"There's no middle of the road. You want children and they want dead babies"That's just one of the highly emotive statements I've seen on Twitter in the "debate" on abortion. It sits alongside claims from the anti-choice lobby that women who have abortions are murderers and drags in the Holocaust to justify the view that terminations should be banned. If they can't be banned outright, the right to have them should be chipped away at in way possible, by reducing time limits or access.
|This blog belongs to an ordained Catholic deacon|
What interests me here in particular are the claims the anti-choice lobby make and the effect they may have on women who have had terminations. Note the above language: "slaughter", "ripped limb from limb", "abominable and depraved crime", "medical waste" and the "Silent Holocaust". Actually, if we're going to accept this characterisation, it's not really that silent, given the quantity of pieces such as this, and the vocal nature of the anti-choice lobby - but let's look at this a step at a time and consider three specific abortion lies one after another.
The Ground Is Shifting Lie
There's been a partial rekindling of discussion on this subject here after the right-wing Spanish government announced plans to severely restrict access to abortions. The bill is yet to go through and is now actually facing a major split within the ruling party. It seeks to permit abortions only in the case of foetal abnormality, rape, or to avoid serious risk to the physical or mental health of the mother. The time limit will in general be 12 weeks and in the latter case two independent doctors need to certify the risk, who must not be connected with the abortion clinic or the woman's GP. It is a massive restriction compared to the present right of abortion on demand before 14 weeks.
Prompted no doubt by developments in Spain, staunch Christian and SPUC supporter Tim Montgomerie have claimed "the ground is shifting in the abortion debate" (££). Montgomerie is the man who used the description of "Dr Death" regarding Dr Evan Harris, yet who tries to claim the "pragmatic middle ground" on the subject. The developments in Spain are certainly a convenient hook to try to get the subject back on the political agenda here.
On his central claim of "shifting ground", I actually can't find any evidence of that in this country, beyond perhaps Montgomerie's own wishful thinking. In fact, a total of 51% of the UK population believes that the abortion limit should either remain at 24 weeks, or be extended even longer. A tiny 6% of the population believes that abortion should be banned entirely, with another miniscule 4% wanting to keep it legal, but bring it down to below 12 weeks (YouGov, 16 October 2012).
This chart of historic Gallup polls in the US on the subject also shows remarkably constant views over the space of 30 years. Positions seem remarkably constant on the subject - I don't detect a "ground shift":
The Baby Lie
One thing that the tiny, but vocal "pro-life" lobby has done possibly quite successfully, however, is to shift the emotional way in which an abortion is considered by many. As touched on at the outset, they have done this with the continued core message that a woman having a termination is killing (or murdering) an actual baby.
Much of the imagery and language seeks to portray what is in the womb as if it were a 6 or 18 month old baby: a life that is capable of being fed and cuddled, that can laugh and cry. This little helpless soul is then callously ripped limb from limb by someone who, given her cold callousness and murderous nature, presumably wouldn't flinch at working a night shift in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The "baby terminology" and this viewpoint, is in my opinion, wrong in fact, wrong in language and indeed wrong in law.
From conception to 9 weeks old, the woman is carrying an embryo, not a baby. It might sound harsh, but, put simply this is actually a proto-life: a cluster of cells that has the potential of life. For me, a life is not "a life" unless it is capable of living on its own, and indeed something that is or was actually alive, no matter for how short a time. To state the incredibly obvious, if the woman died, the embryo inside her would die too. It is part of her body. If the rest of her died, its cellular development and reproduction would stop, and it would die in the same way the woman's foot or hand would. Medically, it is entirely dependent on her continued existence, and is not separate to her body. It cannot be transplanted into another woman and it cannot survive outside the womb.
Some Christians believe that life begins the second a sperm fertilises an egg. They're entitled to that abstract religious belief, of course. I think it's completely illogical, don't agree with it and consider it to be, like the rest of their faith, a mere belief. To follow the path from that personal religious belief to describing women who have terminations as "murderers", is in my view, grotesque.
To take the linguistic point, it is wrong to call an embryo a baby. A toddler is not a teenager. An adult is not an old person. Any of those things has the potential to become the next, but there is no certainty, and you would not dream of calling a 4 year old a "teenager". Therefore why call an embryo a baby, unless to reinforce your religious-political agenda? Were you to call an acorn that has germinated (the miracle of life!) but that hasn't sprouted out of the ground yet a "sappling" or an "oak tree", people would look at you quite strangely. With justification.
|An embryo at 8 weeks|
A baby has fully functioning organs, a discernible form and most critically is capable of living, even if the mother that carried it is dead. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a baby is "a very young child", not a cluster of cells that has no independent life of its own. Because of both natural miscarriages and terminations, some embryos, or proto-lives, will not become babies. 70% of terminations in this country in fact occur before the 9th week, during the embryonic phase. You can by all means argue that all embryos should be given the unrestricted opportunity of life, but please don't misrepresent them as babies.
The development of an embryo into a foetus is a continual process. By 11 weeks old what is now called a foetus is around 4cm in length. It weighs 7g, roughly the same as a 10p coin. It does not even have a discernible gender, let alone functioning vital organs. Again, as a simple matter of fact, to describe this as a baby is inaccurate. By the 12th week, the proportion of terminations in this country has reached the 90% mark. These are embryos and foetuses that are being terminated, not live babies that are being "torn limb from limb". Only a tiny percentage of abortions occur after the 20 week point, normally because serious disability has been detected, where the mother's life is at risk, or sometimes in cases of very young teenage women who either were in denial or did not realise they were pregnant.
There is no age at which the foetus is automatically capable of surviving outside the womb. From around 23 weeks, with modern intensive care technology, around 30% of foetuses would survive if they left the womb for some reason; by 24 weeks the figure rises to 50%. The foetus is sufficiently developed that is no longer a proto-life and is considered viable. Presumably that is why 24 weeks is the normal absolute legal cut-off for terminations in this country.
Once outside the womb, even if it would die without weeks inside an intensive care incubator, the new life can properly be considered a new-born baby for the first time. When he or she reaches 13 years old, you may even correctly begin to label him or her a teenager if you wish.... It is slightly bizarre to have to draw out these distinctions, but given the "murder screaming" tactics of the anti-choice lobby it is clear why we need to remind ourselves of them periodically.
|Spot the differences: new born baby vs 8 week old embryo|
Now, turning to the law, many will not realise that a baby has no legal existence (and therefore no general independent legal rights) until it is actually born. Mr Justice Mostyn, for example, was crystal clear on this in the first paragraph of his ruling in the recent "forced Caesarian case":
I remind myself that harsh though it is, the interests of this unborn child are not the concern of this court as the child has no legal existence until he or she is born, other in respect of tortious acts committed on him or her.He was of course referring to the position of a pregnancy that was almost at full term, and therefore correctly referred to a "child" in the sense that it was capable of independent existence.
An aborted foetus, or foetus that was miscarried before 24 weeks, is not even capable of being registered at the General Register Office. Only after the 24 week point does the law recognise the possibility of actual life outside the womb, and registration is required, but even then you do not have to name it.
Yet, despite all of the above, we have blogs like the above, and we still have protestors waving pictures of fully developed babies sucking their thumbs in the faces of women seeking termination. They are hammering home the message that this is a cute, cuddly little baby that the women are seeking to murder in cold blood. Let's ignore the fact that actually she's having an entirely legal, common surgical procedure, which in 90% of cases is to remove a cluster of cells of less than 15g in weight, and in many cases is so small that if the woman were to miscarry naturally, it would occur as a particularly heavy period.
The Effect Of The Baby Lie
As a man, I've (duh) obviously never had an abortion. I can't guess what emotions I'd go through leading up to and after it. One friend of mine has had five abortions from aged 20 to 35, before going on to become the very happy mother of two girls. She is quite clear she has zero regrets and is a big pro-choice supporter. Another woman I know became pregnant when a student as the result of a torn condom. She stated 15 years later that she was "glad I had those cells removed from inside me, because it would have wrecked my life having a child then." Both women were apparently quite detached and saw the operations as completely morally-neutral medical procedures.
Yet, of course there are other women who will find the procedure upsetting and in some cases traumatising. Each case is individual. Some will feel great relief, some will have mixed or negative feelings, and some will feel guilt. These feelings may often change over time. None of those feelings is "wrong": no matter how many women might have negative feelings about their decision, the decision to have an abortion always remains with the pregnant woman. Her feelings deserve our support, whatever they are, but her right to access also needs to be supported, regardless.
|Helpful knife image going into a 6 month old baby, there.|
Despite not having been in this position personally, it strikes me as very obvious that the barrage of allegations is bound to have a negative effect on the well-being of those who are seeking terminations, or who have had one. These are about the most serious allegations anyone can make, especially because allegedly living, innocent little children are involved. Such highly emotive language and misleading images are in my opinion utterly lacking in any compassion and designed to hurt individuals in the most deliberate way possible.
One tactic used by the anti-choice lobby is to produce studies that show women are more likely to suffer from depression if they undergo a termination. This paternalistic approach of course seeks to show that they know better than the woman who is actually in the situation. There are counter-studies that down play the effect of terminations on mental well-being: they emphasise the considerable individual good to individual that springs from the relief of ending an unwanted pregnancy. This interesting study further seeks to determine the emotional effects on women denied an abortion and forced to carry a baby against their will, but such research is rare and it is ongoing.
If there are already feelings of guilt, upset and possibly depression after a termination, this unending narrative has the reasonably foreseeable likelihood of making things far worse. It becomes a chicken/egg scenario. Is it the termination that causes ongoing emotional health issues in some, or is it the constant allegation that you're a murderer? If you accept there's any likelihood that this may happen, but still wave placards of live babies with knives above them, and label that Christian compassion, you can keep it. Aggressive anti-choice campaigners might say anything is a price worth paying to "defend the unborn". I however think it's callous and irresponsible to do what they are doing.
I've written before in the New Statesman about the separate issue of balancing the right of free speech for groups like 40 Days for Life with the rights of women to access legal termination services. I naturally don't believe the pro-lifers should be universally gagged, but believe there's a good for preventing them from waving their placards in the face of women directly outside clinics.
The Pro-Life Lie
The next lie is the one that the world should be divided into the two opposing camps of "pro-life" and "pro-choice". By calling themselves "pro-life" the anti-choicers are by definition suggesting that the other side is "pro-death". We've seen it above from one of them: "they want dead babies". Others are far less blunt, but this has to be the implication of this choice of label. That "pro-life" label fits nicely with the murder narrative, but it's not true for a number of reasons.
The first is the basic one that I've already covered: an embryo is not yet a separate life. Is it killing something to amputate a finger? I wouldn't label it as such. Unless you're going to consider individual cellular existence as "life", for me an organism has to have first lived separately for it to die. Unless it's a very unusual post 24 week late term abortion, I'd therefore genuinely never consider a women who had an abortion to have killed anything*. She's simply exercised her reproductive rights over her own body by having a surgical procedure.
|"My body is mine. I decide"|
The second is that just because you are pro-choice, it does not mean you are pro-abortion. The only person entitled to make a choice about a termination is the woman involved. It is a basic issue of human autonomy. No one should be able to determine to her that she must carry a embryo inside her for 9 months and then give birth to the resultant baby. If she does not want to, that should be her choice. It is her body. She has the right to control her reproductive functions in whatever way she chooses. If she wants to remove the proto-life, whose existence is entirely dependent on her body, from her body, that's up to her. I genuinely think it would be outrageous for me to argue otherwise.
Because I'm pro-choice, it doesn't make me think abortions are morally a good thing or a bad thing. All that is important to me is that women have the right to do with their own body as they want. The actual exercise of that informed choice in each individual case is absolutely none of my business.
Likewise if you do not want to have an abortion, do not have one. That will fit entirely with your right to personal autonomy, your religious beliefs about fertilised eggs having little souls, and all the rest of it. I wish you well. It's not a complicated concept - just please accept that others do not share your religious/philosophical definition. The law permits women to make a choice about a termination, that law is supported by the majority of people in this country, and it is for the individual to make up their own mind. The right to choose always, in all cases, includes the right to refuse.
The final point is that even so-called "pro-lifers" are not by any stretch universally pro-life where the woman is concerned. By banning abortions there is a naive belief that they would somehow stop: they have of course existed throughout history illegally and millions of women have died as a result. As Caitlin Moran pointed out yesterday, of the 20 million women who abort illegally around the world every year 47,000 die. This isn't my definition of "pro-life".
Anti-choicers don't seem to be concerned about the effects in terms of quality of life of the woman (and indeed the resultant child) of forcing her to give birth, and provide for a child that she does not want or is unable to support. All that matters to them is that the child is born, for philosophical religious beliefs regarding when life starts.
Moreover, there is of course a much documented and commented on direct correlation between those states in the US where anti-choice movements have the greatest strength, and the ones which have reintroduced the death-penalty. If you Google it, you will find blog after blog by Christians in the US who support state executions based on the Bible (eg. here).
The hypocrisy of a movement that does not care about the well-being of a mother, or of an unwanted child, that supports state executions of adults, and is blind to the reality of tens of thousands dying in botched illegal abortions is very obvious. This is about choosing one aspect of religious dogma and supporting to to exercise control over women. The resultant harm that may be caused to actual living people is either ignored or justified. I find that abhorrent.
To summarise, the anti-choice lobby claims the ground is shifting, despite evidence to support this.
They have deliberately chosen to push the "baby murderer" narrative despite the flaws in it, and the resultant flagrant disregard for the well-being of women who may be in a very difficult personal situation. The tactics I've highlighted aren't by any means universal, but they are widespread and becoming ever more evident. They must, I am sure, have an effect on some. People do not have to buy into the "baby killer" narrative if they do not wish to. I certainly don't: I think it is deliberately malicious, nasty nonsense.
The last lie is that if you are pro-choice, you are pro-abortion and pro-death. You are some kind of Dr Mengele type that wants dead babies. I do not claim that they want dead women: I just think they are willfully blind to the reality that the effects their argument would have if it succeeded. I am glad there argument is failing to gain any traction in this country, and believe they should be challenged.
There are other lies too (abortion gives you breast cancer, etc) but there's only so much oxygen one should give these people. It's your choice whether to believe them or not, just as I believe it's your choice to determine what you do with your body.
* There is a miniscule number of abortions between 24 and 28 weeks in this country. They are very, very rare and are performed only when the foetus cannot possibly survive birth and the woman's health is at risk. A women does not have the right to instigate such an abortion, but she does in fact have the right to refuse it. The moral issue of "kill the women or kill the baby that's going to die anyway" is a bit of a no-brainer for me, and is in any case separate to the discussion of terminating embryos and foetuses before the date of viability.