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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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories