At this point in time @CoraSherlock’s blog SherlockSoundbite where my guest blog “The Kindness of Strangers” is posted is down for me at least so I don’t know how she’s formatted my guest post! Comments are open for debate but not insult: please note that if you haven’t commented here before your comments will go into moderation till I confirm you’re not a spambot.
Abortion – Where Do You Stand?
It’s not one of those issues where you can sit back and wait for someone else to set the laws. Abortion is the human rights issue of our times; it behoves every human being to make a careful deliberation of the facts involved. And once you have settled on a position, there is no shortage of groups ready to have you as a member. A quick online search reveals the activities of groups as diverse as Secular Prolife, Catholics For Choice, Catholics Against Catholics For Choice, Pro-Life Alliance Of Gays And Lesbians and a host of others.
Traditionally seen as the bastion of womens rights, you can choose between Feminists For Life, who point to the words of feminist writer Mattie Brinkenhoff (“When a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged”), or Feminists For Choice who would prefer Margaret Sanger’s views (“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”)
All of these groups are made up of genuine, well-intentioned people who have the best interests of women at heart. It is a tragic side-effect of the insidiousness of abortion that so many people of goodwill find themselves drawn into divisive, often bitter arguments.
But such is life.
And now to the issue. Why am I pro-life? I support the pro-life position because I’ve been heavily involved in the campaign in Ireland for twenty years and during that time I’ve had the opportunity to consider in depth the aspects to the debate, with the benefit of listening to the experience of those on both sides of the divide. Those aspects are many, and varied. Should abortion be allowed in cases of rape? Is it really the best solution that society can offer to women? Can women’s health be safeguarded in a country where abortion is not available?
During that time, I’ve come to the conclusion that abortion is not something which should be allowed in a society that is genuine about its interest in caring for each one of its members. I welcome the opportunity to set my position out in a forum that is maintained by a blogger who holds an opposing view to me in the hope that we can have a calm and respectful debate.
The Unborn Life
Before any real consideration of the issue can take place, we have to decide what is meant by the unborn child, the foetus, call it what you will. What is the foetus? Is it, as so many pro-choice advocates insist, a “potential life”? Biology tells us that when the sperm and the egg join together at fertilisation, a new, distinct, never-to-be-repeated human life is created. We know this to be human life. It is not plant life, or vegetable life, or a type of animal life. It contains all of the DNA that it will ever have during its life as a human being. Nothing further is added but time. In answer to the prochoice argument that it is only a “potential life”, I would point out that Life is a continuum. The being that exists at fertilisation is only the first stage in that continuum. It can only be considered a potential human life inasmuch as a newborn baby can be considered a potential teenager or adult. The fertilised egg has begun its journey as a member of the human race. Unlike a tumour or other growth, it contains specific cells intended for specific actions ie to grow to full-term and be born as a newborn baby.
The prolife case is that once this human journey has begun, no-one has the right to interfere with it with the sole purpose of ending its life.
What about the argument that the newborn isn’t dependent on another human for survival?This might be a valid criterion, if it wasn’t for the fact that the newborn baby is very much dependent on others for their survival, and once again they only need time to bring them to a stage where they can fend for themselves. In many cases too, this dependence doesn’t just involve food and shelter, but a need for medical intervention from the moment of birth.
So somewhere along the line, the “potential life” argument becomes a little cloudier, less reliable. it’s further eroded on a daily basis as we discover more about life within the womb. 4D ultrasound imaging show unborn babies moving, their human forms clearly visible. It has become all but impossible to deny the humanity of the unborn in the light of such information. (Indeed, it was the newly-developed ultrasound technology that caused former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson to change his mind about the issue. Heavily involved in the campaign to introduce abortion in the USA in the years before Roe vs Wade, he became a pro-life campaigner and retracted much of the pro-choice “evidence” he had put forward in his previous years.)
This then is our starting point: how do we intend to treat this new human life? Will we accept the fact the life is a continuum and that the fertilised egg is merely the first stage on the human journey, a journey which continues through the first, second and third trimesters, onto birth, childhood, adulthood, and natural death? This is certainly the view which is supported by biology, supported by the images that are becoming ever-clearer on the latest ultra-sound machines – and it is also the view which is supported by a society keen to recognise and protect human life even at its tiniest, most vulnerable stages.
Rape & Incest
I’m a woman. To me, as to all right-minded people, but particularly women, rape is the ultimate nightmare scenario. The violation is compounded in the case of incest, and a horrific situation is made almost unimaginable if pregnancy ensues. So why do I support the prolife position, which advocates continuing with the pregnancy in those cases? For a few reasons, none of which, incidentally, involve my desire to “force women” to do anything. As a feminist, I abhor the thought of forcing a woman to do anything – especially in a situation where she has been victimised. But as usual, it’s not as simple as that. Cases of sexual assault present a very particular type of challenge to the women involved, her family, and society at large. She will only survive her ordeal if she gets the right kind of support. I happen to believe that advocating an abortion is not the correct response.
For one thing, I’ve spoken to too many women who have had abortions and suffered from negative effects afterwards to believe it ever to be a positive experience. Most pro-choice advocates agree with me on this point. At best, abortion is seen as a “necessary service”, not something which anyone ever really wants to do, more a rock-and-hard-place solution. But the experiences of women in Abortion Recovery Groups like Women Hurt, leave me with no option but to believe that post-abortive trauma is a genuine disorder. That being the case, it does not seem like the appropriate response to a woman who has already suffered the extreme trauma of rape.
There are many pro-choice advocates who don’t believe in this phenomenon, but I have to ask them – what is their answer to the women in these groups? Women who, by their own testimony have experienced feelings of guilt, shame, extreme sadness, despair, even suicide tendencies? Are these women lying? Why do their stories seem to merit so little importance compared to those coming from women who can testify to a feeling of relief following their abortion?
I should say at this point that I have no difficulty in accepting that many women don’t experience negative effects folllowing their abortion. Contrary to what some might say, I am very happy about that. There is a tendency to feel that all pro-life campaigners wish the worst for women, especially those women who dare to cross the line and actually have an abortion. The implication is that we somehow feel that such women “deserve all they get.”
I know that I speak not only for myself but for the majority of pro-life campaigners throughout the world when I say that this is simply not true. Certainly, there are extreme factions in the pro-life camp (just as there are in the pro-choice side), but I wish no ill-effect on any woman who has an abortion. Why would I? To prove myself right? Notch her up as another statistic? Quite the contrary. I am always happy and relieved when I hear of women who have recovered both physically and psychologically from their experience of abortion.
But this fact precisely highlights my concerns regarding the use of abortion in any circumstance – we never know which woman will be badly affected in the aftermath. Going back to our rape victim, there is no way of knowing before the abortion whether she will be the one to experience the grief and sadness reported by so many – attributed, it must be noted, to the abortion rather than the rape because we can all agree that they are very different things. Sure, she may experience relief, but for me, as her friend, or her family member (because I think it’s easier to imagine having to advise the women you care about; regardless of the topic of discussion, we are always supremely confident of how we ourselves would act), I simply wouldn’t be happy for her to take such a tremendous risk with her psychological and physical wellbeing.
So what should our response be? How do we ensure that life can go on for the woman who has been violated in such a horrific way? A study worth considering is that carried out by Dr. Sandra Makhorn. ”Pregnancy and Sexual Assault” is based on 1980s research but its findings have not been repudiated and they still make interesting reading. A rape counsellor, Dr. Makhorn found that in her work with rape victims, the long-term psychological outcome for women who became pregnant as a result of sexual assault was better if they continued with their pregnancy – regardless of whether they eventually kept the baby or gave it up for adoption. Interestingly too, she found that the most important influence on women who find themselves in this situation was the attitude of society. In other words, if society supported her decision to keep the baby, then she benefited enormously from that support. If a stigma erupted as a result, the woman was less able to cope.
Having an abortion in this situation will not “un-do” the rape. The woman involved will still need counselling for the trauma of the rape but, based on the testimonies of the many women who experience negative side-effects from abortion, she may well need counselling for the abortion as well. Why heap trauma on top of trauma in this way?
In Ireland, the Crisis Pregnancy Programme (CPP) run by the Health Service Executive produced the Irish Contraception and Crisis Pregnancy Study 2010 which found that 31% of women who had abortion experienced “some regrets.” 13% reported that they experienced “a lot of regrets.” It may not be the case that we can all agree on the prevalence or gravity of those regrets, but we need to spend more time considering the long-term effects of abortion on women before we advertise it as some sort of “quick-fix solution” to the profound hurt of rape.
And quite apart from these considerations, we cannot ignore the unborn human life which has begun. How many people that you know and care for are the product of rape? Who knows? Only the most notorious cases make it past the smallest pool of local knowledge. Do those people living today have any lesser a right to live their lives just because of the circumstances of their conception – something none of us have any control over? Take the case of Rebecca Kiessling, conceived in rape but allowed to live. We can all see that she is no less deserving of her life than anyone else. We need to respect the fact that today she is the same human life that she was at conception – all that has been added is time.
Instead of abortion, let’s advocate adoption in cases where women feel unable, for whatever reason, to keep their baby. It is unquestionably difficult in the short-term for any woman to give her baby up for adoption, but the long-term outcome is a positive one for all concerned. How have we reached such a strange situation where it has become more acceptable to end the unborn life through abortion than to give it up to two loving parents through adoption? There is an injustice at work here and we must face it.
The Numbers Game And Women’s Health
The question of Maternal Mortality Rates has become increasingly more topical when discussing abortion. The reason for this, in Ireland anyway, was to counter the argument by prochoice advocates who claimed that legalising abortion was somehow necessary in order to save women’s lives. They would die without it, the argument went. So let’s look at the figures. From the point of view of maternal mortality, this doesn’t seem to be a good argument for prochoice advocates. The World Health Organisation produces figures every year, setting out the maternal mortality rate for each country reviewed. The figures show that Ireland rates at the top of the table in terms of maternal mortality. Our rate is so good that it can barely be improved upon and we rate far higher than in countries like the UK or US where abortion is available.
I am aware that this argument has shifted slightly to encompass a consideration of every country, it’s MMR and the status of its abortion legislation in order to try and correlate some link between a ban/legalisation and an increase or decrease in the rates. . To be honest, I’m not sure how helpful this is to the debate. I remain open to listening to any arguments on the subject but health systems and standards of care in countries are very different and their MMR will depend on so many factors that I’m not sure that a link can be established. The only sure thing that we can say at present is that Ireland, without abortion, has the lowest MMR in the world. Women do not need to fear that they will die in Ireland while pregnant as a result of our ban on abortion.
But perhaps women are leaving Ireland to go to the UK for abortions where their lives are in danger?
I don’t trust this argument for two reasons. Firstly, abortion clinics in the UK are renowned for keeping good records of their patients, including the reasons why each abortion is carried out. The majority of abortions in the UK on Irish women are carried out for social, not medical reasons. Contrary to popular opinion too, women who have abortions abroad are perfectly entitled to go to Irish hospitals for follow-up checks and care should they need it. There are also, incidentally, groups like LIFE Pregnancy Care Ireland which have operated in Ireland for over thirty years and offer free post-abortive counselling to any woman who feels she needs it – unlike the profit-oriented Marie Stopes Clinic which will provide you with a price list as seen here. (As a feminist, I find it somewhat galling that they offer a “service” to a woman in the knowledge that it may cause her to experience post-abortive trauma, and then ask her to pay for the counselling that she will need to recover. But I digress….)
The other reason why I don’t think this argument carries weight is because it involves a fundamental spin on what an abortion actually is. I have expounded on this subject in a recent blog post here so I won’t go into the full discussion again. But suffice it to say that we need to be very clear on the definition of abortion before there is any real discussion regarding its introduction.
Abortion means the interference with the human life in the womb with the sole intention of bringing about an end to that life. If there is any other intention at hand, for example, if the procedure involves an early delivery with the intention of saving the mother’s life, then we are not dealing with abortion. We may be dealing with a situation where the mother’s life is saved but the unborn life is ended as an undesirable and unintentional side effect. But that’s the important element – intention. In an abortion, no-one has any intention of leaving the unborn life alive. Where the intention is to save the mother’s life, saving the life of her unborn child is an added bonus.
It’s worth noting too that abortion cures no illness. It ends a life. It ends a pregnancy. If there is a pre-existing illness threatening the life of the woman, she will still have to be treated for that illness following the abortion.
I should also say that my opposition to abortion holds true for the same reasons regardless of whether the abortion takes place in the UK, or in any other jurisdiction. The argument is made that prolife campaigners are happy to have this service close by, that we operate on a “not in my back yard” system, but this simply isn’t true. If abortion is unjust for the unborn, and unhealthy for the woman, then that remains the case whether you’re in London or Leinster. We can only influence the laws of our own jurisdiction but the fact that any Irish women travel to the UK for abortions is an extreme sadness for our society. Thankfully the numbers of women who travel are falling, and have done so for the past ten consecutive years. Nonetheless, we need to increase the support systems in our country so that no women feel the need to avail of abortion anywhere.
Hilary Clinton once famously stated her support for “safe, legal abortion”. But there is no such thing as a safe abortion. Abortion always carries an inherent risk for the woman. It is an extreme intrusion on her body and interrupts the already-begun changes that pregnancy brings about. The fact that the laws of a country allow for the procedure doesn’t automatically mean that abortion providers will ensure that they give a safe service to the women in their care. Just ask the women who suffered massive injuries in “botched abortions” carried out by Dr. Phanuel Dartey - a doctor who passed the vetting procedure of both Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service before he was struck off the medical register in the UK. Abortion is not a “safe” procedure by any stretch of the imagination.
What about the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell in the US, who was recently charged with killing 7 babies who survived late term abortions and causing the death of a woman on whom he had performed an abortion? In that case, the Grand Jury was highly critical of State and City agencies in Philadelphia which, it said, had reason to know what was going on at the clinic in question but failed to act. The women who had the misfortune to be treated by Dr. Gosnell put their lives in direct danger in a situation described as a “complete regulatory collapse”.
What about those instances (albeit rare, but nonetheless tragic) where some women will attempt to procure an abortion themselves. Should we legalise on these grounds?
Well, let’s think about that. We’re talking about women who feel so desperate and alone that they are prepared to resort to actual self-harm in order to end their pregnancy. But the type of help and support that these women need far surpasses an abortion. They don’t need a hurried appointment in an abortion clinic. They deserve an entire support structure that helps them realise their own value as a human being, their worth and value in the eyes of society. They deserve to be reassured that they are too important in our eyes to ever think about harming themselves again.
In short, they deserve more than an abortion can give. Looking back to what I’ve already said about the very real risk that abortion poses to women’s psychological health, it’s not something that should ever be offered as an answer to a desperate woman.
The Reality of Abortion
We’re all reading this blog and investing time and energy into this issue because we care about women. We want their lives to continue in happiness and in good health. The best way to ensure that is to allow for the life of their unborn child to continue un-targeted by the injustice of abortion.
We must accept that if we are to truly debate abortion, then we must be prepared to face up to its less palatable side – to consider whether the darker aspect of abortion is something that we really want to introduce to our society.
Are we happy, for example, to live in a society where babies that are born alive through “botched abortions” can be left to die on their own, deprived of basic medical care because they are classed as “unwanted”? According to the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal and Child Health 66 babies were born alive in this way and died in the UK in 2010. Some lived for a matter of minutes, other for several hours. Are we prepared to continue to accept this practice?
Do we want to accept the inconsistency of a society that embraces and celebrates the victors in the Special Olympics, but allows abortion up to birth in the case of foetal abnormality – as in the UK, where something as minor as a cleft palate can suffice as a reason for abortion on these grounds.
Are we prepared to claim abortion as a feminist ideal and right even though we know it contributes to and facilitates the global practice of Gendercide, resulting in the loss of over 100 million baby girls worldwide, according to a 2010 cover story in The Economist? Earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph uncovered widespread evidence of sex-selective abortion in clinics in the UK, sparking a major investigation. The response from Marie Stopes was to attempt to make a distinction between aborting a baby on the grounds of their gender, which is illegal and anti-feminist, and “Family Balancing” - which seems to be exactly the same thing. Will we allow this type of false distinction to be made?
Will we continue to adhere to our political position on abortion, or are we prepared to step back and listen to the stories of all women affected so as to genuinely try and discern how best our society should support women with their best interests at heart?
These are just some of the questions that we need to consider. Once we have honestly answered them in the context of a calm and respectful debate that listens to the views of all interested parties, then we will be some way further down the line of establishing how best to help women, their partners and their babies in the deeply complex and unique situation of an unplanned pregnancy.