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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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.