Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pro-choice, Pro-life?

Although I'm very broadly speaking in the "pro-choice camp", I don't believe the discussion about unwanted pregnancies is best served by means the false dichotomy that "pro-life" v "pro-choice" actually is. Incidentally, I'm not a great fan of Madeleine Bunting either but the piece below puts an interesting angle on the renewed British debate...

Beyond the shrill polemic

It is not anti-choice to want a more thoughtful debate on why women have so many abortions

Madeleine Bunting

One of my favourite emails from a reader told me, "I wish I was as certain of anything as you are of everything." The latter is far from the case, but it served as a salutary reminder that the certainty columnists are paid to produce can sometimes cripple public debate, alienating readers and reducing complexity to wittily phrased polemic. There's been evidence of that in the debate about abortion law reform. While lobbyists and commentators lambast each other with withering contempt, the majority shift uncomfortably in their seats, committed to legal abortion but still feeling uncertain on this most emotive of subjects.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that those who are most certain in this debate are using old weapons to re-fight the last war, which was about the legality of abortion. But that war is finished; there is rightly a public consensus and a hefty parliamentary majority to ensure that there will be no return to backstreet abortions. The crazier antics of the anti-abortion movement is born from desperation in the face of that reality; the pro-choice have won that argument conclusively, as even the Catholic bishops appeared last week to concede in their statement acknowledging that the law was unlikely to change.

The trigger for the debate is the review in parliament expected later this week around various proposed reforms to the law such as the time limit (at present 24 weeks) up to which abortions can be performed, and the requirement for two doctors to agree to an abortion (an absurd bit of bureaucratic paperwork) which will feed into possible amendments in the tissues and embryo bill. But these changes are not central to the markedly different and much more reflective debate which is emerging as legal abortion reaches its 40th birthday.

At the core of this more thoughtful debate is the issue of why there are so many abortions. The number has tipped over 200,000 a year, and the rate per thousand women is more than three times that of the Netherlands. To be concerned about this volume is not necessarily to make a judgment about there being "too many" - a distinction which Lord Steel was at pains to make last week. Nor is it a trigger for panic - the increases have been small during the last 27 years and owe more to demographics than to any wild claims of a collapse in sexual morality. But for the first time in two generations a degree of consensus emerges in which protagonists as far apart as Ann Furedi, director of communications at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and the English Catholic hierarchy, can agree along with Lord Steel that, as Furedi put it to me, "all of us would like the number of unwanted pregnancies reduced".

Who can disagree with that? The point at issue is whether this abortion rate is an unavoidable part of modern society or whether there might be a way to reduce it. Abortion has helped women to make some great gains - pursuing education and careers at the same time as enjoying sexual relationships, a combination which an unwanted pregnancy often made impossible in the past. Rising abortion rates may also reflect greater appreciation of the enormous responsibilities of parenthood. But balanced against these positives, it is also entirely possible that the abortion rate reflects a failure, say in contraception services or in a working culture which is not sympathetic to parenthood, which needs to be addressed. There has been an odd lack of curiosity as to why so many women end up with an unwanted pregnancy.

Even the sacred slogan of the 70s is under debate in the US pro-choice movement. A "woman's right to choose" in an age when "rights" have been stripped of political meaning and perceived as entitlement, and choice has become the ultimate consumer value, means that the slogan appears to trivialise what is never trivial.

Contrary to the fears expressed by some that abortion could become so normalised that it is as routine as going to the dentist, abortion is never an easy decision for anyone - although it may, sometimes, be an obvious decision. Over the last 40 years, new technology has made the complexity of that decision all the more apparent; pictures of foetuses are now a routine part of pregnancy, they are often the first image in the family photo album. They graphically illustrate the potential for life at a very early stage. Abortion is a subject which generates emotional and moral ambivalence - that is not an argument for changing the law, but it is an argument against a public debate dominated by shrill polemic.


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