This is the text of a speech that was due to be given at Christ Church college yesterday. The speech was not delivered following protests by the Oxford University Student Union Women’s Campaign.
I’m not here tonight to debate whether or not abortion should be legal – so if anyone wants to ask what should be done about abortion in cases of incest or rape please don’t waste your time. Most people accept that abortion is in certain circumstances a tragic necessity and is here to stay. No, I’m here to debate this specific motion – whether or not the abortion culture harms Britain.
I define the abortion culture as a culture in which abortion is used so often that it begins to look like it’s being treated as a regular form of contraception (which the numbers suggest) and in which there is a widespread view that it is a right, carries no risks and in fact represents some kind of liberation for the women for whom it is available. In an abortion culture, it would be controversial to near-impossible to debate the this of terminating a pregnancy – and the attempts to close down this reasonable discussion suggestions that such a culture exists.
But I think that the abortion culture actually makes certain injustices in our society worse. And anyone who truly cares about the freedom and rights of women – and that is all of us – has to be prepared to look again at the evidence of what abortion on demand does to us. And how silence on its effects harms certain minority groups.
First, the numbers. The abortion statistics for 2013 tell a grim story. There were 185,331 in that year. Of which, only 1 per cent were due to a risk of the child being born handicapped. 99.84 per cent of those carried out under Ground C of the Abortion Act 1967 were due to the “the risk to mental health of the woman” – a provision that is notoriously easy to get around. Vincent Argent, the former medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, admitted on record earlier this year that doctors routinely pre-sign abortion forms without meeting the woman. It’s worth noting, by the way, that 64 per cent of abortions take place in the private sector financed by the NHS. There is money to be made in this.
Now if you dig down deeper into those numbers you find some interesting things about class and race, which suggest that abortion is something that is found in particular concentration among particular groups. We know a lot about this in American society: the first legalised abortion clinics were heavily located in black-dominated areas and in 2012 data showed that in New York City more black women had abortions than actually gave birth. In Mississippi, African-Americans represent around 37 per cent of the population but 75 per cent of abortions. Those figures are not so dramatic in the UK because our population is more demographically homogenous. But consider this: “Black or black British” people only make up 3.3 per cent of the population but account for 9 per cent of abortions.
Some 37 per cent of all women having abortions in 2013 had had one or more before (up from 32 per cent in 2003) and around one in seven women who had abortions were actually in a relationship. This data suggests that abortion might be being used by some people as a form of contraception. This is extraordinary given that our society is saturated with messages about safe sex and given that abortion industry advocates insist that the procedure is safe, legal and rare.
So why is abortion being used in this way? One explanation might lie in a Joseph Rowntree Study from 2004 that found that girls with few educational prospects choose to keep their babies while those who planned to go to college and find work were more likely to have an abortion. In other words, certain groups of people are still having regular, unprotected sex and still getting pregnant (despite decades of education) – and what they do next is a choice framed not necessarily by personal will but by economics.
Now you might say “that’s good because it means that women exerting control over their bodies are also in control of their economic future”. But turn it on its head. What it also means is that a) certain groups are ignoring all the information about contraception and relationship advice, getting pregnant and then returning to the clinic again and again as thought it was no different to the pill. And b) it means that decisions about child rearing are determined less by genuine personal choice and more by cultural pressure. It suggests that women aren’t given serious alternatives to abortion – they’re not getting support from families or their government, but they are receiving cultural messages about the terrors and pressures of child rearing. You might take some of that message from Tory policy on withdrawing child benefit, which I would argue runs counter to their family friendly image.
While we’re talking about cultural pressure, let’s talk about the issue of disposability. Abortion on demand feeds the idea that we all deserve full autonomy and liberation from responsibility for others. That’s great for the strong; bad for the vulnerable.
Consider this strange hypocrisy. We live in a society where we care very deeply about the rights of disabled people – the backlash against the government’s welfare reforms showed that – and we’re always telling ourselves that they have a right to full citizenship. Yet we also tell pregnant women that if the child is disabled then they have a total right to abort it. The results are pretty troubling. Nine out of 10 unborn babies diagnosed with spina bifida are aborted. The proportion is about the same for kids with Down’s Syndrome. In fact, a 2009 study found that three babies were aborted every day due to Down’s.
Now, again, I’m not saying that women shouldn’t necessarily be free to make that decision. All I’m saying is that in an abortion culture, there is a bias towards choosing abortion as a mythically easy option. Peter Elliott, Chairman of The Down Syndrome Research Foundation, who has a 24-year-old son David with Down’s Syndrome, said of that 2009 study: “Why are the abortions at such a high rate unless they have been given the impression the situation was terrible and it warranted an abortion? I don’t think the choice is presented to the parents in the light of the true situation where the children have a good life and are in fact viewed as a blessing to the parents, not a curse, and I don’t think these parents getting the abortions know much about Downs syndrome at all.”
Moreover, it makes perfect sense that a culture that regards human life as disposable at one end of the lifecycle should regard it as equally disposable at other points during its cycle. That point of view was eloquently expressed in an article in The Journal of Medical Ethics by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, who argued that newborn babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life” – after all they are not, like that embryo in the womb, entirely autonomous of their parents. They said that parents should be able to have their baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when it is born.
It’s perfectly natural to extend this logic to euthanasia – which has been legalised in the Benelux countries and is now being discussed seriously in Britain. Dr Joseph Fletcher, one of the godfathers of modern bio-ethics and a celebrated proponent of both abortion and euthanasia rights once reminisced fondly about about the days when he and the family planning advocate Margaret Sanger joined the Euthanasia Society of America, in order to “link the two [abortion and euthanasia] causes so to speak the right to be selective about parenthood and the right to be selective about living”. Fletcher explained, “We’ve added death control to birth control as a part of the ethos of life style in our society.” His argument was that life really has no value unless it is of a certain quality – a point reinforced by Richard Dawkins when he advised of a child with Down’s, “Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world”.
By the way, Dr Fletcher would have agreed. He once said that there was “no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down’s syndrome baby away, whether it’s ‘put away’ in the sense of hidden in a sanitarium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad; yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down’s is not a person.” A horrific attitude, you might think, but not so strange really when you consider the great violence that abortion does to our very concept of personhood.
Perhaps the greatest irony of this whole phenomenon is that while abortion was supposed to give women greater autonomy, we have evidence that it was being used in England by some families to terminate pregnancies entirely because the fetus was female. In other words, abortion was being used in such a way as to validate the medieval idea that girls are worth less than boys. Happily, this abuse looks set to be officially and explicitly outlawed for the first time.
All these problems are all the more troubling for the fact that we don’t discuss them. This reflects how modern capitalist societies deal with issues surrounding poverty, suffering, abuse etc – it pushes them out of view, using medical jargon or political phraseology to cover up for a variety of problems that need to be discussed in far blunter terms.
I was not always pro-life. I became so when my historical research into the American conservative movement compelled me, reluctantly, to read pro-life literature.
I was shocked to discover how messy abortion is. How painful it can be. How there is evidence to show it having long-term psychological effects. For instance, research by Professor Priscilla Coleman published in the British journal of psychiatry argues that, “abortion is associated with moderate to highly increased risks of psychological problems subsequent to the procedure. Women who had undergone an abortion experienced an 81 per cent increased risk of mental health problems, and nearly 10 per cent of the incidence of mental health problems were shown to be directly attributable to abortion.”
Why did I not know this? Because while abortion deals trauma to our society, we deal with it by ignoring it. It’s no different to the fact that we ignore shockingly high rates of suicide in prison. Appalling standards of care in elderly homes. The abuse and rape of children in children’s services. And this is what is so doubly perverse about the abortion culture: we effectively open the floodgates on something – and then refuse to talk about its reality. Abortion is at the very centre of the therapeutic state: the state that dulls pain with simplistic solutions rather than addresses their complex causes.
And all I’m asking for here today is that we have a serious conversation about it. Thank you for listening.
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