Brian Sewell once wrote an article about abortion headlined: ‘Women, the killers in our midst.’ He got an awful lot of flak for it, which he took in his stride. He came to mind during the screening of Abortion On Trial, the documentary hosted by Anne Robinson and screened this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act. In it, one of the participants described abortion as murder. ‘Are nine of us here… murderers?’ asked Mrs Robinson with a flourish, to which the only tactful answer was no, of course not. Brian would unhesitatingly have said yes.
Abortion is one of those issues about which dissent is not normally socially permissible right now; see what happened to Jacob Rees-Mogg. You can say it’s a difficult decision but you must, to avoid online lynching, say it is the woman’s right to choose and that the shame and stigma associated with abortion are incongruous, a result of women not sharing their abortion experiences. Those who disagree, as two of the nine participants in the documentary did, are subjected to the argument that ends all argument: think what you like, but don’t go imposing your views on me and my body. Or, more concretely, as one of the women participants said to a man who wanted to subject every abortion to a quasi judicial review; ‘It’s my vagina that this enormous thing is coming out of.’ No arguing with that, eh?
Well, actually, you can, though it’s obviously awkward when one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. You don’t call your friends killers, do you? A fair number of my friends have had abortions, and I feel for them. Another friend is a consultant who signs off abortions — and has no illusions that they come within the letter of the 1967 law. Yet another friend is an obstetrician-gynaecologist who stands zero chance of promotion in her department because she doesn’t do abortions.
But there’s a missing party from the argument, isn’t there? One reason Brian Sewell may have nursed no illusions about abortion is that his father wanted his mother to abort him — this was pre-1967 — but she stoutly refused. Another surprising pro--lifer, the late Christopher Hitchens, may have been subliminally affected in his view by the fact that some of his siblings were aborted.
And when it comes to those who got away — i.e. lived — my own father is almost certainly one. He was born to a young, unmarried Protestant girl in pre-war Ireland and was handed across the counter of a draper’s shop by his aunt when he was a day old. He couldn’t have been less wanted by his natural family — his mother made it clear later that she’d been traumatised by the whole thing. But fortunately, there was someone who did want him — the shop assistant’s sister, who collected him from the shop and took him home and loved him. To the pro-choice slogan: ‘Every Child a Wanted Child’, my slitty-eyed response is, yes quite, fool, but wanted by whom?
It’s probably safe to say that anyone who was adopted prior to 1967 can count themselves lucky; had safe, legal abortion been available, they are unlikely to have made it. A little while ago I reviewed a book about the grim situation of unmarried mothers for this magazine, which described the trauma of girls who gave up their unplanned offspring for adoption and which concluded in 1967, when the Abortion Act was introduced and the problem was resolved. Except it wasn’t.
Tom Stoppard’s recent, interesting play The Hard Problem centres around a young woman who gave away her infant daughter for adoption; she was, said the mother, ‘the last shame baby’. Well, illegitimacy doesn’t occasion humiliation any more, but in a no-shame society with ubiquitous access to contraceptives, we still have more than 202,000 abortions a year and vanishingly few infant adoptions — 230 babies under a year old in 2015.
The 50th anniversary of the passing of the Act is an occasion for sombre reflection, not celebration, notwithstanding the gruesome activities of groups like the Shout Your Abortion lobby, who share their experience to destigmatise the issue. But the Shout Your Abortion movement does reveal the essential problem with this question: it’s reduced to the subjective and personal. Any discussion is stymied by the simple syllogism: I have had an abortion; I am not an evil person; therefore abortion is not evil.
After half a century of the abortion law, all we’ve got is a reductive ‘who are you calling a murderer?’ take. A more rational approach would be to ask whether or not the foetus is human, and if human, at what point should its humanity be recognised in law. The present limit of 24 weeks is grotesque — one awkward point in the Robinson documentary was when a cardboard cutout of an embarrassingly large lifesize foetus of that age was put on the table. The absence of any time limit for abortions on the basis of disability makes a nonsense of our supposed belief in equality. The dis-abled peer Lord Shinkwin introduced a bill to give legal parity to handicapped and able-bodied foetuses under the abortion law, but he was seen off. We’re in an awkward situation when it comes to deciding what qualifies as a human being: if the foetus features in a grainy 12-week pregnancy scan, it’s an unequivocal baby; if it’s to be aborted, it’s rude to ask.
Most people, in fact, seem to feel unease about the present limit. A ComRes survey of more than 2,000 adults online conducted for the BBC in May found that 70 per cent of women wanted the current time limit to be lowered; nearly 60 per cent wanted it at 16 weeks or less.
As for the Act itself, it’s patently at odds with reality: do you know anyone — anyone? — who’s had an abortion who actually fell within the legal requirements, viz, that the pregnancy posed a risk to her physical or mental health greater than if the child were born alive? David Steel, who introduced the bill, thinks abortion should be decriminalised outright. There are some steely feminists who are adamant that a woman’s right to choose is absolute, unless she chooses to abort on the basis of the gender of the foetus, in which case it is quite wrong.
What would I want? It’s not practicable for abortion to be outlawed outright in Britain, even though I think it’s wrong at any point. Maybe a cut-off limit of 12 weeks, the point at which the foetus is demonstrably human? What I’d really like more than anything is for plain speaking on the issue. Abortion is killing a human being. Would I call it murder? No. But ‘homicide’ seems about right.