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Laurie Penny: An ideological case for abortion on demand.

Women shouldn’t apologise for having surgery.

When will women be allowed to stop apologising for having abortions? This week, news came in that 34 per cent of women who terminated pregnancies in 2009 had already had one termination -- including "dozens" of teenage girls on their third abortion. Seven dozen, in fact, totalling a huge 0.04 per cent of all terminations.

Conservative commentators wasted no time lathering themselves into a foam of moral approbation, declaring the statistics an "appalling" demonstration of "the failure of . . . values-free sex education" and raising concerns that "abortion is being used as a form of contraception".

"These statistics are tragic," said one American source. Are they really? With teenage abortions rising at roughly the same rate as teenage births are falling, the new statistics could be viewed as cause to celebrate that fewer young women are bringing unwanted children into the world. For the moral minority, whose ideal solution to teenage pregnancy seems to be the confinement of all girl-children in windowless cells until their wedding day, acknowledging that abortion can have positive ramifications is a stumbling block -- but the 76 per cent of Britons who are pro-choice have been slow to argue that not every abortion is an occasion for abject contrition.

Even the feminist left has a tendency to triangulate on abortion. At a pro-choice rally in October 2008, I was disappointed to hear the current Labour leadership candidate Diane Abbott declare that "every abortion is a tragedy". Abbott, who tabled amendments to the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to extend legal abortion to women in Northern Ireland, is uncomplicatedly a pro-choice hero -- yet even she seemed to feel a need to justify women's right to control their own bodies on the basis of remorse.

The notion that repeat abortions in particular are "tragic" cuts to the heart of liberal-conservative moral posturing on the issue. One abortion might just be permissible, but only as long as the woman in question feels sad about it for the rest of her life and never does it again. An ideological carapace of secrecy and shame still encases public discussion of abortion, and the right-wing press is careful to paint women who have multiple terminations as heartless, amoral strumpets.

According to the finger-jabbing conservative commentariat, abortion has become a sexy "lifestyle" option, with teenage girls popping in for quick terminations between geography and double maths, reading emails and filing their nails while hunky doctors carry out the procedure with sparkly pink surgical implements. In the real world, abortion is a painful inconvenience. Smilarly, appendectomy, the most common occasion for minor surgery, is not considered a "tragedy", but nor is it the social event of the season. There are many reasons why a woman might find herself in need of a second or third termination, from a history of abuse, to bad luck, to simple carelessness. None of these should be reasons to withhold abortion as a health-care service.

"I've had two abortions, at different times in my life and for different reasons," said Anna, 34. "If one believes in the right to choose, then as far as I'm concerned, that right doesn't disappear after you've chosen once. It's not a fun procedure, and ideally no one would have to have it, but to make moral judgements about someone who's done it more than once is to make a judgement on the existence of the procedure at all."

The NHS is not a moral arbiter, and doctors never refuse to treat addicts, alcoholics, or gang members who acquire wounds in senseless combat. Only women with unwanted pregnancies are obliged to justify their health-care decisions before receiving treatment.

The legal status of abortion in Britain is so encrusted with misogynist moral debris that, four decades after legalisation, women still have to obtain permission from not one, but two doctors, a legal requirement that delays the process, wastes NHS time and prolongs the unnecessary fear and anxiety associated with seeking abortion in Britain today.

"The worst part of the whole ordeal was obtaining the abortion -- going from doctor to doctor, getting two signatures, worrying I wouldn't be able to get an appointment," says Dawn, 23, who had a termination last year. "I felt as though my body didn't belong to me because I hadn't been able to control my fertility despite my best efforts -- I was on the implant. The thought of having to have a child I didn't want was terrifying."

Like many women, Dawn has never regretted her abortion, saying that "after the procedure I felt that I had control of my life again. I never felt that I should have done anything differently. All I felt was relief, not tragedy."

Many women do feel sadness or grief after having an abortion, and those feelings deserve respect. However, to state that "every abortion is a tragedy" undermines the plethora of powerful arguments for choice. Reproductive health care should not be a source of shame. With British women's right to make decisions about their own bodies under threat from pro-life pundits within Westminster, now is the time for the pro-choice lobby to cease pandering to conservative propaganda and start building an ideological case for abortion on demand.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.