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.

A conversation with a pro-life campaigner

Yesterday, I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the rise in the use of invasive tactics by anti-choice protesters. It works as a companion piece to my column in the latest issue of New Humanist about the parliamentary advances made by opponents of abortion: while campaigners like Dorries have found a way to introduce the language of the anti-choice argument to the House Of Commons, groups such as 40 Days For Life seem to have become increasingly forceful in the way they impose their opinion on women seeking abortions.

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