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