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.