastrously flawed from the outset.

There is one binary categorisation I’d make based on someone’s attitude to abortion, but it’s not a very lofty one: it’s “do you deserve to have sex or not?” If you seem like the sort of person who’d rate the life on any resulting unplanned foetus over the life a woman currently has for herself, I don’t think you you should get any. Perhaps you are now thinking, “Oh dear Sarah, that’s a bit crass.” But the problem with the abortion discussion tearing through Twitter and blogs over the last few days is that it isn’t nearly crass enough.

It’s been dominated by people – Medhi Hasan most of all – adopting a line of rarefied moral philosophy. “Yes, a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body – but a baby isn’t part of her body,” he writes. Now, Hasan is a father so I must assume he’s not completely ignorant about reproduction, but his extraordinary confidence here that foetus and pregnant woman can be separated makes me shake my head. Mother and baby are locked into symbiosis, not just from conception to viability (whatever that means), but right up till the time a child becomes a self-supporting adult. That’s not months, that’s decades.

But if we follow Hasan’s logic, and say a woman can do what she likes with her body, I’m not sure Hasan will love the conclusion. Let’s say I’m pregnant and I don’t want to be. I think we can all agree that my uterus is definitely a part of my body rather than a part of the embryo’s (or baby’s, if you want to be mawkish about it). So, by Hasan’s reasoning, I can do what I like to my uterus. I’ll take a dose of mifepristone followed by some prostaglandin, shed the lining of my womb – my womb, remember, so no one else gets to tell me what to do with it – and within a few days, I won’t be pregnant anymore.

I won’t have done a thing to the embryo directly. I’ve simply decided that I don’t want my uterus (which is part of my body) to have an embryo-friendly lining and acted accordingly. The embryo is welcome to look out for itself from now on. Obviously, the embryo is dead the moment maternal resources are withdrawn. But that’s just a side effect of what I’ve done to my body, and far preferable to what happens if a woman has to carry to term and then deal with the fact that she doesn’t have the resources to raise a baby to adulthood.

Hasan charges the pro-choice position with “selfishness”, as if the only generosity a woman can rightly show is via her placenta. What nonsense: we are mothers, friends, volunteers, employees, employers – part of society in every way. We don’t owe anyone the exclusive use of our internal organs. What if you don’t have enough money to support another child without pushing your existing family into poverty? Is an abortion in that case “selfishness”, or is it perhaps the wise and compassionate action of a woman who cares for her existing dependents?

What if a woman knows that having a baby now would prevent her from completing her education or starting a career – is she selfish for wanting to be able to support herself rather than rely on others for her own welfare and that of the baby? Because here’s the thing: if you care about what happens to a proto-person with a part-formed nervous system, you should care many, many times more about what happens to them when they’re born.

If you force women to have children they’re incapable of caring for – whether for financial, health or emotional reasons – the women do badly and the children do worse. Luckily, women are quite good judges of this and tend to seek out abortion when it’s the right course for them, even if abortion is made inaccessible. Unluckily, when abortion is inaccessible, women are forced to rely on dubious services, sometimes unsafe and sometimes simply exploitative.

Abortion isn’t legal because we had a big chat about bioethics in 1967 and no one was there to chip in with the Hasan view: all the abstract arguments have been thoroughly chewed over, and I’m happy with the morality of my pro-choice position. But mostly, abortion is legal because we’ve seen the devastation caused to women when it’s prohibited, and at some point we realised that women are sufficiently like people that it’s not really OK to have them haemorrhaging to death on a wad of bloody towels just because they knew they weren’t up for being a mother.

If you think women are people capable of making their own judgements about having and raising a child, and if you think children are important enough to need an affectionate and competent parent, then you’ll understand why abortion isn’t just an unfortunate necessity – it’s a social good. And if you don’t understand why abortion is important, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re a left-wing misogynist or a right-wing misogynist, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman: you just don’t deserve to get laid.

Photo by jonathan.broderick, used under Creative Commons

33 thoughts on “Abortion isn’t about left and right, it’s a matter of life and sex

  1. I had an abortion purely because I did not want to be pregnant. I was not destitute or friendlies, I had no medical issues, I was not estranged from my family or the putative father, and frankly I never really gave much thought to whether or not I had a legitimate, non-selfish reason for not wanting to be pregnant. I just didn’t want to be pregnant, and as far as I could tell at the time, given that it was me who was going to be pregnant or not, that was plenty enough reason to take steps to not be pregnant anymore.

    I guess that means I’m selfish, and by extension a potentially bad mother (the third worst thing you can call a woman, after an actually bad mother and fat). Whoop-dee-doo. Who says women aren’t allowed to be selfish? Why are we drawn into defending their selflessness time and again as if it’s the one (maternal, ironically) quality that redeems their taking up space on the planet?

    Women are people. People can be selfish. The End.

  2. Pregnancy and childbirth are pretty grim, excruciating experiences if you’re not looking forward to the result – no one owes them to anyone, any more than we owe our kidneys or liver lobes or blood marrow to keep someone else alive.

  3. I was really agreeing with this until your line about a “very few, very rare cases where a woman has a termination because she cares exclusively about herself, but to be honest, I don’t see such perfect exemplars of self-absorption as great candidates for motherhood anyway.”

    Thanks for negating the experience of women like me who would have to abort because of health issues to themselves. As carrying a foetus to term might kill me (but will certainly make me desperately ill), I’m caring exclusively about myself here when I’d be running to the abortion clinic.

    Plenty of women, mainly those with chronic health conditions or disabilities, make the choice to abort to because a foetus is incompatible with preserving their own health. If wanting to live without suffering is self absorption then yes, I’m massively self absorbed. I also think a woman aborting after rape who is thinking entirely how she is going to survive this and seeing the foetus as only further risk and invasion of her body is entitled to be self absorbed.

    It doesn’t mean we’d be poor mothers. That rape victim might go on to be brilliant at it with a chosen child. I might become a great step-parent. I feel so slapped in the face. Your statement sounds no different to the anti-choicers who say that women should always put the foetus first and that their health and needs aren’t more important than the presence in her womb.

    I apologise if you clarify later. I was genuinely too upset to finish the article. I’ve always loved your writing on this subject and really valued your lack of judgement.

  4. All right: I don’t think “not wanting to die” is selfish, and I honestly never imagined that someone would think they counted as an “exemplar of self-absorption” because their survival was at stake. I’ll make an edit above the line, but I do think there’s an important question for abortion opponents like Hasan there: if they think women who abort are “selfish”, then why is it a great idea to force these women to be mothers?

    Update: took the offending line out.

  5. Thanks, Sarah. And would just like to re-iterate your point about unwanted pregnancies being bad for both mother and child. I’ve worked in a lot of exclusion units and young offenders institutes where the overwhelming common denominator in all these children’s lives, from what they told me, was a lack of being wanted, a lack of love. I remember doing sex ed with a group of year tens. A young girl said, “I wouldn’t have an abortion, it’s cruel. I’d give the baby to my mum, she loves babies”.

    If we’re talking about selfishness, the abortions I’ve had were all for very selfish reasons. I knew I couldn’t love that baby, I knew I would regret having that child, I knew the instant I saw the colour change on the pregnancy test. That’s incredibly selfish. But it’s less selfish than bringing a human life into the world that would suffer for lack of stability and lack of love.

  6. Thanks for editing. I had an abortion for purely ‘selfish’ reasons, and I think that’s perfectly valid. I shouldn’t have to justify whether I would or would not have made a good mother. I might have been an excellent mother, I’m great with kids, I’m even a guide-parent. I just didn’t *want* to be one, and for me, that’s a good enough reason. We need to stop pointing the finger and making women come up with ‘better’ (AKA more morally acceptable) reasons. ‘I don’t want to be pregnant/have a baby’ should be all we need to say. I like the rest of the piece and the ‘do I deserve to have sex’ theme. Spot on.

  7. I basically think “not wanting to be a mother” is a really reliable contraindication for forcing someone to continue a pregnancy. And it doesn’t mean they’ll be good or bad at parenting in the future, it doesn’t mean they *should* become a parent in the future – it just means that the decision a woman makes is the right one, by dint of it being her own.

  8. Thanks for changing that line Sarah. But by lumping all decisions a woman makes over abortion about her needs in the selfish category and not even allowing for nuance, it played into the same thing for me as the anti-choicers that as soon as women put themselves above a foetus, they’ve failed.

    As Marstrina points out we need women to say ‘my opinion matters. I matter’ more than they do not be scolded with the threat of being a bad mother for doing so.

    I wouldn’t have objected if there had been any acknowledgement of the fact that plenty of women don’t really include the foetus in the decision because for many reasons they know their own minds and bodies, not shutting them away as something to be ignored and judged.

  9. I didn’t “lump all decisions a woman makes about her needs into the selfish category”. I pointed out that if the truly selfish straw women exists, then it’s odd for Hasan et al to assume she’d make a good carer for any resulting infant. I appreciate that this is sensitive ground for you, but I don’t see anything in my piece that suggests a woman who “holds herself above a foetus” has failed. Women are quite right to hold themselves above a foetus, and the selfishness charge is a bad one.

  10. Hi Sarah. At the risk of being dismissed as a “typical pro-lifer,” I want to ask an honest question which I hope you will give an honest answer to. At what point in time should a human being be granted the same human rights that you and I enjoy? If you’ve already answered this question in another post, feel free to just link me to it. Thanks.

  11. I think the current limit is a reasonable reflection of the medical, ethical and practical situation. The identification of a foetus as a baby depends greatly on when the pregnant woman feels she is carry a baby rather than a foetus – for wanted pregnancies, that will be sooner. The dependent nature of a foetus means a woman’s own feelings about the pregnancy must always be given the greatest weight.

  12. Thanks for replying, and I hope to keep the conversation going. I know this is a highly emotional topic, and for lots of good reasons on both sides. One of my recent goals has been to try to think and talk with others about this as logically as possible, hopefully without the nauseating rhetoric and inflammatory ad hominem attacks. I have incredible respect for the individual rights of women, and I have many friends who are in favor of abortion. But I think that those who are pro-abortion often “abort logic” in their arguments for their cause. I think your reply may be an example of this, and I hope you’ll consider my explanation.

    You say that “the identification of a foetus as a baby depends greatly on when the pregnant woman feels she is carry a baby rather than a foetus.” But in saying this, you are affirming that the subjective emotions and will of one being should determine the essential identity of another. This is why I think many anti-abortion folks compare abortion to slavery or the Holocaust. The fundamental assumption in cultures of oppression is that one person (or groups of persons) has the right to determine the essential rights of another person or group. Could that be what is happening in this culture? IF a foetus is a human being, then he/she deserves protection. IF, however, a foetus is scientifically not human yet and is rather a “proto-person” as you say above, then abortion is a logical choice because no human rights are being violated in the process. But this should not simply be answered with an emotional ruling based on a mother’s emotional state. Do you have a more logical and science-based reason why all unborn children should not be granted the dignity of human rights?

    Thanks again for your willingness to discuss this.

  13. The comparison to the holocaust and slavery is simply emotive and tasteless. Abortion is a personal decision, not a systemic oppression: there is no plan to destroy all foetuses, no mass determination to oppress them. Just a recognition that a woman has the right to do as she thinks right with her own body. Sorry you found me hard to understand earlier. Try this: a foetus is not a baby, though it is likely to become a baby. A woman who wants a baby will think of her foetus as a baby from early on; a woman who doesn’t want a baby won’t, and has no obligation to.

  14. I won’t belabor the holocaust/slavery comparison because that wasn’t my main focus anyway. Sorry if it detracted from the subject. I just wanted to understand your position on the nature of human rights as they apply to an unborn child, which inevitably leads to the question of when is an unborn foetus truly a “child” and not just a “potential child” – if ever. Is it only after birth that “childhood” should be granted? Is it upon reaching an arbitrary time of “viability”? Is it completely dependent on the feelings of the mother without regard to a certain time period? I guess I just have a hard time seeing how the identification of “childhood” (and the rights that go along with that identification) can be ultimately granted or withdrawn based on another’s personal preference without somehow bypassing logic…and ultimately doing injustice to another at some point.

  15. I have a hard time seeing how you’re failing to understand this. All women have the right to make a choice about whether they want to be pregnant or not (in the UK, up to 24 weeks gestation). That is all, and it is absolute. You are concerned about the possible rights of a foetus, which might be a person (or rather, will become a person at some uncertain point but isn’t yet). I am concerned about the actual rights of the woman, who is definitely a person. I respect her right to pregnancy. I respect her right to abortion. I understand that feelings about pregnancy are conditional on the circumstances of the pregnancy. It’s not a very complicated moral position, but it does require you to accept that women are more important than foetuses.

  16. “And if you don’t understand why abortion is important, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re a left-wing misogynist or a right-wing misogynist, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman: you just don’t deserve to get laid.”

    Oh dear God, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read, and I say that as someone who’s pro-choice.

    People have got to stop this crap of saying “oh you don’t agree with me, therefore you’re a misogynist”.

    Maybe if feminists started trying to persuade people rather than just browbeating them into agreement they might get more support than they have.

  17. Well I tried sweet talking people, but it turns out that however polite I am, some of them still persist in the notion that a woman has fewer rights over her own internal organs than a foetus does. So I thought, what the hell, I’ll say something flippant. If only I could have foreseen the terrible browbeating this would give you, Dan, I’d have substituted something more wheedling, of course.

  18. “It’s not a very complicated moral position, but it does require you to accept that women are more important than foetuses.”

    Why are women MORE important? I ask that as a woman, and I’m not trying to diminish the importance of women but rather elevate the importance of the unborn to what I believe is their rightful place as equal members of humanity.

  19. Thr unborn aren’t an equal part of humanity. The unborn are wholly dependent on one person for survival, and incapable of independent life. Women are independent people with thoughts, feelings and ambitions, and they don’t owe the unborn the use of their internal organs – no more than you should be compelled to act as life support for any person already born.

  20. So am I correct then in concluding that you believe abortion to be an acceptable choice for a woman during ANY stage of pregnancy?

  21. In the process of this “conversation”, did you read this response? I support the UK’s current time limits. In theory, I think a woman has a right to do as she wants with her body. In practice, third trimester abortion is only used in very fringe cases, almost all to do with severe health issues (allowable under the law as it stands), so the exercise of that right is not an active moral issue.

  22. I did read the response and understand the UK’s time limits. The reason I asked the question was because the reason you gave for the unborn not being an equal part of humanity was that they are “wholly dependent on one person for survival, and incapable of independent life.” Can the same logic not be used for any baby up until the moment of delivery? For that matter, couldn’t something very much like it be said for a 6 month-old infant?

  23. That’s why I said “very much like,” not “exactly like.” My point is that either approach seems to reduce the definition of “personhood” to a matter of location and level of development/independence.

  24. Until you can explain why a foetus has the right to live exclusively in and from someone else’s body – at the cost of pain, injury and possible death to the woman – and why that right is not extended to any actually living person, I’ve got no inclination to go on answering your questions. Yes, location matters. The location is inside a woman, who gets to decode what happens to her own body.

  25. If you can explain why one “person” should be allowed to live inside of and at the physical expense of another without their consent, I’ll be quite impressed. You’ll still have to convince me a foetus is a person and not a foetus, mind.

  26. Sarah,
    Sorry that it’s taking me awhile to reply back. Aside from the fact that work picked up the past couple days and my computer quit working (grr!), I also want to spend some time educating myself more about this issue so that hopefully I will give you a reasonable explanation. At the same time, I want to continue to try to understand your perspective more. Aside from your own writings, are there any specific websites you would recommend I look at which rationally and/or scientifically support foetuses not being persons and not possessing an inherent right to live inside of a mother? Thank you!

  27. Hi Sarah. Sorry that it has taken me so long to get back to you on this. In my research, I came across a very intelligent and respectful video debate between a pro-life leader, Scott Klusendorf, and Nadine Strossen, the first female president of the American Civil Liberties Union. If you are willing to watch it, I think Scott provides solid scientific and philosophical evidence about why the unborn should be granted the full rights of human beings. I think the full context of the debate gives a more thorough answer than I could type out here. Granted, this is in an American context and the laws vary from the UK, but the underlying principles remain the same. I hope you’ll give it a look.

    Here’s the link:



  28. For whatever reason, the video that showed up in my last post is NOT the one that I had pasted. Here’s another attempt. If it still doesn’t work, just search YouTube for “Abortion Debate Scott Klusendorf vs Nadine Strossen.”

  29. Thanks Erica. I see you’ve put a lot of time into this. However, I’m puzzled: when you say a foetus is entitled to the full rights of a human being, do you mean all humans are entitled to install ourselves in another human and live off their body? Because I’m unaware of that as a right available to any other living thing. Not only is your line of thinking callously unconcerned with the fate of women, it also gives foetuses a right that no other human has. More honest, I think, to admit that you just don’t think of women as full people.

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