1 Oct 2013

As a happily childfree woman who intends to stay that way for life, I'm a member of several groups on Facebook where the childfree can get together and discuss the various issues we encounter in a society that still seems to view women who don't wish to reproduce with, at best, suspicion and at worst, outright hostility. One of the discussion topics that seems to come up with regularity is abortion, which is not entirely surprising as pretty much everyone on the group seems to be pro-choice. I don't really see how you could intend to stay childfree for life and not believe in the right to abortion on demand, but anyway. While the majority of commenters tend to be agreed on the need for abortion access, any discussion about it inevitably includes some kind of comment about 'people using abortion as birth control' or 'people who wait 20 weeks then get a late-term abortion'. Firstly, I always wonder why, when it's obviously impossible to legislate to account for all the possible reasons someone might want an abortion, anyone even bothers making a comment such as 'I think it's fine to get abortion if X, Y and Z [the implication being that if you were just let down by your contraception, or raped, or the foetus had serious abnormalities, you somehow are more DESERVING of the abortion] but if you just weren't careful then I don't think you should get one'? Does anyone actually think doctors are going to start asking women for proof that they've 'been careful' or were raped, or aren't just 'using abortion as birth control', and does any pro-choice person actually think that's a desirable state of affairs?

Similarly, the discussion about late-term abortion always seems to involve a similar abandoning of the sense and logic that I would usually expect from pro-choice people. Even though 91% of abortions in the UK are carried out at 13 weeks or less, and abortions are being performed earlier and earlier thanks to better detection rates, there is often a disproportionate focus on later abortions, presumably because the more 'it looks like a baby', the more emotive people tend to get about the issue of terminating a pregnancy. What people tend to forget that, however distasteful they might find the idea of a 6 month old foetus being terminated, UK doctors technically have the right to terminate the foetus right up to the point of birth if the mother's life is actually in danger, so there's no point pretending that, under our law, the foetus' 'right to life' ever trumps the mother's right to live, however developed it is - because as long as it's inside the mother's body, there are always circumstances under which it could still be terminated.

What got me thinking about all this was reading an article from The Times, published in July this year, which described the work of Dr Susan Robinson, who performs abortions at a clinic in New Mexico, where there are no time limits on the gestational age at which abortions can be performed. I was interested to hear someone on the front line respond to those who believe that abortion should be granted to women if they have 'earned' the right through an unfortunate mishap, but not if they had simply been careless, or 'left it too long'. I hear these arguments far too often, even from those who are supposedly pro-choice, and I wonder if they genuinely believe that any woman gets pregnant, sits around for 20 or 24 weeks and then says 'Hey ho, better go see about an abortion'. As someone for whom children are simply not an option, I know that the first inkling of pregnancy would send me straight to the pharmacy to find out the truth, and then straight to the doctor to, as Ellen Page's character puts it in Juno, 'nip it in the bud'. I also know however, that I am a healthy, well-off middle-class woman living in a 1st world country where abortion is available locally, quickly and for free. So it interested me to read some statistics on abortions carried out at 25 weeks and beyond. In a study of 268 cases in the US, Glenna Halvorson-Boyd found that 29 percent of these women had experienced no symptoms of pregnancy - either they still had periods, or had had erratic periods to begin with (I fall into the latter category - the progesterone-only pill Micronor means I don't menstruate, so I do not have any periods to 'miss' in the first place). Another 19 percent were 'overwhelmed by extraordinary circumstances, such as homelessness or drug addiction'. I think even those who wish to 'punish' women for being so 'irresponsible' as to wait 25 weeks to end a pregnancy might think twice about the wisdom of forcing a homeless or heroin-addicted woman to become a mother.

A further 18 percent were told that the foetus was very ill late in pregnancy - another unfortunate aspect of biology that a lot of people forget. Many foetal abnormalities don't show up until the 20 week scan, which means women in 8 American states may have to carry seriously ill foetuses to term, as the law in their states prohibit abortions after 20 weeks. 2 percent of post 25-week abortions were carried out on 'teen athletes who did not menstruate', and 3 percent on women pregnant from rape. Another 3 percent 'had planned to have their baby until their circumstances dramatically shifted (most were abandoned by the man, but one was diagnosed with cancer'. Ever noticed that those who are most disapproving of abortion are also those who tend to have a massive downer on single mothers, deeming them to be the root of most social ills? So I wonder what solution they would advise, if a woman is pregnant and then her partner walks out on her, cheats on her or starts to beat her? Which reminds me - two women out of these 268 'had only been able to reach an abortion provider after escaping from abusive captors'. And in one case 'a pro-life doctor may have intentionally misled the woman', telling her she was not pregnant.

So, not so much a case of pregnant woman sitting on the sofa scoffing Doritos until 6 months have passed, and more a case of factors such as unreliable biology, money, health, life shitting in your lap and male coercion/violence combining together to create a world where late-term abortions are still very much necessary.

However, even if the woman exists who does 'use abortion as birth control' and doesn't take responsibility for her fertility in a way we might like, it's still not for any of us to judge. Either abortion is available to us all for whatever reason, or 'trusting women' means nothing. If we have to be treated like Oliver Twist begging for what is rightfully ours, we cannot call ourselves full or free citizens. Men's reasons for wanting to have a safe, legal medical procedure (a procedure which, in this case, has a risk of death 14 times LOWER than that associated with childbirth) are not questioned or attacked, and neither should women's. As Susan Robinson says, she trusts all the women who come to her "have good reasons... They may not be the reasons that you would need or I would need... But who am I to tell somebody that their story is not good enough?".

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