Abortion: cultural values of life and choice

Abortion is one area which I have generally avoided posting about. I’ve avoided it because my views are complex and ambivalent, because for many, due to personal experience, it is a sensitive area, and because in some ways I feel like we shouldn’t have to keep debating it because the debate in itself seems at times to just through existing undermine our cultural confidence in the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies. However, as twitter seems in the last few days to have been awash with young white uterus-free persons freely and in a non-nuanced way stating their views on what legislation should restrict women’s decisions, under the guise of “reason”, I thought I would post something to explore the issues.

The first time I became (unconsciously) aware of abortion was down to a vinyl single I bought some time in the late 80s. The single was a cover of “California Dreaming” by “River City People” – I don’t remember much about the group other than that I think the singer had one of those massive velvet skirts that were popular at the time. And maybe a bowler hat. The b-side on the single, which I quickly learnt and can remember bellowing (innocently) in the way that you do with even the most obscure and/or tuneless b-sides when you’re a kid who has recently discovered the top forty, was called “carry the blame”, a sort of pro-life synthesised lament, including lyrics such as

“Each day I carry the blame
Cover the cost
Of those children whose names,
Forever are lost
We must be guilty of murder.
Measure my words
Of babies whose crying
Will never be heard.”

(Full lyrics here: http://www.lyricsvip.com/River-City-People/Carry-the-Blame-Lyrics.html)

Looking back, it seems a bit odd. A lot odd. About five or six years later, I had bought some vinyl (about the time it was starting to become a bit hip and retro, cds were coming in) and was reaquainting myself with my early (not very hip) PWL vinyl when I came across it again and actually understood what the lyrics were about. I felt a bit sick.

Women’s rights are increasingly under attack in the land of the free, where evangelist libertarians preach freedom for big business and big state control of women’s bodies, and state legislation is starting to build. Here in the UK, feminist groups have been horrifed at the arrival of US style organisations (such as 40 days for life) who are targetting abortion clinics nationally and have been accused of filming, obstructing and generally intimidating clients on their way in. While there has been little official government comment on the rise of these groups or the need to police their activity effectively, in the last couple of days Nadine Dorries has triumphantly announced the seizure of documents giving evidence of illegal abortion practices which will now be dealt with by people’s health champion Andrew Lansley and the police. Incidentally, the illegality relates to doctors signatures being put onto paperwork in advance, not anything gruesome. In case anyone was wondering.

I absolutely believe that intimidation tactics have no place in protest – this extends across my political beliefs. You won’t find me angrily challenging people on the picket line. I believe strongly that wealth should be redistributed globally, but I don’t believe violent revolutionary tactics will take us there. I am an animal rights advocate but abhor the tactics used by extremist animal rights groups – tactics which are probably driven by the same passionate beliefs about preservation of life, albeit about animals, as held by pro-lifers. Where an ethical issue is a matter of debate – such as the life issue, both for animals and foetuses – then intimidation or social control are not the way forward.

My views on abortion are as follows. I would not personally choose to have an abortion, any more than I would personally choose to eat a bacon sandwich. I don’t have any right to judge a person who would do either, because all they are doing is following their own set of values, much as I try (with varying degrees of success) to follow mine. I believe that women are, just like any adult making a decision about eating a meat product, old enough and wise enough to make their own decision on the matter. Oddly, there aren’t any pro-life pickets outside butchers shops, so presumably women’s choices about their own bodies are thought to be less driven by rational logical adult processes than choices about eating meat. Once you take religion out of the picture, the issues are very similar, and relate to ending life of a creature which does not have conscious thought (if anything, an animal has a proven experience of pain, so the foetus is less of a moral issue, as it does not). The different ways in which society discusses and polices the choices people make generally in eating meat and the choices women make about abortion tells us a lot about the extent to which society still has massive advances to make in acknowledging and protecting women’s status as rational decision makers.

I don’t think that religion should have a place in the argument, other than in terms of advising those who have chosen to follow aforementioned religion, and it baffles me that in a modern enlightened society religious groups, rather than scientists, seem to set the lines for investigation in terms of abortion. A religion is basically an ethical set, much like any other, and I see no reason for privileging any one ethical set over another in state legislation without evidence. I do believe that scientific investigations need (as they already do) to look at the development of the experience of pain and consciousness, the two key factors. I think they could do this more effectively without the influence of religious lobbying groups, who presumably place ensoulment as taking place much earlier than the abortion cut off point any way, so I suspect are being somewhat misleading about their desire to respect medical knowledge in these areas.

I think eugenics is one extra problematic issue which further muddies the waters. The abortion of babies on the basis of gender or non pain-related disability (e.g. DS) is very very troubling indeed. I understand and agree with the argument that the principle of a woman’s right and ability to chose without the involvement of the state has to be universal, but I find genetic based abortions open a whole can of genetically modified worms. In a way, it would be easier if these things were not revealed until after the abortion mark. Then again, withholding information is in itself a form of restricting women’s choices. Really the battle should be to make a society where genders are accepted equally, and where the disabled are respected as having the same human rights and involvement within society as anyone else – make that society, and you won’t find those kind of genetics based abortions taking place.

The main thing which the majority of the pro-life right wing gets very wrong is their inability to drive for legislation to support parents. They are happy to paint a glowing picture of the saved innocents, but make no attempt to agitate for the social support of parenthood to make a happy childhood a reality. Dorries’ constant hammering of the pro-life agenda comes hand in hand with a volley of hard hits against mothers: sure start centres closed or internal funding slashed, the health in pregnancy grant gone, front line health visitor posts axed, care to learn (the grant which supports young parents in returning to education or employment) in jeopardy, Access course (which have traditionally provided the pathway to higher education for those with dependents) funding cut, welfare capping which will push thousands of children into poverty, and a hegemonic narrative mainly found across the media but reinforced in official government statements and policy which paints young or single mothers not as democratic participants within society but as scrounging parasites.

It doesn’t make any sense, but the principle seems to be life itself is very important, but the quality of life once a foetus becomes a child ultimately is not.

Useful further reading:

Pro-choice from a Christian perspective: http://petitefeministe.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/christianity-and-the-abortion-rights-battle/

Why do we abort: experiences of a woman who has worked in women’s services: http://samambreen.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/why-do-we-abort/

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