This is reposted from Shrillblog, a student feminist website which hosts great debates and runs articles on everything from street harassment to body hair. Check it out.
It is often the case that as the economy suffers, political opinion swings towards traditional, and often to the right. The right to abortion was settled a while ago in the UK and the US, or so we thought; US lawmakers are becoming increasingly hostile to abortion, and there has also been a revival in anti-abortion rhetoric in the UK.
One thing should briefly, but emphatically be said: do not think that economic woes and financial crisis should monopolise our efforts and discussion, simply because they are the most pressing or urgent issues. Gayle Rubin, the American feminist and queer theorist, wrote in 1984 that:
to some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous discussion from the more critical problems…But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality…Disputes over sexual behaviour often become the vehicle for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.
When the world begins to shake, people panic, and whilst they panic social justice can be set back decades because sexuality, or abortion, or gay rights are not deemed important enough to be dealing with right now. And that’s precisely why it is imperative that we dodeal with them, right now.
My attention was recently drawn to this blog post, which touches on the central feminist issue in abortion debates: the importance of bodily autonomy. The title introduces the author’s position rather bluntly: ‘Opposing abortion means denying a woman’s right over her own body.’ We’ll skip over the problem of a man without a uterus dismissing the concerns of those of us with uteruses (uteri?)* as ‘ill-advised.’ Yes, men may be involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and their personal feelings on the matter are important in the appropriate contexts. But there is a significant problem with men offering opinions on the specific issue of another person’s bodily autonomy as if their feelings on the matter were unimportant.
The argument in the blog post is quite simple: opponents of abortion do not oppose the right to bodily autonomy; rather, they believe a foetus is a separate life with some rights, and as such they believe that anyone has a right to someone else’s body. Therefore, it is ‘bullshit’ to claim that pro-life supporters don’t think people have a right to control their own bodies. ‘Which, whether you agree…or not, is not that fucking irrational or hard to understand.’
We do understand that. But we also understand that there is much more to the picture.
The question of what rights a foetus has, or whether or not it is even a ‘life’ at all, is widely contested. So let’s leave that behind for a moment. Even if we believe that a foetus has some rights, we can still make the claim that opposing abortion means actively and directly harming people. Rates of abortion do not decrease significantly in countries where abortion is made illegal. People still seek abortions. Often, they find someone to provide them; too often, they find someone who does the procedure unsafely. Too often, they die. This is not irrational, or hard to understand: opposing abortion kills people. It could be argued that these people were prepared to commit a crime, use up their savings and risk their lives all in the name of their bodily autonomy.
We can also easily claim that opposing abortion means denying a person’s right to good mental health. This is so well supported and corroborated that it is frustrating to see pro-life activists deny it so frequently. Some people do regret their abortions, and many find it an emotionally draining or unhappy process; but the consequences of denying abortion and forcing someone to give birth when they do not want to has staggeringly higher mental health risks than abortion does. The only study ever done which claimed to show a link between abortion and mental health problems has been decisively debunked as unscientific. And, of course, listening to people’s stories shows how common feelings of relief, gratitude, and certainty surround real abortions.
Eventually, we get round to the personhood question.
The law in Britain currently allows abortions up until 24 weeks (except in extreme cases). After 24 weeks, it is medically possible for the baby to be born and have a decent chance of survival with medical support. In 2003, the CDC found that in the US, 61% of abortions were completed at less than 8 weeks of gestation, and 88% were completed at less than 13 weeks. At 13 weeks, a foetus is between 2.6 and 3.1 inches and only has a few functioning organs (kidneys and urinary tract); at 8 weeks it’s about the size of a kidney bean, and its bones have only just started to form.
I think it is entirely uncontroversial to say that, going by this data, most abortions occur at a stage when the foetus can only be considered as a part of its mother. A kindey-bean-sized piece of matter is not a person in its own right; a 3-inch-long foetus is not a human life in the same way as the mother is. Taking this position, it is absolutely right to say that opposing abortion means denying a person’s right over their own body. At such an early stage, it is the mother’s body, and some of us do not want to go through the radical changes this tiny proto-baby will create as it grows, let alone go through labour, let alone go through actually raising a child for the next 18 years. Yes, it’s a potential person, but I’ve got a whole army of potential people in my egg-laden loins, and no-one sheds a tear when I get my period (apart from me, although for other reasons). Putting actual people before potential people is such a basic premise it really doesn’t need an explanation, I’m sure.
As for late-term abortions? The CDC study found that 4.2% of abortions occurred at 16-20 weeks, and only 1.4% at more than 21 weeks. They are so rare because there must be danger to the life of the mother (or risk of major injury), or evidence of major foetal abnormality. That last one is perhaps the most controversial, and deserves its own post; for now, I would point out that late-term abortions are rare, hard to obtain, and usually have very good justifications.The basic rule of thumb here is choosing the option that causes the least amount of suffering, and that can get difficult when gestation is so far advanced.
This is what pro-choicers are trying to say. We aren’t irresponsible, callous or unaware of the debate raging around the line between life and not-life. We are recognising the great range of reasons someone might feel pregnancy is a bad situation for them, and indeed for the resulting child. We also recognise that abortion is not the right option for everyone, which is why we’d like the choice. The only other alternative is to force – literally force – some people to give birth, and I challenge anyone to convince me that option is morally superior.
The intention of anti-abortion supporters may not be to harm people, but that is the consequence.
*Throughout this article, I have avoided framing abortion as a ‘woman’s issue’, because this discussion often erases those who want abortions but do not identify as women. I think it is necessary and possible to reframe the abortion debate in an inclusive way without depoliticising it, or removing it from the centre of feminist activism.
Read the response to my article here and get stuck in to the debate.