Friday, 16 December 2011

Guest Post: Abortion as Society's Mirror

Many thanks to Alison McCulloch for permission to cross-post her recent guest post at the ALRANZ blog, and my apologies for tardiness.

The discussion sparked by Richard Boock’s blog posts (“A Woman’s Right to Choose” and “Defending Your Right to An Opinion”) got me thinking about the how so many moral debates wind up with abortion as their end point. It’s not breaking news that societies tend to act out so many of their moral fears and panics by restricting sexual expression and reproductive rights. That they use contraception and abortion as tools to try to control what they fear or disapprove of. New Zealand has its own long history of doing this, be it trying to get white women to have children in order to avoid “race suicide” to keeping contraceptive information away from teenagers for fear of runaway teen sex – or something.
In a society that devalues certain groups, like those with Down syndrome or others who don’t fit a particular mold, as ours does, again we find the sharp end of the debate being focused on abortion. As if this, and so many other problems, could be solved if only women would stop having abortions for the “wrong” reasons.
The view of the 1977 Royal Commission report on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion, on which our current abortion laws are based, is stuffed full of moral fears and prejudices that quite neatly reflected 1970s society (and, I’d argue, 2011 society, too.) Here, I’ll just offer an excerpt that’s closely related to the issue at hand, from page 200 of the report.
(5) It is not immoral to terminate a pregnancy where the fetus is likely to be born with a severe physical or mental handicap, because the burden of the handicapped person to himself and to his parents may be greater than the sum total of their happiness.
(6) The termination of unborn life for reasons of social convenience is morally wrong.
One could make a good case that (6) and (5) are at odds, that the utilitarian rule used in (5) is completely bizarre and that the use of “fetus” in one case and “unborn life” in the other displays a clear agenda. But aside from all that, look at what this says about societal attitudes.
Then, as now, there’s a desire to condemn abortions that take place for “social convenience” (a nicely loaded phrase the Commission used frequently to conjure up images of women rushing off to the clinic because that pregnancy was going to interfere with their party plans). At the same time, the Commission gave a hearty thumbs up to aborting fetuses that were likely to be a “burden” because society did, and largely still does, both devalue the disabled and approve of such abortions
So the cry goes up: let’s clamp down on the abortions. Let’s ban abortions for X or Y reason to fix X or Y problem. Let’s ban abortions for reasons that we find offensive or trivial or discriminatory or “socially convenient”. That will resolve the difficulty and absolve us. Of course it won’t. Women’s choices cannot but be influenced by the society they live in, the pressures they face, the judgments made by those around them. In a society that devalues women and girls, there’s pressure to abort females, just as in this society, there’s pressure to abort fetuses with certain conditions.
The next step is to make abortion-seeking women (and those who support and facilitate their choice) the culprits for wider society’s perceived failings. It is she who is the root cause of a particular moral problem or a particular group’s being devalued if she has an abortion for the “wrong” reason. It is she who is the cause of promiscuity or moral decline or the breakdown of the family (which hasn’t actually broken down yet). It is she who is the cause of child abuse or our inability to fund superannuation. (A shout-out to Garth George on these last two.)
While we still live under laws that try to pick and choose who should and who should not be able to access abortion care, campaigns to ban abortion for X and Y reason, reflecting X and Y societal failing, will continue. Which is why abortion should be, as of right, up to the individual, its availability not contingent on your having a “worthy” reason, where that reason is dictated and enforced by the state. No, it won’t be a choice made in a vacuum, so campaigns to eliminate, or at least reduce, the kind of pressure to abort that some women say they’ve felt on receiving certain fetal diagnoses, are crucial. Just as important are efforts to stop dumping society’s short-comings at the door of pregnant women and calling them names for choosing to have an abortion.
Abortion restrictions should not be used as a tool to try to deal with wider problems – be they real or imaginary. The social goal might be just, but enforced pregnancy cannot be an answer.
Alison McCulloch is on the National Executive of ALRANZ. The opinions in this post are her own.


Psycho Milt said...

It is she who is the root cause of a particular moral problem or a particular group’s being devalued if she has an abortion for the “wrong” reason.

Like, aborting a fetus with Down syndrome, for example? The disapproval of women aborting the mentally handicapped that shouts out of this post makes its complaint about Garth George seem ridiculous.

Alison said...

@Psycho Milt thanks for the comment. I certainly didn't intend to do that, and if I have, I apologise -- and clearly need to rethink how I've tried to express my point. To the contrary, I wouldn't judge any individual woman's choice as right or wrong.

Stephanie said...

I Just saw on the heading of the blog that it says "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." I

This post is full of rhetoric which speaks out against another radical notion which says that regardless of your genetic make up you are a person regardless of your size.

The two notions are complimentary and speak of a society where are all are valued. A society I want to be part of.

Scar said...

To the contrary, I wouldn't judge any individual woman's choice as right or wrong.

And for those men who get pregnant?
How about them?

Gemma said...

wow, was that a what about teh menz comment on a feminist blog?

Scar said...

No, it was a 'what about the oppressed minority that is transgender people' and 'that was cissexist as fuck' comment.

Because y'know, feminism is supposed to be up with that oppression shit, yeah?

Gemma said...

When someone asks a feminist blog to comment on the exclusion of men in their post, it comes across to me as a big old what about teh menz derail we get everywhere else. YMMV. As you were.

Scar said...

When someone writes an article about abortion and pregnancy and uses the term 'women' and 'woman' over and over, while phrasing it as 'Women's Issue', I see it as MASSIVELY ERASING of trans men's identities and completely de-gendering to them.

But YMMV if you're, y'know, a cissexist bigot.

Julie said...

I'll leave it to Alison to respond to the direct issue raised about pregnant "women", as opposed to "people", in this post.

Please be aware this is a guest post and as with all guest posts, it is the view of the author.

In terms of a what about the menz comment on a feminist blog. My reading of Scar's criticism, and her history of commenting on this blog and blogging herself elsewhere, has shown an interest in and commitment to trans* issues in particular. As a result I personally take her at face value as wanting to point out that not everyone who is pregnant would identify as a woman. Gemma, I'm not sure if you are aware of that broader context - I very much share the frustration of dealing with "what about the menz" comments but I genuinely think Scar wasn't making one.

I hope that helps.

Scar said...

Thanks Julie; as you said, people who know my blogging history know about my passion for trans rights.

Gemma, I'd like to point you to This Article that I wrote a while back about this very issue.

Cissexism is cissexism, whether it's targetting trans women, trans men or non-binary people.
Trying to fob it off as 'what about teh menz' is doubly insulting and erasing.