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Moving beyond abortion law (Part 2): Change culture, not law

4 Feb

As I go through my MA,  I am encountering many ideas  which are becoming integral to my activism and politics, so I am going to write a series of posts which make some of those ideas clear and accessible. The first one was about how abortion law in the UK actually works, and how it regulates women as much as liberates them. This, part two, will look at why changing abortion law might  not actually increase access to abortion services, and why the cultural narrative about abortion needs to change.

 

As we have seen, the medicalisation of abortion in the UK has couched the issue in scientific, politically ‘neutral’ terms in law. This creates pretence that abortion is a private medical decision one makes about one’s health, and an exercise of an individual right. I explored in my previous post that this medicalisation also means greater surveillance and control of women’s bodies.

So, if it’s the medicalised language that’s the problem, we should just change the law, right? The problem is, a legal right cannot guarantee good access to abortion. As we’ve seen in the US, where abortion is enshrined in the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, there are some states where abortion access is so poor it may as well be banned.

Also, dealing with abortion purely from the perspective of legal rights plays into the neoliberal fetishisation of ‘choice’ as an end in itself. The language of rights claims is individualistic and shies away from the reality that access to abortion is a societal problem. Taking into account the realities of hospital care, adoption processes, and the state’s contribution to childcare costs, unwanted children are a physical, emotional and financial burden on society, not just the unwilling parent. Therefore, abortion is not an issue for individual women but for society as whole.

This is not to reject rights claims as unimportant. The right to abortion is, of course, fundamentally important to women’s reproductive freedom, and framing social justice issues in terms of rights legitimizes them. However, as Carol Smart wrote in Feminism and the power of Law that “in accepting law’s terms in order to challenge law, feminism always concedes too much,” and that applies significantly to abortion if feminists stop short at rights-based claims and do not recognise the restricted freedom a formal right entails.

Many people have a top-down approach to law which implies a change in the legal framework would trickle down to change cultural discourses. Changing abortion law in the hope that it would improve women’s reproductive freedom and access to services still plays in to the fallacy that  that society follows law, when in fact there are strongly rooted cultural discourses around abortion which make access difficult. The reality is, law generally follows society. Look at the Equal Marriage campaign – it’s happening now because legislators are finally catching up with a society that is increasingly supportive of LGBT equality.

There is no silver-bullet approach to achieving the feminist aim of reproductive freedom. However, be wary of approaches which only aim at changing the law. Reforming existing legislation on abortion in the UK is unlikely to shift power from doctors to pregnant women, because there is no indication that MPs want to de-medicalise the existing Abortion Act. Changing abortion law does not guarantee a wider change in the manner that medicine and the law approaches women’s bodies; it certainly doesn’t solve the problem of anti-abortion sentiments and cultural stereotypes of women who seek abortions as irresponsible or immoral.

Carol Smart warns us that “it is impossible to ensure that legislation, once in force, will be used progressively in the future,” and we still believe that changing the law solves our problems[1]. What we really need to change is cultural attitudes, the attitudes which lead even pro-choice campaigners to say “every abortion is a tragedy”[2]. These ideas can be challenged, but not simply by law; we have to fight misinformation and misrepresentation of abortion everywhere we see it (we also need to improve sex education, but that is a whole other post!). If they are challenged by feminist campaigns, and a wide enough slice of society shifts its values, only then can abortion legislation eventually change to become feminist and woman-centred.


[1] Smart, 106.

[2] Diane Abbot, MP, in Hansard HC Debate, 31st October, 2012, Volume 522, Part 60, Column 89WH, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm121031/halltext/121031h0001.htm#12103141000308 [accessed 19th December, 2012].

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Moving beyond abortion law (Part 1): Medical surveillance

20 Dec

As I go through my MA,  I am encountering many ideas  which are becoming integral to my activism and politics, so I am going to write a series of posts which make some of those ideas clear and accessible. This first one is about how abortion law in the UK actually works, and how it regulates women as much as liberates them. Part 2 looks at why changing abortion law might  not actually increase access to abortion services, and why the cultural narrative about abortion needs to change.

There is a traditional narrative which holds that to increase women’s freedom, the law must be changed and liberalised until we achieve the rights we desire. This narrative equates liberal laws and rights with freedom; however, in the case of abortion law, what appears to be liberal can in truth be regulatory, and what appears a ‘right to choose’ may not exist at all.

The decision of whether or not to have an abortion in the UK does not lie in the hands of the pregnant woman but in those of the two doctors whose signature is required for the procedure. From the Abortion Act itself:

(1)Subject to the provisions of this section, a person shall not be guilty of an offence under the law relating to abortion when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith—

(a)that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family; or

(b)that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or

(c)that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or

(d)that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

In some respects, this law is incredibly permissive. It is easily proven that continuation of pregnancy is more risky than a termination for women in terms of both physical and mental health: more women die in childbirth than from abortion procedures each year, and any indication that a woman’s pregnancy is unwanted suggests her mental health would be at risk if forced to continue with it.* It is therefore very easy for doctors to grant abortions under these regulations.

However, you’ll note that the Act emphasises  the requirement to see numerous doctors. Often women seeking abortions must also see a counsellor. This means that women’s reproductive freedom is heavily regulated by the state; it isn’t enough for a woman to want an abortion, a woman must have an acceptable reason for having one. Maxine Lettimer did a study which found that even if it didn’t reflect their lives, women seeking abortions framed their decisions in the terms of the Abortion Act in order to appear to be having an ‘acceptable’ abortion to the medical professionals they encountered.**  This  means that despite appearing liberal and permissive, UK abortion law actually places women’s bodies under subtle but pervasive medical surveillance.

This is something which many people may not realise, as the language of science and medicine is often seen as neutral and apolitical. Actually, this control of  women’s bodies and their fertility has been a concern for medicine and the law for centuries.  The female body has been conceived of by those male-dominated institutions as a mysterious, unpredictable and occasionally dangerous entity; although women have been entering the legal and medical professions for many years now, this cultural attitude still exists. For example, Victorians believed women were controlled by their reproductive cycles; how many times have you heard comments about PMS, hormones, and biological clocks affecting women’s decision-making?

In law, women’s bodies have been treated paradoxically as both dangerous and weak, and their bodily autonomy has been threatened by the law as much as it has been protected. The Contagious Diseases Acts 1864-69 saw women suspected of prostitution (and therefore potentially spreading VD) subjected to intrusive examinations and locked up for up to a year. In rape trials, defence lawyers seek to redefine women’s own accounts of their autonomy by suggesting that violation of women’s bodies can be ‘disproven’ by evidence of previous consent and what the victim wore.  Abortion law continues this legal regulation of women’s bodies by deferring to doctors, not the pregnant woman herself, to determine whether she should continue to nurture a foetus or not. This can never be acceptable for feminists, and we should be wary of a legal framework that allows that to happen.

There is a difficulty for feminists in protesting the power remaining in doctors’ hands, however.  Judges’ deferral to medical opinion when abortion cases reach the courts has been to the advantage of women who want abortions but whose parents or partners are attempting to prevent the procedure. There have been several unsuccessful cases of fathers or husbands seeking to legally prevent their wives’ abortions (see Paton v. BPAS and C. v. S.), in which judges have cited the doctors’ approval of the wives’ abortions (not the women’s desire to abort the foetus in their body) as the deciding factor.

Therefore, operating within this legal framework is unlikely to yield feminist results. However, if we consider a feminist aim to be abortions on request and “as early as possible, as late as necessary,” then it is important to consider how much achieving that aim would actually increase women’s reproductive freedoms. Societal and cultural factors are equally (perhaps more) important in forming narratives around abortion and women’s bodies, and formal recognition of a right does not get rid of real-life (substantive) obstacles that might hinder women even if the right to abortion on request were granted them. It is to these factors that feminists must turn to in order to achieve their aims.

In part 2, I look at why changing abortion law might  not actually increase access to abortion services, and why the cultural narrative about abortion needs to change.

 

*For physical effects of childbirth vs. abortion, see Elizabeth G. Raymond and David A. Grimes, “The Comparative Safety of Legal Induced Abortion and Childbirth in the United States” Obstetrics and Gynecology  119:2 (part 1), (February 2012). For mental health of abortion ‘turnaways’ vs. women granted abortion, see M. Antonia Biggs et al., “Mental health and physical health consequences of abortion compared to unwanted birth,” presented at the American Public Health Association meeting on 30/10/12, https://apha.confex.com/apha/140am/webprogram/Paper263888.html.

**Maxine Lettimer, “Dominant Ideas versus Women’s Reality: Hegemonic Discourse in British Abortion Law” in Abortion Law and Politics Today ed. Ellie Lee (Hampshire and New York, N.Y: Palgrave, 1998).

Was Sarah Catt’s sentence justified?

28 Nov

This article was originally written for the Brighton Feminist Collective.

In September, Sarah Catt was sentenced under section 58 to eight years’ imprisonment for procuring her own miscarriage. When she was close to term, she bought the drug misoprostol, commonly used to induce labour in pregnant women, and took it in her home. She later told police the baby was stillborn. Although it is not illegal to induce your own pregnancy and give birth unattended in your own home, it is an offence secretly to dispose of a child’s body after it is born, under section 60 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

However, Catt was not charged with disposing of a stillborn child’s body. She was instead charged with aborting a baby beyond the 24-week legal limit, the judge determining that Catt’s intent was to abort, not to induce labour. The judge, Mr Justice Cooke, also said: “‘There is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act, whatever view one takes of its provisions which are, wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand prior to 24 weeks with the approval of registered medical practitioners.”

I urge you to read that again: “…wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand…” It may be surprising to hear a judge expand so far beyond the remit of a case; however, Cooke’s pronouncement appears less surprising once you know that he is vice-president of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship. The LCF lobby the government on abortion, and their former Director of Public Policy, Andrea Minichiello Williams, said in 2008 that abortion is the work of the devil. One wonders whether Catt would have received the same sentence from a judge without such a vehement opposition to abortion law.

Of course, the media are doing some sentencing of their own. Not content with reporting the facts on a complicated case, tabloids and broadsheets alike have honed in on Catt’s personal life. The affair she was having. The children she had already had. Her previous abortion. As if her previous decisions about her body or her relationships shed any light on her decision to induce labour (or, have an illegal abortion). The Daily Mail, predictably, indicated their attitude with the headline: “Eight years for the cheating wife who used drugs bought online to abort baby TWO days before it was due to be born.”

The Mail also referred to the drug Catt bought as ‘poison.’ Doctors might dispute that. In 2010, an Australian couple were in court charged with a similar offence; Professor Nicholas Fisk, giving an expert testimonial, explained that misoprostol is a commonly prescribed drug, and as this article notes, it is on the World Health Organisation’s essential medicines list for (amongst other uses) labour induction. The couple in this case were acquitted.

It is unclear why Sarah Catt made the decision she did. But, as feminists, we should be concerned that the law can be so moulded to fit the political vagaries of whichever judge presides over a case. We should also be concerned that the media are framing Catt’s decision as one influenced by an ‘immoral’ lifestyle. When access to early and safe abortions is being attacked by government itself, and when NHS services are being threatened, we should be thinking about the web of societal and medical obstacles which might lead to more women ending up in Sarah Catt’s position. Simply pushing for legal reform will not help women access the support they need; too often these reforms are discussed without listening to women’s voices, and leave substantive access problems untouched. Sarah Catt has been held up by the press as the archetypal bad mother, a cheater and a liar who wanted to kill her baby. Her story is more than that. It asks of us, what led this woman to make such a decision? And how can we stop this from happening again?

Abortion, veganism and the death penalty: Why Santorum’s ‘all life is sacred’ stance is contradictory

28 Nov
Recently, Rick Santorum said in an interview with Piers Morgan that if his daughter were raped, he would forbid her from having an abortion. His fervent anti-choice stance deems any abortion an act of murder, no matter how a foetus is conceived, and instead pregnancy must be accepted as a gift from God to be cherished. There are many anti-choicers who would deem abortion excusable on the grounds of rape and incest, but one thing I will say for Santorum – he is at least consistent.
Or is he? In the same interview, Santorum was confronted with the contradiction in his beliefs that all life is sacred (therefore abortion is murder), but the state can choose to kill someone who has committed a crime. He answered, “I would say when there is certainty – and there are occasions when there is certainty – that’s the case when capital punishment can be used.” Life is sacred…unless you’ve definitely committed a crime, in which case, an eye for an eye.
It seems that rather than following an absolute belief – the sanctity of life – Santorum is simply offering up Republican™ views in order to appeal to voters, or because he doesn’t believe in the sanctity of life and hates women instead, which I tend to believe.
I am pro-choice, and oppose the death penalty, and am vegan. I have been accused of being as dogmatic in my views as Santorum – I am a Feminist™ therefore pro-choice, a Bleeding Heart Liberal™ therefore vegan – without considering that a vegan lifestyle which involves the avoidance of killing and suffering directly contradicts my acceptance of abortion. How can I wax indignant about people killing animals and supporting capital punishment when I would be quite happy to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy?
The answer is that I do not believe, as Santorum purports to, that all life is sacred. This is not the view underpinning my vegan lifestyle, or opposition to capital punishment. What underpins the former is the belief that killing for nothing other than greed or pleasure is morally wrong; what underpins the latter that killing in a system that defines murder as legally and morally wrong is contradictory, barbaric and shows a level of violence out of step with the values of our society.
So, can I apply these statements to abortion, and come out of it unscathed? People do not have abortions in order to feel pleasure or out of greed, in the way they kill animals in order to tantalise their tastebuds, and for no other reason. In fact, people have very good reasons for having abortions, such as mental health, financial constraints, emotional un-readiness for parenthood, health issues, or the desire to have bodily autonomy.
We punish those who murder because they cause a huge amount of suffering. A murder victim leaves behind distraught family and friends, because the person they killed has, in their life, established bonds and connections, engendered emotions, created art, made people laugh or simply improved someone else’s life just by existing. The same is true for victims of capital punishment.
An unwanted foetus, by contrast, has not made the same impact on others’ lives. It is not, in the fullest sense of the word, alive, or conscious. We ensure this by restricting abortions beyond the 24-week mark, where the line becomes very blurred. Ultimately, the life and well-being (bodily or emotional) of the fully-conscious and developed person whose body is being transformed to house a collection of cells which may, one day, become a baby, is the priority.
This is not to shy away from the facts. Although in the early stages of pregnancy a foetus is, as I have said, not truly a person with rights and hopes and dreams, an abortion cuts off a potential life, and many argue that the only way to look at this scenario is, if not murder, then killing. That’s fine. Because killing the foetus growing in my uterus, with no suffering on its part and minimal on mine (because abortion is proven to be much safer than childbirth), is preferable to being forced to give birth to a baby I don’t want (if you want proof of that, then here it is).
Therefore, relying on the maxim ‘all life is sacred’ provides a dangerous license to actually inflict suffering on people. Instead, why not try the maxim, ‘I’ll try to avoid killing and suffering when it is not necessary.’ This is, if anything, the belief underpinning my world view. Abortion is necessary, for a vast number of reasons. A plate of steak, for many of us, is not; nor is state-sanctioned murder. Nor is a country rules by Rick Santorum, for that matter.

On abortion – Don’t patronise pro-choicers. We understand the pro-life position; we just don’t buy it

28 Nov

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.
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