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The abortions we don’t talk about

Why is there so much implicit judgment about what is never a straightforward moral issue?

A doctor performs a sonogram on a pregnant woman
A pregnant woman having some of “the tests”. Photograph: Getty Images

When I was pregnant with my children, I told people early on – way before the 12-week mark. It’s a decision I don’t regret, particularly when I recall the aftermath of an early miscarriage. Recently, though, I’ve started thinking that I wouldn’t do the same again. It’s not that I’m pregnant now, although you’ll have to take my word for it. The fact is, if I were pregnant, I’m not sure I’d want anyone to know until after I’d had all “the tests”.

I am on the wrong side of 35. The side upon which, apparently, everything goes horribly, horribly wrong, at least if you’re female. Reproductively you’re running out of time but as if that wasn’t bad enough, like Jackie in Footballer’s Wives, you start getting “rotten eggs”. You might still have a baby, but it might not be as healthy as the babies you could have had earlier (we’re assuming you’ve always had money and been in a stable relationship; if not, well, you just don’t deserve a baby, ever). That said, it’s probably best not to worry about it. After all, who do you think you are? You’re not some Nazi eugenicist, you’re a pregnant woman, and it’s time to start acting like one. The trouble is, I’m not sure I’d be prepared to do that.

Every year, there are women who will have late abortions due to the discovery of some form of foetal impairment. In some cases the foetus or baby would die anyhow, so that’s okay (unless we’re in Ireland, in which case, tough; carry your baby to term and watch it die in the name of “life”). But in some cases the pregnancy would lead to a live birth with the baby going on to have a relatively normal life expectancy, yet requiring constant care. I am not sure, as a mother, that I could make that commitment. Neither am I sure that it would be fair to ask the children I already have to take over after I am gone. And as the sibling of someone who does require ongoing care, I’m under no illusions about what how hard it can be and what lies in wait for me. I wouldn’t be able to face more than I already have to. Does that mean someone like me should just never get pregnant again? I think I am an okay mother; surely I am as deserving of this chance as anyone else?

I will be totally honest: when I read or hear potential parents saying that they “wouldn’t care” whether or not their child was seriously disabled, I am just a little bit furious. Furious at the way in which they belittle the impact that serious disability can have on so many people’s lives, and furious at the implicit judgement of those who do care, people who might have good reason not be so glib. Late-term abortions based on foetal impairment are difficult decisions. I don’t know what the “right” decision for an individual should be but anyone, before they embark on such a challenging path, ought to really, really care.

This week the Telegraph is reporting on IVF pregnancies being terminated when women “learn the child is less than perfect”:

Andrea Williams of the group Christian Concern said: “We have to question the values of a society which focuses so greatly on adult ‘wants’.

“That a woman pursues a baby through fertility treatment and then aborts it because it is not perfect is selfish and harsh.”

Do you know, if it wasn’t for all the help my parents and I get from organisations such as Christian Concern and Life and SPUC, this sort of thing would really annoy me. Oh, hang on – we don’t get any help from these self-satisfied, judgmental bullies. Just spite and meanness and pointless words. How dare anyone speak of someone else’s suffering and loss in this way?

It is impossible to write honestly about how difficult being a carer can be because another person – the person you care for – is involved and their dignity has to be preserved. This is why women such as Andrea Williams can make heartless comments about “wants” and “perfection” without others being able to challenge her with the realities of their own lives. I am not suggesting that this type of abortion is a straightforward moral issue – it’s the only instance where your choice is based on the specifics of the foetus, and not you – but I find the attitudes of groups such as Christian Concern hateful. It must be agonising for someone who wants a baby so badly and who has got so far to have to make this choice. I could never argue against it because it’s a choice I’d probably make myself.

And what’s more I think I could make it and still look the person I have to care for straight in the eye and admit to what I’d done. It’s not that I would not want this person to exist. It’s that I wouldn’t want another person with the same wants and needs in our lives. And actually – I have no doubt of this – neither would he.

This post first appeared here on glosswatch.com. Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.