‘Throughout the whole Greco-Roman civilisation abortion was permitted by law. It was Christianity which revolutionised moral ideas in this matter by endowing the embryo with a soul; for then abortion became a crime against the foetus itself’.
- Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex.
There is one reason only a woman should have the legal right to abortion and it is not because of rape, incest, foetal abnormality or threat of suicide; but simply because she chooses to. The above are reasons she may decide to abort, however they are not the principle upon which the right to abortion should be established.
In the North and South of Ireland the legal right of women an abortion is discussed on the premise of the woman as ‘victim’, the woman as ‘vulnerable’, the woman as ‘irrational’. Women must present as ‘broken’, ‘violated’ and ‘unbalanced’ before they have the right to request an abortion let alone be granted one.
Further, it is not enough that the woman has been raped etc. it must be established that there is a ‘real’ danger that she will commit suicide. The fact that she doesn’t want to carry her rapist’s child does not suffice, she must be prepared to die to avoid it. Again she is not capable of deciding this but as with children others must decide what is best for her. This fascist state of play has been permitted to exist in Ireland far beyond its sell by date because the notion of female autonomy is largely absent from the debate.
On the hand the anti-abortion lobby, driven by religious belief, is scientifically blind and deaf. It is fixed on the belief that life begins at conception which explains its fanatical opposition to abortion even in tragic cases. This also explains the extreme views of Bernie Smyth, Director of Precious Life, whom when asked ‘what the young girl or woman who is suicidal because she does not want to go through with the pregnancy should do?’ responds candidly, ‘In some cases women who are suicidal during pregnancy may even need to be institutionalised in some cases’.
Whether deliberate or not Bernie replaces the ‘because’ with ‘during’ pregnancy, leaving enough interpretative wriggle room for future combats, but given the context of the discussion there is little doubt what she is advocating. (25th August 2014). The imprisonment of women in mental hospitals until they give birth to children they don’t want, then their release back into society, with or without the child, to a society which doesn’t give a damn what becomes of them.
The pro-choice lobby, starting from such a low base, has tended to push to the fore the ‘vulnerable’ woman argument with a view that this will lead to public sympathy shifting in favour of abortion. This is understandable, as the public tend to respond sympathetically to a broken woman but with disdain at an independent one. This tactic however is ineffective and fundamentally flawed, particularly from a moral and rights perspective.
In rejection of the anti-abortion lobby’s argument that ‘abortion = murder’ the pro-choice accept that it is not an ‘actual’ person being terminated therefore the debate must centre on the legal right of all women to have abortions, not a few.
The principle upon which the debate should centre is the woman’s right to choose because she is an autonomous rational human being. Women should not have to plead and in many cases, feign suicide to obtain the right not to reproduce. Women should not be denied the right to abortion on the grounds that they have not been violated or are not mentally ill. Women should not be categorised into the deserving and the non- deserving.
The debate must progress beyond the ‘victim centred’ approach. Many women will choose abortions for the reasons cited but the thousands of women who travel to England every year for abortions, and who have been doing so for decades, do so because they do not want a baby or another baby. Women’s reasons like their circumstances will vary, but there is a common thread and that is the cost of motherhood.
Motherhood radically changes the status of women and curtails if not extinguishes her liberty (that ideal upon which wars are supposedly launched resulting in the killing of millions). Every woman knows what it means to be pregnant and the first question asked is usually ‘are you happy about it?’This question encompasses a dozen other unasked questions probing the profound changes which will come about if the pregnancy continues.
Is she happy with the detrimental effect it will have on her career? Is she happy with the state of domesticity it will bring? Is she happy that the father will forever be a fixture in her life? Is she happy that from here on her identity will be that of ‘Mother’? Is she happy that she will be no longer ‘her’?
The inevitable physical changes are rarely mentioned as a concern or consideration, unless a dress fitting is on the horizon. For those women to whom answer is ‘Yes’ the recipient is happy for them and the pregnancy is embraced with happiness, expectation and commitment. For others it is No and they may decide to abort.
These women are not irrational, vulnerable and weak but rational human beings weighing up a decision based on reflection, assessment and judgement on the outcome of the options available.
For most it is a difficult and emotional decision ultimately made for pragmatic reasons in the cold light of rationality. It is within this context that debate on abortion should be based. The fear that women may choose en masse not to become mothers suggest a problem with that status in the first place, and is in contrast to society’s imposition of the mother role on women as a natural state only to be avoided by the deviant or unique women.
Until the ground of debate shifts away from the woman as the ‘other’ to woman as a fully formed autonomous human being, control of women’s reproduction will remain in the hands of the misogynists. People, such as those who designed the abominable Eighth Amendment in the South and whom are trying desperately to further restrict abortion in the North have for too long framed the debate to their liking.
It is time for women to take control of the conversation and to look these people in the eye and say, ‘I choose abortion because, I choose abortion’.