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Life is not a film
Comment on 'My Foetus' by Ann Furedi
April 21, 2004

On 20 April, Channel 4 screened a TV documentary showing footage of an abortion, My Foetus. Much has been made of the fact that this is the first time that images of abortion have been shown on British TV, and the documentary has been described as 'daring' for breaking a supposed taboo. The filmmaker, Julia Black, who insists that she supports legal abortion, said that her intention is to cause those of us who share her views to 'start engaging with the reality [that] a fetus is destroyed'.

But do these images convey the 'reality' of abortion? Do we need to see them to 'engage' with what abortion really is? Are women really ignorant of what abortion involves?

American feminist Naomi Wolf would answer 'yes' to these questions. Once stridently pro-choice, she now courts opportunities to explain how her own wanted pregnancy caused her to consider the 'humanity of the fetus' and acknowledge that 'abortion does stop a beating heart'. She and the maker of My Foetus seem to agree that women with unwanted pregnancies should be encouraged to confront what the procedure involves, and its consequences for the life in the womb.

So let's consider the reality of abortion for the thousand or so women whose abortions are carried out by doctors in clinics run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) every week. Since my appointment as chief executive last year, I have made it my business to talk to clients and staff, and I can assure you that nobody is in denial about what abortion involves.

Women know that abortion stops a beating heart and ends a life that would become a child. How could a woman requesting abortion be oblivious to this? It is, after all, what she wants. A woman requests an abortion precisely because she wants to be un-pregnant and without the immediate prospect of a child. An abortion that doesn't end a pregnancy is a failure; one that resulted in a living baby would be a disaster. Some women may choose not to think about the finer details of exactly when the heart stops beating - others are anxious to see the fetal remains. Why should journalists feel the need to judge which is the appropriate response?

Women are not whimsical about the decision to end a pregnancy. They are sometimes ambivalent, but that is a different matter altogether. Often a woman would like to have her child if things were different - but her decision must be made taking account of things as they are. Nor are women's decisions made in haste. By the time a women comes for her operation she will have discussed her pregnancy with a doctor and possibly a counsellor. She has probably shared her concerns with her family and friends. Many have found the decision agonising, for others it has been straightforward - but all have confronted how their lives will be affected by having, or not having, a child; by having, or not having, an abortion.

Women understand what abortion involves - those of us who provide services must ensure this. Like any other medical procedure, abortion requires the client's informed consent. To give her consent she must understand what will happen during the procedure and its risks. At bpas, a client will usually choose which procedure she prefers - a suction procedure under local or general anaesthetic, or drugs which cause a miscarriage. Making such a choice requires understanding.

Women understand the difference between ending an early pregnancy and a late abortion - which is why so few women request late abortions, and why women having made their choice are anxious for a fast appointment. It is profoundly insulting for journalists to assume that women seeking abortions at the stage when they will have felt fetal movement have not considered the morality of their request.

Women live with the decisions they make. Some, looking back, will wish that they had embraced motherhood, just as some mothers will regret that choice. But if we believe that women are capable of responsible, moral choices we must allow them to make them - even when they do not conform to our own views and values.

The right to abortion is a political issue. A woman's ability to control her fertility shapes her whole life. Birth control allows us to enjoy sex and participate in public life. Without it, the choice is between celibacy or the constant risk of maternity. To deny a woman the right to abortion is to limit her human potential, which is why the right to abortion was one of the first demands of women's liberation. But the individual choice of abortion is profoundly personal. A woman does not exercise her right to abortion like she exercises her right to vote. For a woman, abortion is the considered answer to her personal, private problem; it is not a demonstration of her views or beliefs.

Journalists, and society, should discuss the rights and wrongs of abortion. We should consider the moral principles that should be applied. But in doing so, we should remember that a woman does not seek an abortion in the abstract, but as the solution to the specific circumstances she faces. For women, the reality of abortion is not captured by photos of destroyed fetuses or videos of suction procedures. The reality of abortion is the reason why it is requested and the consequences if it is denied.

Ann Furedi is chief executive of bpas. bpas supports reproductive choice by advocating and providing services to prevent or end unwanted pregnancy with contraception or by abortion. Call the bpas actionline on 08457 304030 to make an appointment.

 
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