Nadine Dorries, poster-girl for the Christian Right, and hate-figure for just about everyone else, has been attracting even more flack than usual in the last day or so, always supposing that such a thing is possible, for her success in persuading the Department of Health to to back the campaign to ensure that women seeking abortions are offered advice that is “independent” of agencies that also conduct terminations. The claim is that there’s a financial conflict of interest if an organisation which charges for abortion services (charges not to the woman in question, usually, but to the health service that purchases the care) is also giving advice to women wondering what to do about an unwanted pregnancy. For a government generally committed to “one-stop shops” and critical of disjointed service provision in which several agencies are taking on different parts of a single service, this conversion to a sort of “fire-wall” between advice and subsequent care is a little odd.
But it’s not odd, because it’s a smoke-screen. The debate is not really one about formal independence, but one about the rights and wrongs of abortion per se. And insofar as independence comes into the debate at all, the independence in question is not financial, but ideological. Anti-abortionists want advice to be independent of those who believe that abortion is a right, a matter only for individual women and the choices they wish to make. Pro-abortionists want advice to be independent of those who believe that abortion is morally wrong. Both sides are dissembling, engaged in a skirmish about a technicality because we’re not able to have an open debate. It’s simply not possible to think about the rights and wrongs of abortion, its tensions, its moral and social dilemmas, without being accused either of moral decadence, or (if you’re a man, at least) misogynistic and reactionary authoritarianism.
That’s not all. The debate about abortion has become embroiled in other debates, most notably about homosexuality, that the Christian Right are also obsessed about. The antics of Nadine Dorries and her crew are for Christians what the Stalinists were for communists. Anyone who, like me, is open about their Christianity has to spend most of their time distancing themselves from a variety of crack-pot notions that are not only unpleasant, but very unchristian to boot. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I do not believe that homosexuality is a sin, nor that abortion is always wrong. Which doesn’t mean that it’s always right.
And there’s the rub. Absolutism is pretty much always wrong, dangerous and unhelpful. I don’t distinguish between the absolutism of the Roman Catholic Church, and the absolutism of those who claim that in abortion it is only and always about a woman’s individual right to make whatever decision she sees fit. Absolute truths are generally absolutely mistaken. The idea that a fertilised human egg is already a person is fanciful, and to pursue that fancy in the face of a woman who does not want to continue the pregnancy no matter what the circumstances (abusive relationship, rape, foolishness even) is entirely unreasonable. On the other hand, to suggest that an individual woman has no responsibility to wider society, is entirely free to do whatever she likes, is to flirt with an individualism that is reminiscent of Thatcher’s infamous denial that society exists at all.
We are all members one of another. We have responsibilities to one another that transcend our individual desires. To be sure, the desire of a woman not to have a baby requires a very high standard of proof indeed if it’s to be over-ridden, but that doesn’t make it impossible in principle. Ultimately it is not a woman’s right to choose. It is society as a whole’s balance between competing rights that must prevail, in this as in anything else that affects others beyond the individual. By making it impossible even to question, for example, the maximum legal limit on abortion without accusing the questioner of being some kind of oppressive ogre bent on crushing women and returning them to back-street abortions, we disable debate on things that matter to us all.
I have no right whatsoever to impose my religious commitments on you. None. But I am a member of this society, and I’m entitled to raise questions without being abused, or accused of supporting things I do not support. So, for the record. I support abortion in principle. I worry about the balance between foetal viability and the legal maximum for abortion. I do not believe that the balance is a matter only for the woman in question. There. I’ve said it. A woman’s right to choose is not an absolute right. String me up if you want to. And Nadine Dorries is still an idiot.