Is going swimming in natural water (that is, in a river or a lake or the sea, not a swimming-pool) a particularly dangerous thing to do? Between 2008-2010, 160 people died of drowning in natural water.
We don’t think of pregnancy as being a particularly dangerous undertaking in the UK. But between 2008-2010 147 people died of their pregnancy and/or childbirth.
(Between 2006-2008, 261 people died of “causes directly or indirectly related to their pregnancies”: the mortality rate for pregnancy in the UK 2006-2008 was 11.39 per 100,000 maternities and still declining.)
Pregnancy may be regarded as about as dangerous as going for a swim in open water. Most healthy adults who go for a swim in natural water survive the experience – even if they accidentally fall in. Nothing would justify pushing someone into deep water without knowing or caring if they could swim: not even if they survived. Anyone offered the experience of a swim in natural water should have a right to say “no thanks”, or to change their mind and go back to shore. Any organised swim across open water ought to include rescue boats to pull people aboard if they change their minds, for any reason or none.
Most people in Scotland agree: the same applies to pregnancy. Even if most healthy adults could survive a forced pregnancy, nothing would justify pushing a girl or a woman to have a baby against her will, her conscience, or her judgement. And anyone can decide for herself that her pregnancy needs to be terminated: no one should be denied rescue from an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy.
This week, SPUC Scotland is doing what they call a “Project Truth” roadshow round Scotland. Young people are paying £50 each to take part in a trip round Scotland, setting up a prolife stall at each location, getting signatures on a prolife petition, distributing leaflets, and “engaging with passers by in pro-life discussions that come up”.
The main purpose of the roadshow seems to be to get people to respond to a brief questionaire on whether abortion should be devolved to Scotland, and whether abortion access in Scotland should be further restricted. SPUC Scotland will be hoping that the majority of people who stop at their stall and fill in their questionaire think that abortion access in Scotland should be restricted.
The awkward thing for SPUC is that the survey about whether people in Scotland support decreased access to abortion has already been done.
Over a thousand Scots, across all parties and from 18 to 55+, including those who didn’t vote, across every region in Scotland, were polled to ask whether
- “abortion should remain legal and available in Scotland” or
- “the law should be changed to make abortion less available in Scotland”.
The overwhelming majority said yes: abortion should remain legal and available. No matter how the results were broken down, by party allegiance, age, gender, class, or location, only a minority said they wanted the law to be changed to make abortion less available in Scotland.
So if SPUC Scotland, in their questionnaire of self-selected respondents, get different results, this will only prove that only a tiny minority of people stopped at their “Project Truth” roadshow – mostly those who already support SPUC Scotland’s desire to make abortion illegal in Scotland.
Every year SPUC Scotland hold a prolife protest on Lothian Road, on the anniversary of the day the 1967 Abortion Act became law. While if you talk to them at their Project Truth you will find individuals who agree that abortion should remain legal (especially the younger women), and though their campaign focus has been towards diminishing access by various means, SPUC Scotland’s bedrock opposition is to any legal access to abortion.
No one could seriously argue (though as I found out, some SPUC supporters try) that abortion is never medically necessary. Pregnancy is a leading cause of death for teenage girls worldwide. Girls too young to be pregnant can still conceive. As noted above: women die of pregnancy/childbirth, and their risk of death is minimised if their doctor can advise them without fear of the courts or the police, that to preserve their lives or their health they need to terminate their pregnancy now.
Banning abortion doesn’t take away the need for abortion. A woman who needs an abortion, and the people who care for her, will strive to get her pregnancy aborted, even if it means an additional risk to her health or her life by having an illegal abortion, or – if she can afford it – paying whatever it costs to travel to where abortion is legal.
The argument SPUC Scotland offers against making abortion legal to save girls’ and women’s lives from illegal abortion, is an analogy about burglary. Suppose, they say, if a burglar robbed your home the burglar died because burglary was illegal. Would that mean burglary should be made legal to save the lives of burglars?
Does this make sense to you? No, me neither, moving swiftly on.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists celebrates the Abortion Act and safe legal abortion because:
For the twelve years before the Act, abortion was the leading cause of maternal mortality in England and Wales. The first Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths in 1952-54 reported 153 deaths from abortion, which was “procured .. by the woman herself in 58 instances.” The terminal event in 50% of illegal cases was sepsis but in 25% it was air embolus from “the injection under pressure of some fluid, nearly always soapy water, into the cervix or into the vagina.” The Report commented that most of the women were “mothers of families”. After 1968 maternal deaths from illegal abortion fell slowly but did not disappear until 1982.
The “Project Truth” roadshow includes the questionnaire, clearly typed on A4 white sheets, first question about abortion being devolved to Scotland, second set of questions three options about restricting access to abortion.
Talking to two Project Truth SPUCcers, a young man aged 20 and a young woman aged 18, it became clear that there was a distinctly gendered split in their views.
The young man was absolutely convinced that abortion was never necessary. Ectopic pregnancy? All right, he agreed reluctantly, because an ectopic pregnancy can never develop into a baby. Pre-eclampsia? Chemotherapy for cancer? Ten-year-old girl made pregnant by rape? No, he said definitely: so long as there’s even the slightest chance the foetus could survive, the woman – or the raped girl – can’t be allowed to have an abortion: she should have a C-section to remove the foetus as soon as the foetus has reached viability. He was quite insistant about this: no matter what risk to the girl or the woman’s life or health, he felt that any chance that the foetus would survive as a baby was worth taking.
The young woman was more convinced that a pregnant woman should always sacrifice her life or her health for her baby. With tears in her eyes, sincerely emotional at the thought of such devoted heroism, she recounted a “true story” of a woman who had cancer, and had been told that chemotherapy would endanger her pregnancy, so she nobly put off having the chemotherapy until the baby could be safely delivered, and then died of cancer, leaving her husband with the baby.
I pointed out that while I appreciated that she sincerely thought this an act of heroism, it was only heroic if the woman actually got to choose. There have been known instances in prolife countries where a woman who had cancer was denied chemotherapy because the prolife authorities didn’t want to endanger the foetus: Amalia in Nicaragua, the unnamed daughter of Rosa Hernandez in the Dominican Republic, Michelle Harte in Ireland.
Michelle Hart travelled, deathly ill with cancer, to England to have an abortion legally, and returned to Ireland to have her cancer treated. The delay in chemotherapy may have hastened her death.
Where prolife legislation rules that a foetus is worth more than the pregnant woman, women are denied life-saving healthcare that would put their pregnancy at risk. Contrary to the young SPUCcer’s moist-eyed admiration of a woman who heroically dies of cancer rather than terminate her pregnancy and live, there is no heroism in being confined to a hospital and left to die pregnant because the prolife laws in that country do not permit the doctors to save the pregnant woman’s life.
Amnesty International reported of Nicaragua in 2009:
“The criminalization of all forms of abortion has the effect of delaying and even denying women and girls a range of treatments which could, unintentionally, result in the termination of the pregnancy.”
But, said the SPUCcers, practically in chorus: But we value the pregnant woman and her foetus equally!
(Actually, they said “baby”. The stall had little lollipops with footprints on them that were supposed to be the size of a foetus’s feet at 10 weeks, only they said “baby’s feet at 10 weeks”, which was absurd: a baby’s feet at 10 weeks old are a lot larger than the lollipop.)
Valuing baby and mother equally is both ethical and sensible: the baby and the mother are independent of each other and can be treated and helped separately.
You can treat and help a foetus only by treating and helping the woman gestating the foetus. (Notably, SPUC has never done anything to protest the denial of pre-natal care to women who haven’t been legally resident for “long enough” in the UK.) Their concern for foetuses apparently does not extend to helping foetus by ensuring all pregnant women have pre-natal care – something which didn’t surprise me a bit after talking to SPUCcers on “Project Truth” roadshow.
But in any case, valuing the foetus equally with the woman gestating it has led directly and obviously to some horrible situations.
For example: Karla Perez, who died in a fall in November 2014, and was declared clinically brain-dead on 9th December 2014, whose family wanted to switch the life-support machine off and begin the mourning process of funeral and grief, but who were denied this because Perez had suffered that fall in Ireland: and in Ireland, the foetus in Perez’s uterus was considered to have a legal right to gestation in Perez’s corpse. Perez was 18 weeks pregnant when declared brain-dead: the legal presumption was that the life-support system had to be kept switched on, though everyone could see her brain rotting inside her open skull, for the next six weeks or until the foetus died inside Perez’s dead uterus. Because the foetus and Karla Perez were valued equally in the Irish constitution.
No one who had seen Karla Perez’s corpse on life support thought this ghoulish pro-life ritual would come to good – no one even thought the foetus had a hope of being gestated successfully by a corpse for six weeks – but the Irish courts didn’t rule for life-support to be switched off until 26th December 2014, weeks of tension and horror for the family who waited to tell Karla Perez’s young children that their mother was dead until they were allowed to take the corpse off life-support.
Or Savita Halappanavar, whose prolonged miscarriage killed her in a hospital in Ireland because the prolife medical staff were not allowed to terminate her miscarriage early (at 17 weeks gestation, Savita’s foetus didn’t have any hope of survival): the foetus and Savita had to be valued equally – though this meant days of extreme agony for Savita as she miscarried, and eventual death.
Is that worth it, I asked the young SPUCcers. Is it really better in your view for two to die than for one to live?
Not better, the young woman said. Don’t you feel it’s always wrong for a woman not to sacrifice herself for her child?
No, you don’t understand, the young man said. We believe in the right to life: so long as there’s a chance the baby could live, we believe the baby should have that chance!
But, I asked: and I really did want to know: Why don’t you believe the woman has a right to life? Why don’t you believe that if there’s even a chance the woman can survive, she should have that chance?
They looked at me, bewildered. This aspect of the right to life didn’t seem to have crossed their minds.
An older SPUCcer had joined us: she said, more briskly than the young ones, that they believe it’s always wrong to “kill the baby”. Even in the example of chemotherapy, she said: a woman with cancer should have chemotherapy, and if that causes a miscarriage, well, that’s all right because the intent of the doctors was to treat the cancer, not kill the baby.
She looked at me triumphantly.
They had a model display on the table behind her, of pink foetuses supposed to be life-size at all stages of development. At all stages, the model pink foetuses looked more like baby dolls than human foetuses. The title of the display was “How YOU Began”. I didn’t ask why they thought all of the little model foetuses would be that bright pink.
But, I said: a miscarriage is a health risk. A pregnant woman who has cancer, when the chemotherapy is really certain to damage the foetus to the point of miscarriage, isn’t it safer for her – for her right to life – to have the abortion first, then start the chemotherapy?
And no, I said to the young woman: I don’t believe it’s always right for a pregnant woman to sacrifice her life for her child. If she chooses to do so, if that’s right for her, well, that’s her choice. But I believe in the value of the woman’s life: I believe she has a right to decide to live.
What if – I was thinking of Amalia in Nicaragua, who died of cancer leaving behind a 10-year-old daughter – what if a woman wants to stay alive for her child?
The young woman was silent. The young man said, well, however sad it is for children to lose their mother, but you have to consider the important thing is that the foetus has a chance of survival.
The older SPUCcer was quite definite: abortion is always wrong because that’s the intent to kill the baby. No, she said, it’s not killing the pregnant woman to let her die by denying her treatment: everybody dies, she said, the important thing is not to kill the foetus, ever. Killing the woman? Nobody wants to kill the pregnant woman, but yes, she might die as a result: that’s okay so long as her death wasn’t intended.
The young man repeated his sincere conviction that anyway, abortion is never necessary because pregnancy isn’t that dangerous and there’s always an option that isn’t abortion: c-section, early delivery, no matter if the foetus isn’t yet developed enough to survive, no matter what additional risk that places on the woman’s health or life – he was certain that any chance of survival for the foetus was worth taking. (He expressed no such conviction about need for the chance of survival for a pregnant woman.)
The young woman repeated her sincere belief – at the age of 18 – that a woman could ask no nobler fate than to die heroically saving the life of her foetus.
And I think I found that saddest of all that sad conversation. A young woman with all her life ahead of her, dreaming of a noble death.