No right to choose is unfettered, not even a woman’s

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.


10 thoughts on “No right to choose is unfettered, not even a woman’s

  1. I think you’re going to have to justify your entire penultimate paragraph if you want to avoid being labelled as an oppressive ogre.

    In what circumstances would you over-ride a woman’s desire not to continue with a pregnancy? What standard of proof would you need?

    What is the “competing right” that society has to balance? You’ve indicated it can’t be the foetal right to life which is the standard for the pro-life movement, so you need to articulate this right, and from where it derives.

    The major problem when moderates and liberals say that we’ve got to be able to talk about these things is that we do it so nebulously we give the extremists carte blanche. By raising the possibility that a woman’s right to decide whether to undergo a legal medical procedure is not actually her decision but society’s, you leave an open goal to Dorries and her ilk.

    Rather than society, how about we let biology decide? The current legal limit on abortion is predicated on natural viability and foetal development. If medical science created an artificial womb that could develop a foetus from conception to term, would that mean the limit for abortions should be 0 weeks? I think not. There is a difference between natural viability and intervention by medical science; we cannot alter the length of gestation, and the time limits as they stand reflect that.

    On the topic of smokescreens, what thoughts on the likelihood that the “independent counselling” is simply a delaying tactic to ensure some women hit the time limit?

    • At the risk of being pedantic, as an individual I would not presume to be able to “over-ride a woman’s desire not to continue with a pregnancy”: such a constraint must be mediated by society at large. However, I think you mistake the source of “rights” when you imply that only individuals can have them. There are many people who are discomforted by late abortion, and lots of us do not support Dorries in this or in anything else. Society has already set limits, and I think that those limits are open to change as viability changes. The issue of natural vs artificial womb is irrelevant. Even an artificial womb is not going to produce a viable 10-week foetus. I believe that if society at large were to find abortions earlier than the current legal limits to be unacceptable, than society’s right to determine those limits would over-ride an individual woman’s right to choice. To establish what “society at large” finds acceptable we need a debate that’s more open to challenge of all kinds than we currently have. Just because some very undesirable characters want to join in the debate is hardly a cogent reason for not having it.

      I have not disposed of foetal rights in what I wrote: I’ve disposed of the person-hood of a bunch of cells derived from a fertilised egg. I do think that foetal rights are a very difficult problem, and one which can’t be dealt with simply by denying that they exist. At some point between conception and birth we have, I think, to accept that something qualitative has changed. You say, “Let biology decide.” I agree, but biology is not independent of human intervention. A moment’s thought exposes that argument as ridiculous. Left to “nature” many people would die who, as a result of medical intervention, do not in fact die. We’d hardly be justified in killing them because biology left them unviable, would we?

      Finally, if independent counselling is merely an expedient to make abortions illegally late, then it’s pretty obviously wrong on every count. I can’t see into the souls of its proponents though, so I can’t help you there!

  2. Why are we debating abortion? The number of abortions remains stable whether or not they’re legal. The only difference is more women die when abortion is illegal. The decision to abort or not is made in private. I should think that, short of a medical emergency, very few women choose to abort late in their term. Logic would lead one to believe that the decision is made soon after they find they are pregnant.

    I find it arrogant that some seek power over the decision against the woman’s wishes especially since children are not well treated in this country and mothers have little support. I don’t recall anyone celebrating all motherhood or every childhood in any meaningful or egalitarian way. A lifetime of criticism awaits.

    The only impact abortion law can have is whether we protect women or kill women. That is the debate.

    For the record, because of the above, I find the “pro-life” tag offensive and misleading in the extreme.

    • You won’t find the expression “pro-life” in this or any other thing I’ve written, so whilst I agree with you, I’m not sure it’s relevant here.

      If you can find the merest scintilla of a suggestion from this post that I support the idea of making abortion illegal, I’d be interested to know where. I do not. And to imply that I do is exactly the kind of misuse of argument that I’m trying to point out. It may well be true that women would not choose to have a late abortion, and certainly I’m not suggesting otherwise. It seems to me that if we had better abortion services more readily available earlier in pregnancy, then late abortion would be less of an issue. Presumably women would welcome that too.

      All I’m arguing for is the right for society to determine the limits, and to change them for lower limits if medical advance changes the point of foetal viability. And my right to have the temerity to raise the issue without people accusing me of wanting to criminalise abortion, to oppress women, or any other fantasy about me.

      Is that OK?

      • No Billy, it isn’t OK. Changing the limits downwards will only drive more women to seek illegal abortion. It still doesn’t have any impact on the abortion decision.

        You have yet to explain how you would have the state stop women from seeking abortions if that’s their decision. How exactly would the “rights of society” be enforced? Place all pregnant-above-the-legal-limit women in special prisons? Or just some women? What would the criteria be? Explain yourself.

        Also, it seems you apparently have zero conception of the pressures on women or you wouldn’t be wanting to add another. Did you know the leading cause of death for pregnant women is murder? Or that, as it is now, in some states, if a woman doesn’t deliver a perfect baby, she may be arrested in the maternity ward because she must have done something criminal, careless or desperate: taken drugs, had too much to drink, fallen down, tried to kill herself, etc. Women who miscarry are equally at risk. Motherhood carries with it the threat of prosecution for all manner of things until the child turns 18.

        It’s not much better for children. They’re funneled into the military or private prisons or some other service to the the global financial elites as the environment crumbles around us. No real jobs but fodder is always needed. The federal guarantee of a “free, appropriate education” is a horrible joke. Our tattered education system is nonetheless under attack from all quarters. How many children have you adopted or fostered? Does the ‘right to life’ end at birth?

        I really think you are seriously out of your depth. “Ultimately it is not a woman’s right to choose” is where you come unstuck. I also think your argument is in reaction to a non-problem. I am not aware of a crush of women demanding late-term abortions. If you have the statistics that reveal such a problem, please publish them. I do think your post is “rubbish”. If you choose to believe that opinion is “easy” and “abusive” as you tweeted earlier, then we have a difference of opinion. Trying to narrow the reactions to your post to those that make you feel comfortable is what limits the debate. Trying to discuss the issue without awareness of the larger societal issues women face limits the debate.

        If you spent your time and energy achieving the goal that every pregnant woman, all mothers and their children have, not just real support and safety, but are celebrated in this society I would listen to your abortion rights arguments. But I think you’ll find that they have become moot.

        • You seem to want to take issue with everything except what I’ve actually written. You put up a series of arguments that I haven’t made, and then knock them down again. This has nothing to do with what makes me “feel comfortable”; you needn’t be so concerned on my behalf!

          It just so happens that I agree with almost all the points you raise, which isn’t especially surprising since I never disputed them. And just to be absolutely clear, I’m not recommending prison; I utterly abhor conscription; and I’m not remotely sympathetic to the right-wing would-be theocrats that seem to infest the United States, where fortunately I do not live.

          Your argument with me seems to add up to this: because I have raised one issue amongst many in the abortion dispute, my position must be false because I haven’t discussed every one of the other issues. And where I’ve not offered a view, you’ve kindly filled in the blanks with a caricature of some crazy people’s views, and then ascribed those views to me. Forgive me if I don’t accept that attempt to smear me.

          You do raise one very fair and important point. What is to be done if the legal limit for termination is exceeded? Of course, that problem exists now since there’s already a limit. I have not created that problem simply by pointing out that if the gestational age at which a foetus is viable falls, we should not simply ignore the moral dilemmas that raises merely because it’s inconvenient. In any individual case, we need to proceed with compassion, and that may well include not pursuing the letter of the law, just as we currently do with “mercy killings” which are technically murder. As in most legal development, I suspect it would need to proceed by case-law and precedent. So no, remarkably enough, I don’t recommend special prisons. What would you do? Just ignore the problem and hope it goes away?

          And of course the best answer, as it is now, is to ensure free, easy, compassionate access to quality counselling and abortion care as early as possible to minimise the issue of late abortions that no-one in their right mind wants to see anyway.

          It is possible to have a reasoned debate, albeit that you think it’s an unnecessary one. In focusing on the issue of maximum time limits for abortion, I do not pretend that there are no other issues. I’m also sorry that if, in raising this issue, I have one small area of overlap with people that in every other respect I have no time for. It’s embarrassing, I accept, but it hardly makes me one of them.

  3. not sure how an individual woman has a responsibility to wider society to carry a child to term that she doesn’t want?

    • I don’t think that’s quite how I’d express it. Society has already set limits to abortion (in lots of areas, but here I’m specifically talking about the limit to how far a pregnancy can continue and abortion still be lawful) and I think society has the right to do that because this is both an intensely personal issue and a public one. The admittedly narrow point that I’m making (but I believe an important one nonetheless) is about how society should respond to medical advances, specifically in the case of foetus viability. I think this is a legitimate matter for public debate, and that there are matters other than “a woman’s right to choose” that come into play.

      My concern over the Dorries furore is that the reaction from some quarters seems to be saying that even to raise questions about abortion is somehow an affront. I don’t agree with that. I’ve made it clear that I’ve no time for Dorries: but equally I’ve no time for the notion that because she is a pretty offensive and hypocritical person, anyone who dares to wonder about the current state of abortion law and care in this society must also be offensive and hypocritical. It feels like a kind of collective punishment!

      Society has the right, and the responsibility in fact, to set the legal framework for abortion, and women have to operate within it, even if they might also seek quite legitimately to change it. Only in that sense does an individual woman have “a responsibility to wider society”.

  4. aah, now I see. Thank you for going so fully into my point and yes, I agree that it is for society to set the time limits and for these to be observed.

  5. Hats off to you for a genuinely brave post for someone in left leaning circles. Frankly I usually keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to be associated with the conservative right yet I feel so distant from the abortion on demand position…

    I think that the tone of some of the response you have received here but especially on Twitter demonstrate the validity of your assertions.

    Regarding unfettered rights how do people feel about only wanting a termination because the mother wants a baby boy? It’s hardly a mere hypothetical scenario either

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