The purpose of this blog is to foster debate surrounding the issue of abortion. I believe that we need to truly engage with those who disagree with us if we are to have a chance of reaching some understanding of the complexities involved. With that in mind, I agreed to exchange blog posts with @EyeEdinburgh, who blogs from the prochoice perspective at EyeEdinburgh. She has agreed to publish my piece from the prolife perspective.
Comments to her post are very welcome, once they adhere to the usual guidelines – be respectful, courteous and please refrain from any personal remarks. In the words of the old British Telecom ad, “It’s Good To Talk.” No-one should be attacked for their opinions. @EyeEdinburgh is simply sharing hers and here it is:-
Every year, over four thousand women leave Ireland for a healthcare service which they are not allowed to obtain either side of the border.
Most of them travel to London. Some go to Belgium or the Netherlands. They must travel – the sick, the poor, the rape victims, the weary mother of four and the desperate teenager of fourteen. At home, they’ll get no help: doctors in Ireland will routinely turn away a woman who needs an abortion, advising her at best where she can get help to travel to London.
BPAS and Marie Stopes help as they can: but they cannot take the place of the Irish health service or the NHS. The Abortion Support Network helps. The Irish Family Planning Association and Choice Ireland help. But none of them can change the cruel government policy of making a pregnant woman who needs an abortion take a long journey to a strange place and depend on the kindness of strangers to get through.
A Cruel Policy
What makes this cruel policy acceptable, in a country where only 1 in 11 adults believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances? (Irish Contraception and Crisis Pregnancy Study 2010, pg26)
Partly that it is invisible. Although at least a quarter of a million Irishwomen have had to make this journey since 1967, the cultural assumption they obeyed for most of that time was not to talk about it. Until 1992, it wasn’t even certain for them that it was legal to go. To say out loud “I had an abortion, and I was glad of it!” could have risked prosecution.
Cora Sherlock asked me to read the stories on the Women Hurt website, which are accounts apparently by women who made this journey, told in a way that is acceptable to prolife ideology: all very similar in tone and feeling, as if personal stories had had to be squeezed painfully into the correct form – unlike stories from the Experience Project or A Heartbreaking Choice, which are not.
A Heartbreaking Choice is an American site, created to provide support to
women who have undergone a pregnancy termination due to a poor prenatal diagnosis, problems with their own health, or for the health of another fetus (selective reduction). If you have had a pregnancy termination for medical reasons, we are here for you. You’ll find articles on how to deal with the grief, stories from women just like you, who have have made this Heartbreaking Choice to end a much wanted pregnancy.
None of the stories there have had to be squeezed into an acceptable form: they are personal, heartrending sharing of painful loss. Many of the women had to travel to get their abortion, just as women in Ireland must travel: they often mention the loving support of their families and their friends, of the doctors and nurses who provided them with care: which invariably in the stories of WomenHurt the women either lacked or could not accept.
Reading through the stories at Women Hurt, another thing I noticed was that they never (or very seldom) mentioned any supportive, caring staff at the health clinic where they had their abortions. It is an ideological principle of prolifers that people who perform abortions are evil profiteers, literally “pro-abortion”, out for what they can get. It is part of the prolife message that women having abortions aren’t cared for and aren’t emotionally supported.
The Irish government’s policy of forcing even rape victims to travel to England to have an abortion, even told through the formula of Women Hurt, seems to have hurt one girl who was raped at the age of 13 and whose parents took her to Liverpool, brought her back to Ireland, and evidently expected her never to talk about rape or abortion again. It’s perhaps no wonder that she remembers the clinic where her abortion was performed as a cruel place now she is an adult. Compare this to the story of a 13-year-old girl in the US who fought prolife courts to ensure she could have an abortion. Or consider the Child X, whom the Irish government tried to keep in Ireland by force in order to prevent her from having an abortion – while refusing to allow DNA from the aborted fetus to be used as evidence against the man who raped her.
The formulaic way in which the WomenHurt stories are presented does make them look fake, but presuming that the stories in are from real women – after all, prolifers have abortions too – then it seems many of the women who identify so strongly as pro-life now, may have genuinely forgotten or rejected care then because they felt they did not deserve to be cared for when having an abortion. (One woman describes leaving the clinic alone against the direct medical advice of a nurse: she says she was actually angry with the nurse for getting “flappy” about it).
In the stories on Women Hurt, the form provided asks if they were given information about abortion, and all of them say no, or that they weren’t given enough information. This does not correspond to the experience of women who are telling their experience of abortion outside the prolife format. In many states in the US, laws have been passed requiring doctors to recite a list of SPUC-like information to a patient and then to make her wait days before the abortion is carried out.
The intent in showcasing this claim on a prolife site may be to argue that clinics in Britain (or in Ireland if the ban is lifted) shall be required to impose the same restrictions on their patients, thus ensuring that Irish abortion patients are put to ever more expensive difficulties.
Far from women who enter a health clinic looking for and able to receive help and support, the stories of Women Hurtpresent a picture of women who believe having an abortion meant they deserved to be rejected, to be treated as lesser beings without feelings – and that is the story they tell of how they were treated. Though it’s understandable that a 13-year-old girl who had been raped should remember her abortion as a nightmare, as something that was done to her, others – adult women who clearly chose abortion – describe their experience in strangely passive terms, insisting that they got no information, they were not emotionally supported before, during or after.
Looking at the stories on the Experience Project, or A Heartbreaking Choice, or even the explicitly pro-choice stories of I’m Not Sorry, there is much less of a formulaic feel than on Women Hurt. This is another form of silencing. Not being allowed to tell your story out loud still leaves your story to be written down, shared with a therapist, perhaps – eventually – spoken out loud. But only being allowed to tell your story in a set frame, as a given narrative, destroys the woman’s own voice.
Listen to the pregnant woman. Value her. She values the life growing inside her. Listen to the pregnant woman, and you cannot help but defend her right to abortion.
History: Magdalene and Infanticide
The dominant cultural tradition in Ireland for centuries until late in the 20th century (Magdalene Laundries, 1766 to 1996) was to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, especially outside marriage, with stigmatisation, concealment of pregnancy, and infanticide. Of course there is no country, no culture, which before the advent of safe abortion and reliable contraception did not practice infanticide of one form or another. But reading the WomenHurt stories and Concealed Pregnancy: A case-study approach from an Irish setting it is clear even through the strictures applied by prolife form: many of the women were concealing their pregnancy (out of justified fear of what might happen to them, though none of them mention the Laundries explicitly), and suffering from the concealment, the silencing, as much as anything else.
In the Concealed Pregnancy review linked to above, and indeed all over the world, a girl or a woman who successfully conceals her pregnancy till she gives birth or after may end by killing the baby.
Guilbride (2004) discusses court cases dealing with infanticide in Ireland from the 1920s, when the State was founded, through to the 1950s. Evidence is presented that the incidence of infanticide was far greater than the number of cases brought before the courts. The author details how during this period almost every woman who appeared before the courts on a charge of infanticide was classified as poor or destitute and was unmarried. In many cases while the charge brought was of infanticide, the sentence handed down was of concealment of the birth.
When legal abortion became available in England from 1967, if a woman could afford to get there, and borrow the money to pay for the abortion or find a charity that would help her, this new Irish tradition segued smoothly with the old. While a humane person might feel it better to abort a pregnancy early than kill a baby, for the pregnant woman at the centre of this decision, there is no doubt from their own stories, even in the restricted form allowed on Women Hurt – that the isolating silence – the feelings of shame and guilt – are still profound and hurtful.
Cruelty of Strangers
Prolifers use a language that suggests care and enforces hurt when they talk about abortion. They speak of “the unborn child” being killed – using the language of infanticide to describe abortion. They do not care how hurtful a woman who has had an abortion may find this language: indeed, the creation of the Women Hurt website as a campaigning tool is evidence that to prolifers, hurting women is a normal part of their activism: if a woman’s pain is useful to their campaign it is so used, if it is not useful, it is ignored or dismissed as trivial.
Some prolifers tell outright lies about supposed “risks” of abortion proved false or try to play down the hazards of making abortion illegal. I have heard Irish prolifers argue that their country has an abortion rate of virtually-zero without affecting maternal mortality – which wilfully ignores the thousands of women on that invisible journey each year. And then there are the claims of racism made about the origins of family planning and abortion access – which ignore the actual, visible racism of prolife activism against women today. (Martin Luther King: fervent admirer of the work of Margaret Sanger to promote family planning to all Americans. Margaret Sanger: very much against abortion. True facts.)
Clare Murphy, spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, told the Huffington Post UK:
“There’s nothing wrong with in your face advertising as long as it tells the truth and these don’t speak to women’s experience. They are trying to make out that abortion is much more traumatic than it is, although actually it is often is traumatic for Irish women as they have to travel overseas, often alone, to get services they should be legally entitled to at home. If this group really cared for women, they wouldn’t be putting up these posters.”
For prolifers a raped child is considered, not in terms of what would be best for the child, but in terms of whether the child’s body is sufficiently physically developed to endure pregnancy and childbirth without dying of it. (50,000 girls and young women die of pregnancy/childbirth every year.)
The words “innocent life” are flung around, making clear that to a prolifer, no girl old enough to become pregnant from rape can be “innocent”, the life of no woman matters as much as her capacity to give birth. The idea that each pregnant woman has a right to decide for herself what is the best decision for her is something that does not seem to enter a prolifer’s moral values.
There is considerable evidence that the Irish healthcare system will not provide abortions to the women who need them for health reasons because the stigma against referring for abortion is so great.
If the woman can travel to London, a doctor will simply advise her to do so. There is a systematic culture of denial among Irish prolifers that there is ever any need for a woman to have an abortion to preserve her health or save her life.
The kindness you spread, keep returning to you
What finally makes this policy acceptable in Europe in the 21st century, after an ECHR judgment ruled that Ireland was in breach of basic human rights standards, is the existence of healthcare services that will care for Irish women within easy travelling distance: the charities that will provide support and help.
The kindness of strangers defuses the brutality of the government policy: only the poorest and most desperate women in Ireland need seek out illegal abortion in Ireland, and they will do so very covertly.
Women are absolutely seeking and obtaining illegal abortions. They are buying the Early Medical Abortion pill (RU486, which works up to 9 weeks into a pregnancy) from websites (some more reputable than others). I have heard anecdotes about the same kinds of “DIY abortions” that used to take place in the bad old days – taking poison, drinking to excess, falling down flights of stairs. While I have not heard specifically about illegal abortion providers – back alley or otherwise – I don’t doubt that they exist.Also, for many women, given the secrecy many of them have to shroud their abortion in, raising money is a huge issue. I’ve been told that some women are forced to go to corrupt money lenders to get the necessary funds to travel to England or elsewhere.
This enables prolifers in ireland, as in the US, to pretend to themselves they want to prevent abortions, rather than have to openly acknowledge that their activism is only directed at making abortion more costly and more dangerous.
Meanwhile, the Abortion Support Network provides the kindness that the Irish government denies:
“We have women call us because they just don’t know the law, they don’t know their options” explains Katie, one of ASN’s phone volunteers. ASN are contactable by phone, e-mail or text. However they clarify that they are ‘not doctors or counsellors’. The majority of cases they deal with are concerning women who have made their decision, saved up what money they can but are racing against time and struggling. Inevitably, the recession has been a further blow. “I’ve heard the word ‘redundant’ a thousand times over the last six months”, Katie continues, “everybody is saying “I was laid off”; “my husband was laid off”; “we don’t have any money coming into the family”; “I don’t have any savings”, “I can’t afford my mortgage any more.””Mara describes women ‘in desperate situations’, explaining “when you make abortion against the law, all you do is make it even harder for poor women, or more often women with children, or disenfranchised women, or very young girls”. She adds: “We don’t feel like we always have to talk about the raped 15 year old, although we’ve had several”.
ASN carefully consider every case on an individual basis, but Mara highlights a commonality: “They [the women] are more or less frantic 92% per cent of the time, because they don’t have the money. I can’t tell you the amount of families who say ‘if we don’t pay our rent this month, we can pay for the flights, can you help with the procedure? We once heard from this girl who was £20 short. Can you imagine £20 making the difference between you and the rest of your life?”
Oh, but why not have your baby adopted?!?
When it’s pointed out that Irish prolife laws simply make women travel for abortions, Irish prolifers often respond with rapid-fire assurance that after all the woman could always have her baby adopted, because of how hurtful and unpleasant and dangerous the abortion will be – as if giving birth and losing your baby to strangers would be a painless and pleasant experience.
(In Ireland pre-1972, adoption from unmarried mothers in religious-run homes was a regular business, without proper records kept or any consideration for the mother’s feelings for her child or the child’s feelings for their mother. And in the US at least, these practices still continue: prolife agencies urge a low-income woman to have the baby in order to have the baby adopted.)
Prolifers trivialise a woman’s feelings and needs about an unwanted pregnancy – even one engendered by rape – with the phrase “social abortion”, and talk as if the months of gestation and labour are a trivial incident which only selfishness or laziness would make a woman unwilling or unable to endure.
Have I vexed you?
Assuming that Cora Sherlock publishes this unedited, given the audience for her blog, it’s likely that a fair number of you reading it are prolifers, and by this time are more than a little vexed with me. (If it makes you feel any better, Cora said she’d be writing a prolife blog which I’ll publish on my blog.)
I saw no point in dancing around the issue. It is possible, with considerable policing and state control (forensic vagina inspections, denial of foreign travel, police investigation of miscarriages, and prosecution and jail for women found to have broken the law) to enforce governmental control of women’s bodies such that a woman who is pregnant and doesn’t want to be has the choice of giving birth or risking death. President Nicolae Ceauşescu managed it in Romania from 1966 to 1989, with what results, all of Europe knows.
Prolifers have asked me – Cora Sherlock among them – if I don’t consider a fetus to be human, and if I do, why shouldn’t a fetus have the right to live?
There is an answer, but it’s not one I’ve noticed prolifers find particularly acceptable. Prolifers talk as if, if only a fetus were granted the same legal rights and independent existance that a baby has, this would make abortion morally unacceptable and lead to it being legally banned. This misses the point.
The first answer: women are human
Abortion is made legal and accessible not because people generally lack concern for fetuses, but because people have concern for girls and for women.
A fertilised egg will become a baby if, and only if, a woman is willing and able to gestate the fetus to term. This is a physically arduous and potentially damaging labour: no country in the world has ever achieved a zero maternal mortality/morbidity rate.
We do not in civilised countries demand that a person give up their blood or any of their other organs to another person, no matter how little it will harm the donor to provide, no matter how much the recipient’s life depends on this. There seems no valid ethical reason to make pregnancy, use of a woman’s uterus and all of her bodily resources, a special exception to the rule that a person has the right to choose.
That is one answer about the ethics of abortion: that in human rights terms is is just plain wrong to argue that a woman’s human rights are taken away from her because to you her body exists to be used to gestate a fetus.
The second answer: women are human
Another answer against making abortion illegal, which is rather more pragmatic: Women are not breeding animals or machines. A woman who is pregnant and wants to have an abortion will, short of extreme human rights violations, find a way to terminate.
All a prolifer can do is to try to make the process more difficult, more dangerous, more expensive than it needs to be: to ensure that the poorer a woman is, the less likely she will have access to a safe abortion.
Many prolifers do step up to the mark and do those things. Denial of legal abortion services is attempted forced pregnancy, and if you have the power of President Ceauşescu and no scruples about using it, it may work. But force is not the answer.
Prevention of abortion is possible, of course: comprehensive sex education, easy access to contraception and strong social encouragement to use it. Acceptance and social support of single mothers and unmarried parents. All of these things are good effective methods shown to prevent abortion, but the main groups campaigning against these means of preventing abortion… have a strong overlap with or identify with the prolife movement.
And there is no prolife charity, anywhere, that advocates for preventing abortions by comprehensive sex education, free contraception, social encouragement to use contraception, universal state support for mothers with children.
Stephanie Lord, in The Journal: If they cared about women, they would invest their energies and resources in to campaigning for women to have the means to provide for their families should they wish to carry their pregnancy to term. But for all their talk of helping women, the anti-choice lobby don’t have too much to say when it comes to how women are affected by budget cuts. Anti-choice activists are absent from any of the conversations that happen regarding the protection of actual children. The only people who have come out publicly against including children’s rights in to the Constitution are the anti-choice lobbyists.
But for them that’s irrelevant, because the point of these billboards is not about what happens to children, it’s about controlling women.
Indeed, often prolifers will be found campaigning for abstinence-only sex education, for the right of pharmacists to deny women contraception, against welfare provisions for low-income mothers and children. Since ignorance, lack of access to contraception, and poverty, are all factors tending to cause more abortions, it’s really hard to believe that these people actually want to prevent abortions: only to punish women for having abortions by making them illegal and expensive.
Compare and contrast this with the abortion prevention services provided by BPAS, Marie Stopes, NHS Choices. Having an abortion should mean access to care after as well as before: one of the cruel aspects of the Irish ban on abortions is that women may be unable or unwilling to get aftercare in Ireland: she may not even tell her GP she was pregnant and had an abortion.
Do prolifers care about women?
Prolifers have asked me – Cora Sherlock among them – why we are so cynical about the vaunted goodwill and concern of their movement.
Well, I don’t speak for everyone who believes in human rights and free will: but for myself, I would say that when someone asks me to believe they have good intentions, I don’t just look at what they say, but what they do.
What I see prolifers doing is campaigning to make abortion expensive and dangerous, activism that hurts women, emotionally and physically. I see prolifers either neutral or actively against policies and campaigns that are shown to prevent abortion. I see prolifers actively setting out to hurt women without worrying about the price.
Ann Marie Hourihane wrote in the Irish Times, 18th June “There are 220 Luas ads up as well now,” said Life’s Niamh Ui Bhriain. There will be 200 advertisements on Dublin buses for four weeks, from June 25th. There will be screens at Heuston Station in Dublin, showing a moving unborn baby. There will be advertisements on buses in Limerick and Cork. “Sounds like they’re spending big cash, spending proper money,” says an advertising person wistfully. His media buyer wouldn’t give an estimate of how much the campaign cost. About €250,000 was one guess and “well north of €100,000” was another. In any event, he says, there would be the list price, and then there would be the negotiated price.
Ui Bhriain cheerfully admits: “We need to raise a hundred and fifty grand.” She also says: “We’re getting really good value.” They’re printing a minimum of half a million leaflets. When pressed on the difference between the list price and the negotiated price she gave as an example the list price for an advertisement placed in the national media two years ago, which was, she said, effectively halved. None of the money for this campaign came from abroad, she says. “That’s all we ever get asked.”
Dear whoever put those anti-abortion posters up ALL OVER Dublin: Abortion is illegal here. What more do you bloody well want?
So when I look at what the prolife movement does, I see a dangerous political campaign against healthcare for women. When I hear prolifers saying that they’re full of good intentions and concern for women, I see that as evidence of either ignorance, or delusion, or hypocrisy.
Bad-faith denial about real-life consequences
I write against ignorance. I do believe that many young prolifers are genuinely innocent of any illwill – have honestly never thought about the consequences of campaigning to make abortion illegal, inaccessible, and expensive, except in simplistic terms of “abortion bad! babies good!”
From a letter a woman wrote to John Shore about her abortion 25 years ago: I was once a judgmental Christian who, on one occasion, even got up before a congregation and gave my testimony about how thankful I was that I had not ever had an abortion, and never would.
This was just after a very very dear friend of mine had decided to have an abortion. I felt smug and somehow better than her—like somehow I would have made a better, more godly choice than she did.
John Shore wrote back: Your friend: It’s true enough that you weren’t the friend you might have been. But because that failure is emotionally tied up with the choice you later made during your pregnancy, that transgression has taken on for you a great deal more weight than it deserves. You were young when you went before your church to say how you would never have an abortion. That’s such a young thing to do: it’sso immature, so obviously an effort to be praised, to belong, to assert a winning identity. And it’s so informed by one of the primary defining qualities of youth: moral certainty. Young people can only see right and wrong in clear, black-and-white terms; they haven’t yet developed an appreciation for the infinite means by which moral blacks-and-whites become infinite shades of grey. The real failure with your experience lies with the adults who encouraged and allowed you to make such an insipid speech. Anactually mature person would have told you to sit down, and be quiet. Who wants to hear a young person bragging about their moral superiority? The only reason they let you make that speech is because it served their own agenda: they essentially used you as propaganda, and no two ways about it. That’s a shame on them—but no shame to you. You’re not guilty of anything there except being young. And that (thank God!) is no crime.
But given the anger with which prolifers meet the case against their movement, I do think that at some point, a determined prolifer goes from genuine innocence/ignorance into a bad-faith denial: whether you are focussed on a delusion that if only you keep saying “Abortion bad!” this will help, or simply don’t care that it won’t, is between you and your conscience.
Fred Clark at Slacktivist describes this process:
Bad Jackie cannot tolerate embarrassment, which means it is very important to her that she is never wrong — almost as important to her as pointing out when others are. Bad Jackie has got it in her head that this is where her value comes from. If she is right and others are wrong, then they are bad and she is good. So if she were to accept being wrong — even due to having been innocently deceived — then she would be bad. And she knows that deep down she has a good heart and so that can’t be true and she must be right after all. She must be.Her identity is at stake, you see. Her self-concept and with it her self-worth. This doesn’t excuse what she does next, but it can help to understand, and to understand is always a step closer toward forgiving.
“It happened!” she insists, swatting away Dan’s phone and suggesting he’s gullible to take “some blog’s word” over her own.
I find that prolifers get angry and accuse me of not listening to them (untrue) or “misinterpreting them” (also untrue). It’s true that I am a confrontational person, and I am someone who cannot understand the “Bad Jackie” of Fred’s story: I like to be right, but I prefer to be correct – and if necessary, corrected.
It is true that prolifer campaigns cause vulnerable women unnecessary pain and expense without preventing abortions. Other people may have even stronger reasons not to believe in pro-life protestations of concern.
I have noticed also that prolifers, far from expressing concern for women, demonise women who want abortions, doctors who perform abortions, clinics that provide abortions, accusing them of being selfish women, killer doctors, and profiteering institutions.
In fact profiteering amoral abortionists flourish in a prolife regime; the more difficult prolifers have succeeded in making access to abortion, the more profitable an abortionists’ services are, and as in prolife countries an abortionist operates outside the law, there is no legal oversight of the ethics and safety of abortion.
If you want to convince me that you care about women and want to prevent abortions, convince me by campaigning for legal abortion and the establishment of reproductive health clinics like BPAS or Marie Stopes or Planned Parenthood in Ireland: convince me by campaigning for the right of women to choose abortion, whether or not you yourself agree with each woman’s choices.
Thank you for bearing with me so long. (It’s Cora’s fault. She left me to work on this for weeks while I waited on her to write her pro-life guest blog for my place.) I have one more thing to say, and one more woman to quote from.
We are the light
Join those of us who believe in choice and human rights, women’s health and dignity, in campaigning for the provision ofcomprehensive sex education to all children, the assurance that everyone who wants to have heterosexual intercourse will have access to contraception, state support and services as of right for women who want to keep their baby.
Consider that the countries with the lowest abortion rates in the world got there by just this means, not by making abortion illegal or inaccessible.
Ask yourself: Why should so many women in Ireland have to depend on the kindness of strangers?
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote of her own teenage abortion in “The Princess”, collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World “What was it like, in the Dark Ages when abortion was a crime, for the girl whose dad couldn’t borrow cash, as my dad could? What was it like for the girl who couldn’t even tell her dad, because he would go crazy with shame and rage? Who couldn’t tell her mother? Who had to go alone to that filthy room and put herself body and soul into the hands of a professional criminal?–because that is what every doctor who did an abortion was, whether he was an extortionist or an idealist. You know what it was like for her. You know and I know; that is why we are here. We are not going back to the Dark Ages. We are not going to let anybody in this country have that kind of power over any girl or woman. There are great powers, outside the government and in it, trying to legislate the return of darkness. We are not great powers. But we are the light. Nobody can put us out. May all of you shine very bright and steady, today and always.”
I blog at EdinburghEye.