The abortions we don’t talk about

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

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 Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.


A pregnant woman having some of “the tests”. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.