Who decides?

What’s so bad about abortion?, Future of Abortion conference, London, 24 June 2008

The debate about abortion today often takes the form of competing scientific claims: about exactly when the fetus becomes viable, whether it feels pain, the psychological effects on the woman, and so on. These are the issues regarded on both sides as the crucial ones on which to convince the public and more particularly policy-makers. But fundamentally the question of whether women should be free to have abortions is not a scientific one but a moral and political one. And this was the focus of a public debate taking place as part of the Future of Abortion conference organised by BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service), with heavyweight speakers on either side.

BPAS chief Ann Furedi was joined by Jon O’Brien of the intriguing US lobby group Catholics for Choice, up against Josephine Quintavalle of the anti-abortion Comment on Reproductive Ethics and conservative journalist Dominic Lawson. The discussion ranged widely, but was most interesting when it touched on the core moral question that is at the heart of the political controversy. While acknowledging that nobody ever sets out to have an abortion for fun, Ann Furedi made the case boldly that abortion can be a morally good thing, as opposed to a ‘necessary evil’. This position is rarely heard, but it is crucial to any serious debate about abortion.

Dominic Lawson’s anti-abortion argument hinged on the idea that a woman’s decision to abort is the crucial moral factor. This seems reasonable enough, but it is one-sided. Too often the discussion proceeds from the assumption that once pregnant all a woman has to do to have a baby is not have an abortion. Debates about ‘when life begins’ focus on the sperm, the egg and the embryo as if those factors alone are sufficient to create a human life. The forgotten ‘factor of production’ is nine months of a woman’s life. The availability of abortion means this factor cannot be taken for granted. The principles of autonomy and equality mean that it should not.

Of course, it is quite true that if a woman does not abort her embryo or fetus, and if she continues to look after herself and eat properly, ‘nature will take its course’, and the chances are she will have a child. But human beings have always tried to exert control over this process, and modern medicine allows women to have relatively simple and easy abortions at almost any point during pregnancy. In this context, it is disingenuous to pretend that women, like wild animals or plants, are mere vessels for natural processes. Not only is it untrue, but it obscures the resulting moral significance of a woman’s decision not to abort. A woman’s decision to go ahead with a pregnancy, to have a child, is not morally neutral – depending on the circumstances, it can be a morally good or morally bad decision. Crucially, since it concerns her own life, it need not – and probably should not – be a selfless decision.

In fact, many mainstream anti-abortion arguments implicitly acknowledge that what is really at issue is not the life of the fetus, but the motivation of the woman, and especially whether it is selfless or selfish. The greatest moral condemnation is reserved for those women who have abortions because they want to pursue their careers, or simply for the sake of convenience (as with the notorious news story about a woman choosing to have an abortion because pregnancy would have interfered with a skiing holiday). Dominic Lawson suggested at the debate that, with so many infertile couples desperate for children, it was obvious that women with unwanted pregnancies ought to opt for adoption rather than abortion. In this view, abortion is immoral because it is selfish.

Ultimately, who is to decide whether any particular woman’s reason is good enough? The real question here is how much value we place on individual autonomy. Anti-abortionists typically see virtue in resignation (especially when it comes to women), and ‘accepting the consequences of our actions’, however avoidable. Those of us who support the right to abortion do so because we believe men and women should take responsibility for our own lives, and assert as much control over them as possible.

Even those who condemn abortion in general are usually sympathetic to women who want abortions because they’ve been raped. Living with the consequences of a careless night of passion is one thing, but the idea that a brutal physical violation should lead to such a serious disruption to a woman’s life as having to carry the child of her attacker is abhorrent to most people. Given the possibility of a swift abortion, it is impossible to justify in ordinary moral terms. Here, anti-abortionists must fall back on ‘the absolute sanctity of life’. Josephine Quintavalle deliberately brought the example of rape up at the debate, because it is the one most often used against her. She gave the example of a woman she’d counselled and who had gone ahead with a pregnancy in such circumstances and now had no regrets. This anecdote is hardly a convincing argument for denying abortion to anyone else, but Quintavalle had already confessed that her position is grounded in Roman Catholic doctrine rather than moral reasoning.

Too often, religious doctrine is presented as the beginning and the end of the anti-abortion argument. This is partly because Catholics and other religious activists are the most vocal opponents of abortion. But Jon O’Brien reminded us that millions of morally thoughtful Catholics do not accept the teaching of the Vatican on the issue (as is even more the case with contraception), and some actually question its theological foundations. Perhaps more importantly, millions of non-believers (like Lawson) have strong moral intuitions against abortion, which they bring to bear on the political debate without recourse to irrational absolutes. It is not enough, then, to dismiss anti-abortionists as zealots.

Most people, certainly in Britain, do accept that abortion is morally acceptable at least some of the time, and further, that the best person to decide whether it is or isn’t is the particular woman in question. If these women are to continue to have access to safe abortion, we must not be afraid to have out the argument, and should not be afraid to make a strong moral case grounded not in science, but in respect for individual autonomy and equality between the sexes.

First published on Culture Wars.