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So the Telegraph has “uncovered” the fact that some doctors are offering abortions without asking very many questions. Well golly, who’dda thunk it?!
It hardly needs to be said that the Paper’s “expose” is more an exercise in advocacy than it is genuine investigative journalism. For decades it has been widely understood that British women have a de facto right to an abortion. The 1967 law obviously stops short of a full on right to choose. Yet the bar is deliberately set low. Women do not have to show that the face significant or substantial mental or physical harm. They must only demonstrate that the risks of mental harm associated with a continuation of the pregnancy exceed the risks associated with its termination – not all that that different the “more harm than good” test for anyone NHS operation. Meanwhile, in practice, one rarely if ever encounters a woman who is compelled to follow through with her pregnancy, because her reasons for termination were not good. Abortion today, is extremely common.
One thing that the right in particular have been cooing about, is the Telegraph’s discovery of doctors who appeared willing to offer “sex-selective” abortions, to women who wanted a son but who carried a prospective daughter. For some this reveals the hypocrisy of the feminists. “The irony of it”, opined the Telegraph’s Critina Odone, “is that feminists have always preached that abortion was something we women should fight for as our right; here it is being used to stamp out our sex”.
The idea that sex-selective abortion ought to represent some kind of grave moral dilemna for feminists is, to put it politely, misplaced. To be a feminist is to fight for the rights of women - real living women. It is not the role of feminists to defend a bundle of cells which might potentially turn into a female. For the same reason, the rather coercive manner in which males get laid throughout much of the animal kingdom is not an issue around which feminists tend to campaign. Feminism, I repeat, is about liberating women within the context of human society. Not a general commitment to all things female, or potentially female.
We may, rightly, dislike the cultural and social circumstances, that give rise to a preference for male heirs. Indeed we may dislike the reasoning that leads to “sex-selective” abortions. Yet if a woman chooses to have a termination – in oher words, to have something done to her own body – it is not the prerogative of society to decide whether or not she has a good enough reason for doing it. Sovereignty over one’s own body includes the right to make decisions with which other’s may be uncomfortable.
All of this reminds of a conservation I had a few years back with an evangelical Christian, who worked as one of Andrew Lansle’s political staff. At the time there was a campaign to reduce the legal limits within which feotuses could be aborted to 18 weeks. I told her that I didn’t understand why people like her, who believed that life started at conception, saw any moral value in reducing the term limit. Her answer was fairly forthright: the issue of terms limits, she said, was simply a mechanism by which the whole question of abortion could be put up for discussion. I suspect that something similar is happening here. People who have long had a problem with abortion – buoyed by the apparent sympathy of the health secretary – are doing their best to exploit ambiguities in the 1967 settlement, and the long accepted disparities between the legal theory and the social and medical practice. The issue may indeed come to something of a head within this parliament. As such it is more important than ever to push for Britain to join many other developed Liberal democracies in granting women a proper and unqualified right to choose.
One in three women, remember, have an abortion at some point in their lives. Combine that with the number of people whose sister, mother or aughter has opted, at some point, for a termination, and we are probably talking about a majority of the country. Under such circumstances, those of us who support the full sovereignty of women over their own bodies need not be defensive nor moderate in addressing the the issues that the pro-life right have forced onto the agenda. If the telegraph and co. want a fight over the right to choose, they can bring it on.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org