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'Pro-life' politics, low-life tactics

The 'pro-life' lobby against abortion is quietly gaining ground again in parliament. Susannah Hall replies to their arguments

British anti-abortion activists maybe quieter than the American variety, but they are just as dangerous. They beaver away in parliament trying to show that the 1967 Act has given women abortion on request and is being abused by callous doctors who have no respect for life. In the first half of this year alone, more than 50 questions were raised by anti-abortion MPs like Liberal David Alton and Tory Ann Winterton, largely around four issues.

The disposal of fetal tissue

David Alton made a stink after he found a private abortion clinic in Liverpool using a macerator (which grinds fetal remains down). He demanded those responsible be prosecuted, arguing that 'the human remains of the unborn child should be treated with respect'.

Nobody wants to watch babies' bodies being shoved into grinders, and the anti-abortion groups Life and Spuc often use pictures of bits of fetal legs and arms to play on this sentiment. Alton knew he could rely on the authorities to be sensitive on such an issue; sure enough, the health department conceded that maceration was 'inappropriate' and undertook to phase it out.

How women feel about the disposal of the fetus after an abortion probably depends on how they feel about the pregnancy. Women who want a child and are having their pregnancy upset by the necessity of an abortion (maybe because the fetus is disabled), might feel sensitive about how its remains are disposed of. Their pregnancy meant a forthcoming child, around which they had already started organising their lives - buying clothes, thinking of names, etc. The aborted fetus is more likely to represent the dead child, and as such, they may want its remains to be buried.

However, for the majority of women having abortions, disposal of the remains is not an issue. Abortion for them is not about ridding themselves of a child, but of a problem. These women want to have an abortion to avoid reorganising their lives around a baby, and they want to have the operation with minimal fuss - something which is hard to attain on the NHS. It would be far more useful if the health department worried about the provision of adequate abortion facilities rather than the disposal of fetal remains.

Alton tries to play on public squeamishness to strengthen the case against abortion. But in fact most of us would be just as squeamish about watching the disposal of limbs, appendices, wombs or any of the other bits and pieces commonly removed during surgery. That does not mean that we're against operations.

The conscience clause

The conscience clause of the 1967 Act allows doctors to opt out of performing abortions. David Alton asked the Secretary of State for Health to extend this to include ancillary staff who may have to deal with fetal tissue. Alton was no doubt surprised when Virginia Bottomley reassured him that hospital managers had been instructed to extend the clause as requested. Ann Winterton immediately pushed the point further, asking why the extension didn't include personnel involved in preparing a woman for an abortion.

Anti-abortionists try to imply that medical staff who object to abortion suffer discrimination. But, in fact, the medical establishment is all too willing to allow them to opt out.

The opt-out clause is a peculiarity of the Abortion Act. Who would want medical staff to be able to opt out of treating us if they were a Jehovah's Witness, and disagreed with blood transfusions? It should be entirely unacceptable for women trying to get an abortion to be faced with refusals and hostility from doctors and other staff who disagree on religious grounds.

This problem is made far worse by the mixing of maternity and abortion facilities in British hospitals. If the NHS provided separate abortion clinics, they could be staffed by people sympathetic to a woman's need to terminate a pregnancy. After all, nobody would work for the Family Planning Service if they disagreed with contraception. It would be more satisfactory for women, who now find themselves dumped on maternity wards after their abortion, often with distraught women who have just miscarried.

Abortion because of handicap

As more and more ante-natal tests are made available to women, Alton and his followers are quick to point out that they may lead to more abortions. Anti-abortionists don't regard disability in a fetus to be grounds for an abortion. In fact, they argue that abortion on these grounds is discrimination against disabled people, adding an emotional kick to the argument by likening people who advocate such abortions to eugenicists and Nazis.

There is a vital distinction, however, between a deformed fetus and a disabled person, which makes it possible to take a quite different attitude. Fetuses are not human beings. Aborting an unwanted pregnancy is not the same as murdering a child; and supporting a woman's right to abort a disabled fetus does not mean advocating death camps for the disabled. There is no contradiction between on the one hand wanting to lessen the number of people who are born with disabilities and, on the other, fighting discrimination against disabled people.

Of course a fetus, disabled or not, is biologically alive and has the potential to become a baby. The question is whether that potential should take precedence over the ability of a woman to control her actual life. Being unable to determine whether she should be pregnant relegates a woman to the role of an incubator. There is no way that such dehumanisation can be justified through the cynical use of emotive arguments about disability.

Post-abortion trauma

Alton has also used another line to profess his concern about women's health, demanding that the health department report on the terrible effects of post-abortion trauma. Post-abortion trauma, or syndrome, is described as follows in a British Victims of Abortion leaflet:

'Post-Abortion Syndrome (PAS) can be devastating to women and men who experience it. For some their depression reaches the point of suicide. Many turn to alcohol and substance abuse to deaden the lingering pain from this unrecognised death experience.'

Since abortion is such a devastating experience, say the anti-abortionists, no woman should have to endure it. The government has already carried out research into PAS and it is now common practice in abortion clinics to assume that women want counselling after the operation. Many pro-choice activists also present abortion as a horrible experience, but something which nonetheless needs to be available for women to choose if they really need it.

Why is it that women feel traumatic about having an abortion? Why should it be more stressful than having your appendix out? The difference between the experience of these two operations is not medical, but moral. Abortion is stigmatised in our society - not just by hardliners who say abortion is murder, but also by the authorities who insist that women cannot be allowed to have an abortion without the approval of two doctors.

It is hardly surprising that women feel under psychological pressure not to have an abortion. Being a mother is supposed to be the ultimate fulfilment for a woman in this society. So those who have an abortion may well feel guilty and depressed. However, there is little evidence to suggest that it causes long-term psychological problems.

The British Journal of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published a paper last April which noted that just three women out of every 10 000 will suffer 'post-abortion psychosis' - a much smaller figure than the 10 per cent of mothers who suffer post-natal depression, the most common complication of childbirth in the West. And what about the psychological impact of having to go ahead and give birth to an unwanted child?

The 'pro-life' lobby may be low profile, but its arguments are slowly gaining ground, and winning concessions which further undermine a woman's limited access to abortion. In this, the anti-abortionists have been aided by the highly defensive stance of their opponents.

Typically, most of those who oppose Alton and Winterton now call themselves 'pro-choice' because it sounds less offensive than being 'pro-abortion'. This is just dodging the issue. The 'pro-lifers' arguments should be met head-on: for a start, by expressing unequivocal support for the right to abortion as a simple operation which enables women to decide for themselves whether they want to be pregnant or not.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992

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