Is Abortion Debatable?

By Ann Furedi
Spring 2002

Throughout the 1970s, the arguments for a woman’s right to choose seemed relatively straightforward to those who believed themselves to be progressive thinkers. “Free abortion on demand” was a central tenet of the women’s liberation movement in Europe and North America. It was understood that women needed to control their fertility if they were to participate in society on equal terms with men and, since contraception sometimes failed, legal abortion was essential if women were also to enjoy their sexuality. To argue against “the right to choose” was to argue that women should fulfill their traditional domestic destiny as wives and mothers at a time when sexual freedom and women’s economic independence were celebrated. Abortion was situated in the context of social equality. In Western societies, to argue for “the right to abortion on demand” was to be radical, to argue against it was to be reactionary. The lines were clearly drawn.

Today, abortion is no longer a left versus right, radical versus reactionary, feminist versus anti-feminist issue. The debate is more complex and the arguments are more textured-to some they seem more confused. The 21st century sees the issue of abortion debated in a new, seemingly contradictory, context. On the one hand, the abortion debate, from both pro- and anti-choice perspectives, has become more globalized. On the other hand, it seems to be less homogenized-more a tapestry of gray shades than the black and white of polarization.

The globalization of the antiabortion debate is often seen as the export of the peculiar American brand of religious intolerance that underpins much of the anti-choice discussion in the US. And it is clearly true that antichoice groups in Europe, Africa and South America draw financial and organizational support from the antiabortion conglomerates based in the US. Leaflets used in countries as different as Poland, Ireland and the UK differ from those found in the US only in that they have different contact addresses. The same footage appears in videos screened in Russia and Mexico.

Arguments developed by the antichoice movement to address developments in the US are reproduced abroad, sometimes with an amusing lack of regard for the regional specificities. For example, in the late 1990s, literature that graphically described a surgical method of abortion that had caused outraged debate in the US generated parliamentary discussion in Britain-despite the fact that UK health officials assured politicians that the technique was not, and never had been, used in the UK.

Prochoice arguments have also assumed a more international expression, with abortion now seen as a basic reproductive health care need and the denial of abortion presented as the denial of a basic human freedom to plan one’s family. In the 1970s and 1980s, radicals argued for legalized abortion in the developed world to allow sexual freedom, while in the developing world, legal abortion was seen as a means to reduce the poverty caused by population expansion. Today there is a more cohesive understanding of the reason why abortion is necessary, based on an almost universal recognition that planned parenthood is responsible and desirable, and that women throughout the world wish to separate sex from procreation. These prochoice assumptions have become incorporated in establishment thinking as can be seen by its inclusion in the international human rights agenda. Despite the influence of the Vatican in undermining attempts to have the need for legal abortion included in the Programme of Action that followed the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the need for women to be able to have abortions safely is implicit. For example, the Cairo conference affirmed that abortion should not be promoted as a method of family planning but recognized that women should have access to quality services for the management of abortion complications. Five years later, at a follow up session of the UN General Assembly, this was expanded into an agreement that, where abortion is permitted, health workers should be trained and equipped to provide safe accessible services. The underlying message is clearly that abortion cannot be prevented and so has to be managed.

It seems paradoxical that while the abortion debate has become more global and more uniform, there has been a shift away from moral certainty and towards moral confusion.

Today, there are fewer “fundamentalists” on either side of the debate. Just a tiny-if vocal-minority believe that abortion is always wrong. Even most of those who campaign for tighter legal restrictions concede that there are circumstances when abortion may be legitimate. But, on the other side of the debate, there are fewer voices prepared to argue a robust defense of a woman’s absolute right to choose abortion. Sometimes objections are made to reasons for which the abortion decision is made (for example, some believe abortion on grounds of abnormality is uncomfortably close to eugenics), sometimes a line is drawn at a particular gestational limit.

The issues surrounding late abortions are particularly contentious. We understand more than ever about fetal development and there is increasing speculation about when a fetus becomes “aware.” Techniques in fetal medicine have made it easier to sustain the lives of severely premature babies. Infants can now be saved at gestations when fetuses can be legally aborted. Increasingly, obstetricians talk of having two patients-the woman and the fetus. Discussions about the rights of the child (and, indeed, the rights some bestow on animals) have encouraged debates about what rights, if any, should be conferred on the fetus-and if not, why not. Whereas the abortion debates in the 1970s were about the social status of women, today’s discourse increasingly focuses on the ethical status of the fetus.

A recent MORI poll in the UK found that just 15 percent of those questioned disapproved of abortion when a child would be born with serious physical disabilities. Those who support abortion in these circumstances often argue that it is wrong for a child to be born into a life of pain and suffering-in other words, the abortion is perceived to be in the interests of the child. The prochoice chant “every child a wanted child” (which focuses on the well-being of the child) seems a more comfortable, less contentious slogan that its counterpart of “every mother a willing mother.” Attention is focused even more intensely on the fetus in the US where anti-choice campaigns have appropriated the “feminist” concerns about male violence and maternity benefits to argue that the fetus should have status as a person. Last year saw moves to entitle fetuses to be recipients of health care benefits, and potential legislation to make assault of an “unborn child” a crime.

The extent of moral confusion, or perhaps cynicism, is starkly illustrated by the recent referendum in Ireland. Had the proposition not been defeated it would have led to an even greater tightening of the already impossibly restrictive grounds on which a woman could terminate a pregnancy. At the same time, the Catholic-dominated political class wished to clarify that emergency contraception was not an abortifacient by defining abortion as the termination of pregnancy, postimplantation. The softening on emergency contraception was clearly seen as a political trade-off, a measure to help women avoid abortion, a clear case of politics not principle. Ironically, while those supporting restrictive abortion in Ireland were pursuing this argument, in England, a non-Catholic anti-abortion organization had taken legal action to try to determine that emergency contraception was an abortifacient since it has the potential to interrupt the implantation of a fertilized egg.

Few people today are enthusiastic about abortion. It is reluctantly accepted as a part of modern life. In so far as there is a consensus on the abortion debate it is probably an agreement that it would be better if the need for abortion could be eliminated. Conservatives see this as being achieved by bolstering the status of marriage and encouraging abstention outside it. Liberals promote the avoidance of abortion by better use of contraception.

But in reality, abortion cannot be eliminated and it is up for debate about whether the number of abortions may be reduced. It may be that the almost universal acceptance of the need for planned parenthood ultimately depends on the availability of abortion.

The central feature of the abortion debate today is that it has become demoralized. There is little argument for an absolute right of the fetus to life, but also less for the absolute autonomy of women. Arguments from both sides of the debate focus on what is pragmatic more than what is principled. And sometimes pragmatism can be dressed up as principle and sometimes it can cross-dress in the other direction with principle disguised as pragmatism. Arguably, the issue most likely to engage all perspectives in the global abortion debate is not so much whether or when the embryo/fetus is deserving of respect per se, but how much respect and value we accord to a life (that does not even know it is alive) relative to the respect and value we have for the life of the woman who carries it. It may be that this will sit more easily with policymakers and the public because it allows for the triumph of compromise over what is perceived as “fundamentalism” or “extremism.”

Ann Furedi is the former director of communications at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

Catholics for Choice