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Let’s bring the abortion debate to life

In Germany, they perform half as many terminations as we do. Why are we so keen on them?

10 September 2011

12:00 AM

10 September 2011

12:00 AM

No one ever really expected Nadine Dorries’s ill-fated abortion bill to succeed — not after the Lib Dems had made a fuss, and the PM had withdrawn his support with his usual principled grace. But what’s more surprising has been the strange and unpleasant consensus which has risen up from the debate about the bill, and has been twisting into the minds and out of the mouths of journalists all week — not just on the left, but across the centre too, and throughout Westminster. The consensus that’s taken shape seems to be this: that abortion is not just a necessary evil, but a jolly good thing. That being pro-choice no longer means just accepting that a woman has a right to decide, but that abortion must be celebrated and all doubters deemed religious nut jobs.

Well, let me put my cards on the table straightaway (I have two cards as it happens). The first is that I am a religious nut job. I’m Catholic and a convert to boot. But whether you believe it or not, my religion isn’t the cause of my concern. For one thing, most Catholics were hostile to the Dorries amendment (which they see as a measly sop and a tactical mistake). For another, you don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to think it odd to adopt a completely cavalier attitude towards the unborn. I thought this long before I considered the Church, and considered the Church because of it.

Nadine Dorries and Frank Field’s amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill, in case it passed you by, was designed to try to ensure that groups who counselled young women about abortions were different from the groups who actually provided them. And the first sign that a new orthodoxy was forming was the completely disproportionate reaction to this suggestion. To anyone who thinks abortion is sad — not disgraceful or criminal, just sad — the amendment seemed at least worthy of debate. If I wanted larger bosoms, say, I’d definitely seek a second opinion from someone other than the boob-job merchant. How much more important then, when it’s babies, and a woman’s future peace of mind, at stake?

One in every five pregnancies currently ends in abortion, there were 189,574 last year — seven of embryos with cleft palates; eight of babies over 24 weeks, aborted because they had musculoskeletal problems like club foot. It just shouldn’t be controversial to think fewer would be better. Marie Stopes (who provide both counselling and abortions in the UK) ran an advertisement last year — the first one ever by an abortion clinic — which showed a series of beautiful, affluent-looking women for whom it seemed as if an inconvenient pregnancy was a cloud on an otherwise perfect life. It seemed, in that little clip, for all the world as if an embryo were a sort of venereal disease that could be cleared up by the topical application of a pleasant, scented cream.

There must be women for whom the decision not to abort is the right one, especially given the mental health issues many women suffer afterwards — are they best advised by Marie Stopes? I’m not sure. There’s also evidence that a slightly more sober approach to abortion lowers the rate dramatically. In Germany, for instance, the physician must be separate from the counsellor and a woman must wait three days between her decision and her op. Their abortion rate is half ours. So, what is wrong with offering independent counselling?

Well, said the commentariat, first of all, it’s absolute nonsense to say that we need fewer abortions. Second, those who frown on abortion might be awarded contracts. Christians for example. It was as if Christians, even Anglicans of the bell-ringing, country church variety, were a terrorist-style threat. Last Saturday, the Guardian ran a strange set of diagrams linking Dorries and Field to organisations they suspected of having Christian tendencies: a mish-mash of photos linked by accusatory arrows, of the sort usually used to describe Islamist networks. But this isn’t just a lefty phenomenon. Health minister Anne Milton actually wrote to all Tory MPs telling them that ministers were voting ‘no’ to the amendment, signalling quite clearly that she expected them to, too. The Times 2 headline was: ‘Why can’t Nadine Dorries just relax about abortion?’

Then there was the Fox-hunt. While the PM was executing his U-turn, Dr Fox piped up and said: ‘I would certainly support any amendment that saw the number of abortions fall in the UK. I think the level is far too high.’ Instead of commending him on an uncharacteristic burst of common sense, a Halloo! went up across Fleet street and spread across the Twittering classes. What on earth does Fox mean, ‘too high?’ What a bigot! What a misogynist!
But it doesn’t make you a bigot to be melancholy about the considered killing of 200,000 embryos a year — whether they’re baked-bean sized or bigger — it just makes you human. It does not make you a misogynist or a neo-Victorian to think that abortion shouldn’t be morally equivalent to contraception. Every rational man or woman in this country, gay or straight, old or young, should be sad, not jubilant about the rate and extent of abortion in the UK.

The particularly aggressive voices on the pro-abortion side come from women who fear a return to the bad old bullying days of back-street abortions, before the 1967 Act. ‘If MPs want to help women then they can make access to abortion and contraception more efficient,’ said Suzanne Moore in the Guardian. ‘Who has the authority over my body — some geezer in the House of Commons or me and my doctor? I feel no shame [about her abortion] and I refute this language of “care”. You want a definition of the nanny state? How about one that thinks it OK to poke around in your uterus?’

Hey ho Suzanne, you’d better stay angry, because otherwise you might have to think. And even a short think reveals the weirdness here. I don’t want MPs poking around in my uterus either, but there’s got to be a stage during pregnancy when a baby can no longer be thought of as part of a woman’s ‘body’. If Suzanne’s right that a foetus has the same moral status as a kidney, then does she also think it’s okay to sell it, say to medical science — and without whispering a word to its father? But don’t fathers have rights too? Is this really the best of politically correct, 21st-century thinking?

The fact is that unless you’re a fan of infanticide you’ve got to agree that somewhere along the slippery ascent from that little Alka-Seltzer of pluripotent cells to the birth of an actual baby, your child becomes human. I’d take a guess that most men and women feel it’s a sliding scale, that each month adds another dollop of personhood, each month brings us closer to a duty to care for him or her. The logic of this is that when a embryo dies it’s a sad thing, the end of an iota of personhood, not a cause for celebration.

Here I’ll put my other card on the table: I was a premature baby, my twin brother and I were born over two months early, at around 29 weeks. We were tiny and I was covered in hair like a spider. As we fought for our lives in incubators, at that time in the mid-Seventies, the abortion limit was just a week earlier: 28 weeks. As we struggled to breathe, elsewhere, a few of our tiny, spidery peer group were being killed. And so I feel this one personally, from the perspective of the voiceless pre-born. And I feel it’s crucial to keep this perspective in mind for fear of otherwise sleep-walking into some terrible normality.

If you’re still convinced that all abortions, even the late ones for babies with hare-lips, are good, then here’s a question: how do you feel about killing kittens? I ask because it’s often abortion’s greatest fans who feel most indignant on behalf of animals. They’ll go to the wall to save a chicken-killing fox from hounds, but sod the babies. There was a story last year about a group of scientists who had decided that dolphins were so intelligent that they should be given official rights. ‘The neuroanatomy suggests psychological continuity between humans and dolphins and has profound implications for the ethics of human-dolphin relations,’ said the zoologist. Well great, let’s fund an inquiry into dolphin rights, I’m all for it. But what about that group of pre-born living beings whose neuroanatomy might suggest an even greater psychological continuity with our own?

If you want cold-blooded reason, look at it another way. A utilitarian calculus would, I’m pretty sure, tell you that the most ethical thing to do with an unwanted pregnancy, what would make most people most happy, is for the reluctant mother to carry an unwanted baby to full term and give it up for adoption. The adopted parents will be thrilled, and their happiness has every chance of lasting a lifetime — longer than the biological mother’s discomfort. And then there’s the child’s happiness to consider. It’s daft to ask which it would prefer — what would you prefer? Anyone would rather be adopted than aborted. To suggest otherwise is to spit in the eye of life.

That’s what I think of this very gung-ho attitude to abortion — it’s just bloody ungrateful. A spit in the eye of life. Yes, nature’s pretty cruel, but no sane, well-fed bitch would kill her healthy puppy because its lip was twisted. There’s a tragicomic horror about a society in which every year a few couples undertake the incredible business of making a new human, only to throw it away because a tiny bit of it’s folded wrong, and you know, the corrective operation might leave a scar. But far worse is a society in which even to raise some doubts about this is to be considered a laughable lunatic. The best and only explanation I can come up with is that secretly we all know this; we know the current consensus is wrong, but it’s just easier to stay in denial. 

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