By Ann Furedi
This article was first printed in Conscience, Volume 20,
Number 3 (Autumn 1999), and appears here with the permission
of the author.
The cultural discourse that frames the abortion debate has
changed and become more complex with each decade. Throughout
the 1970s, in Western societies, the arguments for a woman's
right to choose seemed relatively straightforward. The need
for "free abortion on demand" was a central tenet of the
women's liberation movement and abortion was situated in
the context of women's right to social equality. It was
understood that if a woman was unable to control her fertility
she was unable to participate in society on equal terms
with men and that, since contraception is not infallible,
if a woman was unable to end an unwanted pregnancy she was
unable to enjoy her sexuality. To argue against "the right
to choose" was to argue that women should fulfill their
traditional domestic destiny as wives and mothers at a time
when sexual freedom and women's economic independence were
celebrated. To argue for "the right to abortion on demand"
was to be radical, to argue against it was to be reactionary.
The debate was polarized and the lines clearly drawn. Today
the abortion debate is more complex and the arguments are
The biggest challenges faced by those of us who maintain,
without qualification, that every woman should be able to
act according to her own conscience and choose whether to
continue or end her pregnancy, are the areas where liberal
values seem to require contradictory responses.
Our feminism is affronted when we are faced with a couple
who decide to end a previously wanted pregnancy because
they have discovered that the child would be the wrong gender:
a girl. To condone the choice of abortion seems to devalue
the lives of girls and lend passive support to a system
of cultural values that oppresses women. Yet to deny this
woman the right to make her own choice, because we disapprove
of the reason for her abortion request, is to mirror the
actions of paternalistic doctors who have similarly refused
to comply with abortion requests because, in their eyes,
women did not have good enough reasons.
Support for abortion on grounds of fetal abnormality seems
difficult when advocates of the rights of the disabled claim
that what they see as quality control decisions about "the
unborn" mirror our attitude to "the born." Increasingly,
an argument is made that there is a eugenic intent behind
antenatal screening. We feel uneasy when faced with a pregnant
woman who says I want a child -- but not this one because
it is affected by Down's syndrome or spina bifida or would
be deaf or blind. Yet to deny this woman's choice is to
condemn her to carry to term and give birth to a child that
she may dread and wish dead.
Issues surrounding late abortions seem especially difficult.
Techniques in fetal medicine have made it easier to sustain
the lives of the severely premature. Society has embraced
the concept of the rights of the born child, and yet we
continue to maintain that the fetus has no rights. Medical
ethicists and lawyers currently speculate about what it
is about the passage through the vaginal canal that transforms
the status of the fetus so completely. To explain and justify
a woman's reasons for requesting an abortion in what would,
in any case, be the final months of a normal pregnancy is
an argument that many in the prochoice movement have recoiled
It is tempting to avoid these debates and dust down well-rehearsed
scripts about the need to defend choice that have served
us in the past. But the issues have changed and to rely
on old slogans is to allow opponents of women's choice to
build their camp on the moral high ground, which is precisely
the territory we need to occupy.
There seems a strong case for trying to wrest the imperative
away from those who assume they have the monopoly on ethical
concerns. By acknowledging and exploring our own unease
about some aspects of abortion we will prepare ourselves
to address the concerns of the public more rigorously. But
there are certain ethical principles which, as prochoice
individuals, we should not allow our subjective prejudices
In the UK, it has been helpful to embrace the notion that
the embryo/fetus has a moral status deserving of respect.
It is unarguably true that from its earliest stages the
embryo has the unique potential to become a human being
and that this potential is ended when the embryo/fetus is
killed by abortion. The central issue, however, is not whether
the embryo is deserving of respect, but how much respect
and value we accord to a life (that does not even know it
is alive) relative to the to the respect and value we have
for the life of a woman who carries it.
The rights of women to abortion can be situated in the context
of ethical principles that are fundamental to what we hold
valuable in modern democracy.
The ethical principle of "procreative autonomy" - the right
of people to control their own role in procreation - has
a particularly important place in modern political culture.
In his thoughtful exploration of the ethics of life and
death, Life's Dominion: An Argument About Abortion and Euthanasia
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), Ronald Dworkin argues that the
important feature of our culture is a belief in individual
human dignity (pp.166-167). Central to human dignity is
the principle "that people have the moral right - and the
moral responsibility - to confront the most fundamental
questions about the value and meaning of their own lives
for themselves, answering to their own consciences and convictions."
Dworkin reminds us that the most powerful arguments against
slavery - by both secular and religious abolitionists -
were based on the understanding that the cruelest aspect
of slavery was the failure to recognize a slave's right
to decide issues of value for himself or herself. A civilized
society accepts that women are creatures with a moral conscience
who are capable of making responsible decisions for themselves.
There is also the crucial issue of the need to defend women's
"bodily autonomy." To insist that a woman must support the
life of her "unborn child" against her will confers the
fetus with greater status than a born child. In no civilized
society is a woman coerced into accepting clinical procedures
necessary to maintain the life of her child once it has
been born. We might think it immoral for a woman to refuse
to give blood or bone marrow to save her child's life, but
there is no law that compels her to do so. The notion of
such coercive legislation flies against such principles
as the need for voluntary consent to medical treatment.
These arguments do not imply that we should be morally indifferent
to women's decisions about abortion, but to return to Dworkin,
"tolerance is a cost we must pay for our adventure in liberty."
This principle of tolerance may provide a bridge between
recognition of society's genuine concerns about the ethics
of abortion and our need to main a robust but sophisticated
defense of women's reproductive autonomy.
Ann Furedi is director of communications at the British
Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK's largest provider of
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