Comment & Reviews
Face it - abortion is now a fact of life
A transcript follows of a recent discussion broadcast on the
Radio Four programme, Woman's Hour (3/11/99), which may be
of interest to recipients of PCF mailings. It featured Jenni
Murray, Woman's Hour presenter; Ann Furedi, director of communications
for BPAS; and Karen Newman, spokesperson for the National
The article to which the discussion refers can be found at
***Click here to access
JM: The abortion rate rose again significantly after
the pill scare of October 1995, then it was expected to fall
again, but it didn't. It's continued to rise and it's led
to a debate among the pro-choice lobby. Generally it's been
emphasised that being pro-choice doesn't mean being in favour
of abortion. It's been argued that termination is generally
a last resort for women for whom contraception has failed,
and it's always a difficult decision. But an article in this
month's LM magazine entitled 'Face it - abortion is now a
fact of life' suggests that a high abortion rate is a symptom
of a society in which women want to combine sex life with
ambition. Well Karen Newman represents the National Abortion
Campaign, and Ann Furedi, director of communications of the
British Pregnancy Advisory Service, is the author of the article.
Ann Furedi what do you mean when you say it's not necessarily
the failure of contraception or sex education that's created
this rise in numbers but a sign of women wanting to combine
sex life with ambition?
AF: Well what I think I'm saying is that these days
women have a very high expectation that they should be able
to regulate their fertility, that they should be able to plan
their families. I'm not saying that woman use abortion as
an alternative to contraception. But what I'm saying is that
when contraception fails, or when couples fail to use it effectively
they will often see abortion as a way of ending an unwanted
pregnancy and returning their life to the state that they
want their life into. And perhaps that's different from in
the past where women may have responded to an unwanted pregnancy
by perhaps accepting it. I think these days we are saying
that women feel that they want to be in control and if the
become unintendedly pregnant they feel they ought to be able
to end it in abortion and that's a choice that they make.
JM: But as someone who has been responsibly involved
in the healthcare of women for a very long time, doesn't it
concern you that the numbers are rising?
AF: Of course it's a matter of concern because I think
that all of us accept that although abortion is safe, contraception
is safer and its also a lot more convenient than obtaining
an abortion. But really I think my feeling is that every time
we talk about the number of abortions rising, there does tend
to be a certain amount of breast-beating. And I think that
perhaps we should understand that it's unwanted pregnancy
that is the problem, not abortion. And we could all lower
the abortion rate by making abortion more difficult to obtain,
or by making it illegal. And that would be a bad thing because
it would force women to have children that they don't want.
If women choose to opt for abortion because they have an unwanted
pregnancy, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps
we have to accept it.
JM: Karen Newman, it is perhaps a more honest approach
to what women are really doing than arguing no woman takes
an abortion lightly? Perhaps they do it when it's necessary?
KN: I think for some women abortion is not a traumatic
decision, it's very clearly what they need to do at that particular
moment. And as Ann said nobody in this country at this moment
fortunately wants to take that right away from the except
for a very vociferous minority but it's a very small minority.
I think the main point is to see what women want at any particular
moment. If they are already pregnant and they don't feel they
can take this particular pregnancy to term, talking to them
about contraception is clearly not very helpful. What they
need is access to safe abortion. And what the National Abortion
Campaign would like to see is the changes in the law that
we need to allow women to have abortion on request in this
country which they have in most European countries and not
here. Our main problem with what Ann is saying is that we
feel that by saying that woman are ambitious, if they don't
feel they can have this pregnancy why not just abort it? We
feel that has the potential to alienate people who we need
within a broad coalition of women and men to help us change
the law, to bring it more into line with what the case is
JM: But is your objection to what Ann is saying just
tactics, because you're being very careful not to offend the
anti-abortionists by not acknowledging the fetus, or do you
have a truly held belief that the fetus has rights too that
need to be considered?
KN: I think where it's important to acknowledge what
a lot of women out there think about abortion is that it's
very difficult. For some women it's a very easy decision.
For a lot of other women it's one of the more difficult decisions
they ever have to make in their lives.
JM: I asked you about the fetus not the woman. Do you
believe the fetus has rights?
KN: I think that it's wrong to place the fetus in the
centre of this debate because when you do that you are putting
the woman at the margins and that is simply not an appropriate
thing for is to do as we approach the 21st century. I don't
think it's possible for us to go back to a time where abortion
was against the law, where women couldn't access the services
because the you get the apartheid which we see around the
world whereby rich women get the abortions they need and the
poor women don't. And they pay for it usually with their health
but often with their lives.
JM: Ann what's your view of the fetus? Do you believe
a fetus has rights?
AF: I think that the fetus has moral status. I think
we accord the fetus a large degree of moral respect. We see
the fetus as a potential human being and I think that women
understand that and women do take the decision about abortion
seriously. It's one of the reasons why women would rather
prevent a pregnancy from starting rather than ending it. I
think even women who feel very strongly that abortion is the
right think for them often feel uneasy about it.
JM: Why then have you used this word ambition? Why
have you said it's because women are ambitious that they're
AF: Because what I'm really trying to explain here
is that women today feel that they need to be in control of
their lives. And they feel they should have the right to plan
their families, and they feel that they should have the ability
when contraception fails to end a pregnancy in abortion. Now
that doesn't mean that they disregard the fetus, it doesn't
even mean that they take the decision lightly...
JM: It does if you describe them as ambitious.
AF: No, because we can look at ambition in a whole
number of various, different ways. Ambition doesn't necessarily
mean trying to get to the top of your profession. One of the
circumstances where women may decide to end an unplanned pregnancy
may be because their family is dependent upon them for a wage
because their husband might be unemployed. Now I would say
that that is a woman who has ambitions to support her family.
It doesn't necessarily mean that it's a middle class striving
to get to the top of a profession. It's a desire to be in
control of your life.
KN: I think the reason why most women have an abortion
is the same. It's because they don't feel they can cope with
this particular pregnancy at this particular time. I think
some of the difficulties with some of the arguments Ann is
making is that some people think, well hang on a minute, that's
a bit much to say that women do it because it's not convenient
for them at this particular moment. I would never like to
second guess why an individual women feels that this is the
right decision for them. I want to live in a country which
respects the woman's right to make that decision which is
why I would like to see the law changed to allow abortion
JM: Last year Ann I know that you upset other pro-choice
campaigners on a different occasion when you were asked on
television by a woman with cerebral palsy would you have got
rid of me and you said yes. Do you risk with taking this argument
these steps further associating the pro-choice lobby with
AF: Well to put one thing straight is what I was asked
was would I have supported that woman's mother's right to
end a pregnancy. And I said that I would have supported any
woman's right to end a pregnancy in circumstances that she
felt fit. And I feel that's a very important thing to uphold
because my firm belief is that only a woman who is pregnant
knows whether or not she is in a position to raise that child
and care for it. And I feel that the choice should be hers.
And I feel that the minute we as pro-choice people start imposing
our values and saying we think that an abortion is ok in this
situation but not in that situation, we actually put ourselves
in exactly the same paternalistic position that many doctors
have been in when they have refused women permission for abortion
because they don't approve of their reasons.
JM: Karen, the anti-abortion movement has always argued
that the legalisation of abortion would lead to eugenics.
Do you have concerns that if the stance of the pro-choice
lobby becomes more extreme, that you risk pushing the argument
too far and people perhaps saying we should step back on abortion.
KN: I think the eugnics link is wrong. You cannot link
the technology with its misuse. It seems to me that it's very
clear that the abortion rights movement has to join hands
with the disability rights movement. It's not about better
thou hadst not been born. It's about solidarity with those
people campaigning for better social services, better employment
rights so that in fact being disabled isn't as difficult as
it is in the society that we presently live in. I don't think
that the abortion people should be set at odds with the disability
rights movement. We should be working together so that women
have the right to make that choice, but that disabled people
have the right to live more fulfilled lives.
JM: So do you set them at odds?
AF: I don't think so. I think that my approach is entirely
about looking at whether a woman with a pregnancy has the
right to end it and I think that is entirely different actually
than a discussion about disability rights.
JM: But you would say that in any circumstances she
should have that absolute right?
AF: My own personal view is that in any circumstances
she should have the right to make that decision for herself
because I think that to deny a woman the access to abortion
because we disapprove of her reason is in fact to put our
morals over hers. Women are creatures of conscience. They
can make responsible and moral decisions for themselves.
JM: But you wouldn't say that in all circumstances
a woman should be able to make that choice would you?
KN: I would say that I wouldn't want to live in a society
where anybody can second guess why a woman doesn't feel she
can take those particular pregnancy to term
JM: Karen Newman, Ann Furedi, thank you both very much