Tuesday, March 22, 2011

women: making choices or making babies (it's not a binary)

I've been following the debate about abortion on the Standard plus various other blogs with interest (for starters, try the Hand Mirror's excellent series on abortion in New Zealand).

It's a difficult subject to talk about. It's fraught with a whole lot of ethics (women's right to autonomous decision-making regarding her own body; the status of a foetus; whether any other person should be involved in a woman's decision-making process) and a whole lot of politics (is there room on a left-leaning Order Paper for a bill about abortion rights and access? Can we convince the punters?). It's also deeply personal for me, a person who could become pregnant (and probably will never choose to do so).

The thing is: I think at least some of the criticisms laid against the firmly pro-choice position from other pro-choice positions are a little disingenous. Here's why:

As I understand it, the firmly pro-choice position boils down to—
1. the person most qualified to make a decision about her bodily integrity and her ability/willingness to carry a foetus to term is the woman whose body it is.
2. that woman should be able to make a decision about whether to continue carrying a foetus to term at any point during the pregnancy.

The effect of this position is abortion on demand, including late-term abortions.

Now, let's take the position I was at until this weekend, which was:
1. without reservation, a woman should be able to decide to terminate a non-viable foetus. This includes all early-stage pregnancies as well as pregnancies which are later discovered to not be viable.
2. I have difficulty in accepting that a woman who is healthy herself and whose pregnancy is at a sufficiently late stage for the foetus to be viable (without significant disabilities such would greatly reduce the child's quality or length of life once he or she has been born) should be able to choose to terminate the pregnancy. This is one of those ethical gut-reactions that I can't suppress or adequately justify.

I still have difficulty accepting 2. above. But I don't think it matters.

The firmly pro-choice position would extend the right to seek an abortion to the greatest number of women who might choose to have one, namely all of them. This would necessarily include a woman who chooses at 38 weeks to terminate her pregnancy despite being in the picture of perfect health herself and knowing that the foetus is also healthy.

I don't know that that woman actually exists. If she does, I haven't heard of her. Women who choose to terminate a pregnancy at a very late stage do so almost exclusively for medical reasons, either their own or those of the foetus. The literature I have read (which is far from exhaustive) seems to suggest that there are women who would like to abort past the current limits in NZ law, but often this is a result of having been unable to access abortion services within the current limits in NZ law.

So why I think my earlier position was somewhat disingeneous is:
1. the firmly pro-choice position extends abortion rights as widely as possible.
2. there may be hypothetical women who would exercise that right in a way that I find morally repugnant.
3. however, if the firmly pro-choice position is restricted (for example, by term limits), it would almost certainly restrict the choices of women who I accept without reservation should be able to access an abortion.

That is to say, by focussing on a hypothetical set of women I am ignoring the needs of actual women. This is not good policy-making.

The other argument I find slightly disingenous is the argument that runs:

"But what about the views of the man/boyfriend/partner/husband/parents/family/wider society? DO OUR VOICES NOT COUNT?"

The firmly pro-choice position is mainly framed as a simple "no." It may in fact be "no"; I haven't done a straw poll, nor is everybody's opinion identical (obviously).

But. Women don't exercise choice in a vacuum. That's probably one of the main points of feminism and feminist theory: that our choices are profoundly influenced by the positions we find ourselves in, and that the positions we find ourselves in may be (and often are) outside our control.

As a corollary of that, women don't make decisions in a vacuum. There's nothing about the firmly pro-choice position which excludes women who are deciding whether or not to seek an abortion from soliciting the opinions of people whose opinion they think are important, and from then considering those opinions in their decision-making process. For some women, the opinion of her partner may well be determinative.1 The point is that other people's opinions should not be determinative (or influential) if the woman exercising her right to choose does not want them to be.

So where's the problem? Most women will want to know what the feelings of their partner are, if they're in a relationship (you expect that, I think, in relationships). Many women will talk to their family, or to close friends, or to whoever they want to. Your voices will be heard! Many women will have regard to how you feel! It may take the form of consultation, where there's no requirement to actually follow what the consulted people ask for, but it will be there in many, if not most, cases.

(There'll be women who choose not to involve anybody else in their decision. And I fail to see the problem with that: they're autonomous human beings too, kid.)

1. You know, [stuff about power imbalances goes here], but I think a woman could legitimately choose to have a baby or not to have a baby because her partner wants one/doesn't want one, and I think it's absolutely that woman's right to decide for herself what factors are and are not important in her decision-making process. That's kind of what this whole thing is about, for me.


  1. @Deborah: thanks. It's still an area I need to think about more, but I find it helpful to write things out (it forces me to link ideas together, at least some of the way).

  2. I am pretty much with you re. your point number two above - that is, if a woman decides to abort a pregnancy so late that the foetus is viable...just seems wrong. However, you cannot FORCE someone to continue a pregnancy. Well, you can, but I don't want to live there.

    Thinks will be so much easier when we have uterine replicators.

  3. @jessikast: I had a whole comment here but then my internet died and ate it. :(

    I think it was something like:

    I agree re. the instinctive wrongness bit. But as I said I really don't think there are that many women who randomly decide circa. 35 weeks pregnant that they just want the baby out goshdarnit and would run off to get an abortion. So I think it's a bit of a red herring.

    I totally agree re uterine replicators.

  4. Late to see this post but it's fabulous! Thanks for putting a pro-choice argument so eloquently.

  5. @ Nikki Elisabeth: ha, thanks! :D