Fabiana | Abortion in Scotland: devolving for choice?

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I contributed an article on devolution and abortion law to the Spring issue of Fabiana, the magazine of the Fabian Women’s Network:

The Scotland Bill is due to receive royal assent before the Holyrood elections in May. It will devolve many new powers to the Scottish parliament, including abortion law – making it, in a quiet way, one of the biggest shifts in abortion law in the UK since the 1967 Abortion Act. Quiet, because discussion of the issues have been somewhat limited for such a major change, although a few pro-choice voices have sounded concern, and a few anti-abortion campaigners have given validation to those alarms.

Download the issue as a PDF here 

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

Why the flaky, deluded and desperate need the right to choose

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

Sarah Catt, dreadful mothers and Victorian morals

Sarah Louise Catt pleaded guilty to – and was found guilty of – a hideous thing. At 38 weeks pregnant, and fearing that she had conceived as the result of an affair, the married mother of two ordered medication from India to induce her own abortion. She delivered the (by her own account, stillborn) baby and disposed of the remains alone. There are those on the anti-abortion side who have suggested that this is a “tricky case” from a pro-choice view.

Christina Odone is one: “They have to admit that her action is illegal, but they are terrified that someone being sent to prison because of an abortion will re-open the debate over the right to terminate a life,” she writes – even though the sentencing remarks [PDF] by Mr Justice Cooke case explicitly state that “there is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act”. However, the fact that the Abortion Act is irrelevant to Catt’s offence hasn’t stopped some from attempting to make her into a wedge case, using her to force their own viewpoint on the legal provision of abortion.

One such attempt, strangely, comes in those same sentencing remarks. Cooke doesn’t just strike the Abortion Act out of consideration: the judge takes the opportunity to give his own opinion on the Act, commenting that the Abortion Act is “(wrongly) liberally construed”. It’s a curious slip, that one parenthetical word casting doubt on the impartiality of the entire judgement.

Had he left it out, I doubt that anyone would have looked very closely at this verdict. Catt’s actions raise some questions about the advice available to women who approach abortion providers at an advanced state of pregnancy – but then again, her personal history of late-term abortion, concealed pregnancy and giving up children for adoption suggests that an individual whose experience can’t be seen as representative.

The eight-year sentence certainly seems lengthy – but the crime is so rare, there’s little precedent to compare. And the fact that Cooke didn’t request a report from a psychologist, despite Catt’s troubling record with pregnancy – again, that might have raised some concern, but on the other hand, Catt’s crime is so unsympathetic, perhaps no one would have pursued it.

But “wrongly” was there, and that led to scrutiny of the judge’s own views, and that led to the revelation (via Amanda Bancroft in the Guardian) that Cooke is vice-president of the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship – an organisation that has campaigned for restrictive legislation on abortion. As a member of a lobby group, Cooke arguably should have recused himself from this case in order to avoid the appearance of bias; instead, he presided over the case, and produced a judgement that has the appearance of bias.

I think the problem with the Catt case isn’t that pro-choice activists find it difficult; the problem is that anti-abortion campaigners find it easy. Go back to Odone, and see her assumption that Catt unquestionably deserved a prison sentence. Remember that the position of anti-abortion campaigners is that withdrawing access to abortion will lead to safe, live births and happy maternal relationships. Catt shows that this is not true: however difficult it is to obtain an abortion, there will be women who circumvent the law to do so.

And there are women for whom motherhood is a dire condition, to be avoided at any cost. To my mind, Catt shows how important it is to allow those women to access abortion as early as possible: Catt’s apparent denial and self-deception about her pregnancy is extraordinarily rare, but her condition of being pregnant without feeling any desire to care for or raise a child is not. And the harder it is to access safe, legal, early abortion, the more women find themselves forced into the same desperate circumstances as Catt.

Catt shows that simply bringing a child to term can’t transform a woman into a nurturing, self-sacrificing mother. Anti-abortion campaigners are happy to see her punished severely, rather than treated with the consideration and sympathy perhaps due to someone with severe issues around pregnancy and childbirth. Here, it’s tempting to describe the Odone view as Victorian – but that would be unfair on Victorians.

Hetty Sorrel in George Eliot’s Adam Bede  (pictured above) buries her illegitimate newborn under a wood pile and leaves it to die. She’s found guilty and sentenced to hang, but it’s a point of moral relief in the novel when that punishment is commuted to transportation. Hetty is based on a contemporary case of infanticide, and she’s a hard case: selfish, vain and openly dismissive of children even before she deserts her own.

But Eliot still looks for a way to make her readers feel sympathy with this hard case, to treat Hetty humanely without negating the wrong she does. Mr Justice Cooke condemns Catt for a “cold calculated decision that you took for your own convenience and your own self interest alone”, but if we treat Catt as simply evil because she fails to be maternal, then we’ve failed to be just.

Perhaps Cooke’s character assessment is accurate, though without a psychologist’s report it’s hard to interpret Catt’s actions with full confidence. What’s certainly true, however, is that there’s a social self-interest in treating Catt as abnormal and abhorrent – and it’s convenient to see her as so thoroughly other, she’s beyond the reach of justice. Her case says almost nothing about the UK’s law on abortion as it stands, but it does ask us how far we’ll compromise our own principles of justice for the comforts of moral security.

Freedom of speech, anti-abortion protestors and women: rights and limits

On Tuesday 11 September, I’m taking part in a debate organised by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service on “freedom of speech, anti-abortion protestors and women: rights and limits“. The event is chaired by David Allen Green and the other participants are Ann Furedi of BPAS, Max Wind-Cowie of Demos and Andrea Minichiello Williams of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre.

I’m hoping for a thoughtful and mutually helpful discussion between pro-choice and pro-life positions on how we can reconcile an essential conflict between two rights: the right of women to privacy in their medical care, and the right to freedom of speech for those who oppose abortion. Each speaker will make their opening remarks, followed by questions from the floor.

Attendance is free. For more details and to register, please visit the BPAS website – and if you can make it, I look forward to seeing you there.