On 23rd March, the Guardian broke the news that SPUC (the “Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child” to give them their full, misleading name) had a presentation for schoolchildren that wasn’t so much anti-abortion as anti-science. The headmaster who invited SPUC into his school to give a prolife presentation to the children says he provided “balance” by asking a feminist group along too, but this showed a real lack of interest in the children’s scientific education and wellbeing.
Nadine Dorries is the public face of the “pro-life” movement, and she’s also a public joke. The abusive picketers outside clinics that provide abortions have made the news recently as “Forty Days for Life” – a regular onslaught on women’s health clinics that has taken place for years in the US and has now moved to Britain.
But far more disturbing that these public bullies and fools is the private political power the pro-life movement has built up in the US – to the point where in the Republican party a careerist must profess a belief that women should be denied safe legal abortion no matter how many women this kills, and in the Democratic party expressing doubts about women’s access to abortion is recognised as politically advantageous. Denying women contraception is next on the agenda.
The public face of feminism is a thoroughly middle-class movement – but then the BBC doesn’t exactly go out of its way to consult working-class expertise on the effects of policy, and the media image of feminism tends always to be about 20 years behind the times. To any woman, denial of safe legal abortion and denial of contraception, free at point of access on the NHS, is a straightforward political issue – even if they prefer not to identify it as feminist.
When Andrew Lansley attacks clinics that provide abortions, and says it’s “appalling” that doctors might be allowing women the right to decide for themselves, he’s doing it as a cheap piece of political theatre, a diversion into a realm where he hopes everyone (or all Tory voters, at least) will agree with him. He is making use of the US-style culture wars hoping they will benefit his party in the same way as this strategy has benefited the Republican party – by touting themselves as “the prolife party“.
There are two strategies the pro-life movement has that genuinely scare me. One of them is the CARE strategy – to get pro-life (and homophobic, etc) interns into political work, by funding them to “assist” elected politicians for free. The goal there is to have the extremist religious views of a tiny minority enforced on all women via the NHS:
…the real lesson to take from the American pro-life movement is that abortion will not be prayed out of existence, but regulated out of existence.
The truth of abortion is that it is a mortally sinful act – but the fact of abortion is that it is a medical procedure. And while there is no real consensus in Britain- the epicentre of the culture of death – that life begins at the moment of conception, there is a consensus that what goes on in hospitals (especially NHS hospitals) should be compliant with the law, and that patients have a right to information about their condition. And that’s the angle from which we need to campaign.
The end-result of this line of thinking was illustrated by Doonesbury:
Moore notes with approval the state-sanctioned rape laws of Texas (also made law in Virginia), which require a doctor to use an ultrasound wand in the patient’s vagina against her will before she can be permitted to have an abortion. Carolyn Jones describes how the law was used on her:
The doctor and nurse were professional and kind, and it was clear that they understood our sorrow. They too apologized for what they had to do next. For the third time that day, I exposed my stomach to an ultrasound machine, and we saw images of our sick child forming in blurred outlines on the screen.
“I’m so sorry that I have to do this,” the doctor told us, “but if I don’t, I can lose my license.” Before he could even start to describe our baby, I began to sob until I could barely breathe. Somewhere, a nurse cranked up the volume on a radio, allowing the inane pronouncements of a DJ to dull the doctor’s voice. Still, despite the noise, I heard him. His unwelcome words echoed off sterile walls while I, trapped on a bed, my feet in stirrups, twisted away from his voice.
All of this is worrying. We deserve good healthcare for all in the UK, and safe, legal, NHS-provided abortions are an essential part of women’s healthcare: it’s up to each woman to decide for herself, it’s not for her bishop or her MP or her husband or her father or any other authority figure in her life to rule her body and her choices.
The headmaster who invited SPUC into his school as part of the Religion and Philosophy Education day justified his decision:
“Outside speakers from a range of perspectives were invited in to explain their views. Pupils were able to question them. Senior staff oversaw the process to ensure proper balance. This approach has always received positive feedback from pupils who are clear that it has helped them to reflect properly on these significant issues. These are intelligent young people who, if you know what teenagers are like, cannot be told what to think.” (FailyMail, sorry)
He said he had also invited Feminist Action Cambridge (FAC) to the school
“where they presented the other side of the argument – the pro-choice belief”.
Now it’s true, one could set up a valid philosophical discussion between two groups, one feminist and one pro-life: the feminists could argue for the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes with the specific example of a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions in pregnancy, pro-lifers could argue that women exist to be bred, that no woman can be allowed to decide for herself to terminate a pregnancy, that female animals – humans, cows, pigs – are basically all just the same.
That isn’t what SPUC did, though. And to provide “balance” for SPUC’s presentation, the headmaster would have had to invite a lot more than just one feminist group.
- SPUC argued that abortion causes breast cancer. This isn’t true: for “balance”, the headmaster could have invited someone from a charity like Breast Cancer UK to say so.
- SPUC argued that abortion just adds to the trauma of rape, that having a baby after having been impregnated by a rapist “something positive comes out of that whole rape experience”. To counter this, the headmaster could have invited someone from the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre to explain.
- SPUC argued that abortion kills. To counter this, the headmaster could have invited someone from the Centre for Applied Medical Statistics to explain the relative statistical risks of pregnancy, legal abortion, and illegal abortion.
- SPUC argued that abortion causes infertility. To counter this, the headmaster could have invited someone from Bourn Hall Clinic to explain the real causes of infertility.
- SPUC argued that abortion causes eating disorders and drug abuse. To counter this, the headmaster could have invited local NHS therapists specialising in eating disorders substance abuse to talk about actual triggers and causes.
- SPUC argued that abortion causes suicide. To counter this, the headmaster could have invited someone from the Samaritans to talk about suicidal feelings and behaviour and possible causes and triggers.
SPUC made some vague attempt to counter the exposure of the lies they were telling schoolchildren, but they weren’t very detailed because they couldn’t really afford to be.
What the headmaster should have considered was that if he wished to invite a group in to make a untruthful presentation that would require five to eight outside experts to counter with real scientific expertise, perhaps it would be simpler not to invite the lying group of liars who lie. Unless what he’s trying to teach the kids is how to recognise a set of untruthful statements dressed up with pseudo-science in order to justify a political/religious campaign against human rights.
Today is day 37 of Forty Days For Choice, and there are plenty of ideas on their website about where and how to show your pro-choice love for abortion rights. My personal favourite is the Abortion Support Network:
a volunteer-run charity that provides financial assistance, accommodation in volunteer homes, and confidential, non-judgmental information to women in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who are travelling to England to access a safe and legal abortion. Funding is available on a case by case basis depending on circumstance and availability of funding. Accommodation for women is offered as necessary, either the night before or after a procedure or, in the case of later abortion, the night during a procedure.
We can also provide some forms of assistance to women travelling from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, and can provide information to any woman travelling to England for an abortion.
I wish they weren’t needed, but as they are: please help them to help women in need.