The compassionate case for legal abortion

Abortion is society’s understanding that pregnancy isn’t always like a Pampers advert.

Yesterday marked a return to normality for BPAS in Bedford Square, London. For the past forty days, the abortion clinic has been the subject of a political furore thanks to the arrival of 40 Days for Life – a Christian group of anti-abortionists who have been picketing outside.

I actually temped as a receptionist for a company on Bedford Square last year, so I had the pleasure of seeing 40 Days for Life’s previous few excursions every single morning. Back then the group consisted of about five slightly forlorn-looking Christians, rather than the two hundred-plus throng that greeted the clinic last Friday. I remember dropping off some post at the clinic once, and as I left a protester blocked my way and attempted to hand me a photo of a dead foetus. I think I screamed some kind of profanity-laden disapproval at him (and inevitably, it was a him) and sashayed off. I probably advanced whatever terrible stereotype of feminists he already harboured, but I didn’t particularly care. The next day I returned and gave the staff at BPAS a box of biscuits, so they knew that some people did appreciate their existence.

It’s not surprising that the pro-choice reaction to groups like 40 Days of Life is often one of anger. As a single, precariously-employed young woman, the idea that I would have no choice over whether to continue a pregnancy horrifies me. It makes me feel as though something fundamental about myself is being violated. That’s why the dominant argument in favour of legal abortion rightfully focuses upon choice: because it seems barbaric to deny women autonomy over their bodies and lives when such a thing is medically and socially possible.

But I would like to offer another argument in favour of legal abortion. It’s an argument that, to me, is important because it is currently being employed as a reason to take abortion away. It is the argument of compassion.

The new wave of anti-abortion protests in this country are couching their motivations in the language of compassion: they argue that abortion is bad for women, and that it is for the sake of women that clinics like BPAS should be reined in. Take Nadine Dorries, who tells us she wants to help women by compassionately meddling with counselling services; or the campaigners at 40 Days for Life whose banners read ‘women deserve better than abortion,’ as though it is a degrading and unladylike process that we women somehow need saving from. Even the unannounced inspections of 250 clinics are predicated upon Andrew Lansley’s apparent interest in "safeguards for women."

So given compassion is the order of the day for anti-abortionists, I wonder whether they would extend any to Geraldine Santoro, who bled to death following an illegal abortion in 1964. After Santoro left her abusive husband, she became pregnant by another man. Afraid her husband would find out, she and her new partner attempted to perform an abortion themselves. After Santoro became ill, her partner fled the scene and she was found dead alone on the floor of a hotel bathroom. Perhaps anti-abortion campaigners could show compassion for Rosie Jimenez, who couldn’t afford an abortion after the USA decided it would no longer be funded by Medicaid in 1977. She visited a backstreet clinic and died in agony, aged 27.

Anti-abortion campaigners might hope to prevent abortions, but making them illegal is not the way to do it. According to the New York Times, the rate of abortion is the same in countries where the procedure is illegal as those where it is legal. Criminalising abortion will only add to the 68,000 women who die annually as a result of unsafe abortion, in what the World Health Organization calls "the preventable pandemic". Once abortion is made illegal, every person will know a woman like Geraldine Santoro or Rosie Jimenez; because despite the best efforts of 40 Days for Life et al, it is not possible to ban abortion. It is only possible to make abortion more unsanitary, more frightening, and more lethal.

Abortion is institutionalised compassion. It is society’s understanding that pregnancy isn’t always like a Pampers advert. Sometimes it’s traumatising, life-threatening and isolating. A society which legalises abortion is a society which acknowledges the difficulties of life and places the physical and mental wellbeing of women at the heart of the solution. A society that cares about women has no choice but to provide easily-accessible, well-funded abortion services. History has taught us that.

I’ve never had an abortion. I hope I never have to. But I’m glad that clinics like BPAS are there to help women like me. That’s why I indignantly delivered biscuits to BPAS that day. And it was a feeling that was only strengthened when I stepped out onto the cobbles of Bedford Square, squinting in the sunlight as an anti-abortionist waved a placard at me. What did it say? "We are here to help you."

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

Abortion rights campaigners demonstrate in favour of the 24-week limit. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear