Abortion is a subject which never goes away and the arguments remain fundamental — a woman’s right to choose versus a child’s right to life, as each side would advance their case. And yet the technical and clinical possibilities continuously shift. Medical advances in embryology and fetology have been immense over the past 30 years: pro-life advocates used to say, in the 1970s, that “if women had glass tummies” no one would choose to have an abortion, since the unborn would be, visibly, a recognisable human being.
The ultrasound scanner has brought about something like a glass tummy: as soon as a “wanted” pregnancy is announced, a scan of the infant in utero is produced, and emailed, to whoops of joy, to family and friends. After 12 weeks, the sex (or “gender”) can be identified: baby names are chosen, and nurseries painted accordingly.
Yet, far from “glass tummies” halting the terminations of pregnancies, these proceed apace, and despite the menu of contraception available — which Marie Stopes believed would halt abortion — there are now 200,000 a year in the United Kingdom. Recently, the Independent uncovered data from the Office for National Statistics which demonstrated that sex-selection abortions are occurring in Britain: there is an obvious imbalance of girls to boys, notably among some immigrant communities. Thousands of girl infants are “missing” from the birth data because they are being aborted when the foetus is identified as female.
It seems a paradox that a procedure which feminist groups advance as being in the interest of women should be used as a means to destroy daughters; and yet, there is a certain logic to it. Ann Furedi, the formidable chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, is entirely consistent in her attitudes: if a woman wants an abortion she gets it — end of story. If a woman doesn’t want a daughter or her own life will be made miserable by bearing a daughter — that, also, is a choice. You cannot fault the logic, and although some feminists may be uncomfortable about the outcome, abortion rights are defended at all costs by those involved in pro-choice politics.
While the general population mostly accepts abortion as an everyday fact, which may be full of conditions and contradictions, those engaged in the abortion polemic must defend their position with absolute logic. I was once distressed to witness an abortion at 23 weeks’ pregnancy. There was no medical reason for this termination — the young woman’s circumstances had altered and she had changed her mind about continuing the pregnancy. Her decision was defended by those facilitating it: “It was her choice.” A week later, the foetus would have been legally protected.
Similarly, if you defend the right to life, you must also take that to its logical conclusion: from conception there is a human life and it must be respected. You must also reconcile yourself to the reality that you are on the losing side of the argument — politically. In almost every legislature, abortion rights have advanced since the 1960s and bodies such as the EU, the UN and Amnesty International are coming to regard abortion as a “human right”; the irony of a human right to extinguish a human life is swept aside.
But if abortion rights have advanced, legally and politically, at a more subtle level, abortion has never really gained emotional and psychological favour. Movies and soap operas prefer to portray a woman continuing a pregnancy than terminating one. Films like Juno and Knocked Up have gained mileage from an unwanted pregnancy turning out to be redemptive. Fiction nearly always portrays abortion as failure — the short stories of Maeve Binchy often show abortion as representing “the end of the affair”. I have not found any poetry which celebrates terminating a pregnancy. The greetings card industry, which now notes every possible life event, has not yet produced cards announcing “Congratulations! You’ve had an abortion!” And abortion doctors prefer to say they are in “fertility” care.
In his thoughtful book Culture and Abortion (Gracewing, 2013), Edward Short identifies something significant: if the politics of abortion are pro-choice, the underlying culture is often pro-life — pro-life values can be found in texts from Penelope Fitzgerald and Anne Ridler to Dickens and even David Hare. His approach is too polemical, but the theme is plausible: the politics may remain pro-choice but there are strong pro-life currents within the culture, and always will be.
The technology will go on changing, too. After IVF, in 1978, came a slew of assisted conception techniques. The first womb transplant is said to be imminent. “Foetal transplants” may be next — a woman requesting a termination of pregnancy may be given the more complex “choice” of donating the foetus. Brave new world? You can count on it.