Abortion – The Right To Choose

Argus title : The issue is control of women

My Grandmother was very proper. Like my mother, she never used even the mildest bad language. She never told or even laughed at a smutty joke. I don’t remember hearing her ever use the word “sex”.

Yet, when I was a child growing up in the 1950s, she and my mother somehow communicated to me the absolute certainty that no woman should have childbirth forced upon her. Men should “use something” to prevent it. And, if they didn’t, women had a right to end the pregnancy.

They spoke with admiration about their old family G.P., Dr Knight. In the 19302 he’d been in trouble with the medical authorities – and might possibly even have been struck off for a while – for “helping a woman”. I was left in no doubt that Dr Knight had done the right thing.

My mother and grandmother spoke sympathetically about how desperate women would use gin and hot baths to “bring on” early labour, or jump off tables and throw themselves downstairs. They spoke of septicaemia because they’d ‘used’ soap or bleach or knitting needles.
They never spoke of such women with anything other than compassion.

My Grandmother is dead now. But she would have had little patience with Michael Howard’s recent comments to Cosmopolitan Magazine that women are effectively now able to get abortions “on demand”. Or his pledge to vote to cut the time limit for late abortions from 24 weeks to 20 weeks.

Nor would she appreciate Charles Kennedy’s apparent inability to make up his mind. He told Cosmopolitan magazine he had voted for 22 weeks in the past, but said “I don’t know what I would do now”.

All political parties are in hot pursuit of women’s votes, especially those of the undecided over 55s. Howard and Kennedy may assume that elderly ladies like my mother will be more inclined to support them if they take a hard line on abortion. They are wrong.

It is older women who remember best what the ‘old days’ were like. This generation could never take abortion lightly or fail to consider the moral issues involved. But having understood, often at first hand, what the ‘backroom abortion’ meant, they will not want to return to those days.

The Cosmopolitan interviews were carried out in January, but were published on March 14th. By a truly remarkable co-incidence, on the same day, the Roman Catholic Archbishop issued the traditional pre-election letter offering guidance to Catholics as to the issues they should consider at the election. He indicated Labour is no longer the natural voting choice of Catholics.

The Archbishop praised Mr Howard’s position on abortion saying that his willingness to reduce the limit on abortions from the 24th week of pregnancy is “one that we would also commend, on the way to a full abandonment of abortion”.

The Archbishop’s comments have made it very clear that the reduction in the limit is a mere stepping stone to his true objective which is an end to women’s right to choose. The timing suggests that the Roman Catholic Church and other anti-abortion elemnts plan to force abortion onto the agenda as a major election issue, as it was in the US elections.

In the wake of several child abuse scandals in the church, Cormac Murphy O’Connor has reduced authority, but the anti-abortion lobby does have huge resources at its disposal.

An organised Christian campaign via the internet (much of it allegedly from the USA) was used against the BBC when it screened a musical about Jerry Springer. There is every reason to believe that this was a ‘dummy run’ for the big battle ground which is abortion.

It is likely that there will be active intervention in this election from the more aggressive anti-abortion forces in the USA. With some justification, Bush views this country as a client state. He will see it as his right to intervene. He has emphasised that combating abortion at home and abroad is a major priority.

In 2001 on his first day in office, Bush banned the use of foreign aid for organisations that offered abortion advice, even if the aid was not being used for this purpose.

At home, his administration has systematically rolled back the advances of women in respect of abortion. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the USA. In the wake of his re-election Bush plans to use conservative appointments to the Supreme court to reverse this landmark judgment.

Restrictions imposed by Bush in the USA have already led to women being refused terminations after only 13 weeks and victims of rape being denied the ‘morning after’ pill. Bush has passed legislation giving the foetus full legal status and to deny minors the right to cross state lines to avoid parental consent to abortion.

Abroad, Bush refused to donate $30 million to a UN population control programme that promoted ‘reproductive rights’. Echoing this tactic, anti abortion forces in the UK are beginning to use the threat of financial penalty against some key charities.

Elements within the Catholic Church have called for a stop to donations for respected aid charity CAFOD. on the spurious grounds that it provides services which breach the Church’s teaching on contraception. Even Comic Relief has come under fire. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service is enduring sustained attack and is now regularly being accused of illegal activity.

The Archbishop’s recent intervention is an affront to women, but of a piece with the Vatican’s interference in the UN’s campaigns for population control. The Vatican has used its unique status as the only religion with non-member state permanent observer status to block progress on contraception, sex education and HIV/AIDs prevention.

The Vatican even attacked the UN Foundation for Population Activities because it distributed emergency contraception to Kosovar refugees who had been raped.

Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) is an American organisation which campaigns for “access to family planning and legal abortion, and an abuse-free church..”.

CFFC points out that “half a million women die of pregnancy related causes each year because pregnancies come too often, too close, too early or too late in life.” while “7 million infants die because their mothers were not physiologically ready for pregnancy or lacked obstetric care.”
In addition, every year “75,000 women die world wide from unsafe illegal abortions, according to conservative estimates.”

Tony Blair, to his credit, has refused to make abortion or time limits an issue in this election. He said in Cosmopolitan “However much I might dislike the idea of abortion, you should not criminalise a woman who, in very difficult circumstances, makes that choice.”

Blair echoes the position of the now defunct, but previously influential East Sussex -based organisation, “Christian’s for a Free Choice”. They pointed to the right of women in this situation to make their own moral choices in freedom.

The fact is that, in the UK, only a tiny proportion of women have late abortions, and these tend to be teenagers or menopausal women who haven’t realised they are pregnant or women who have discovered late in the pregnancy that the foetus is seriously damaged. It would cause great suffering to force them to take their pregnancies to term.

There is no instruction anywhere in the Bible to avoid contraception or abortion. Jesus certainly never spoke against either, though both existed in Roman times.

Even in the Catholic Church humanity was linked to ‘ensoulment’ (the point at which the human foetus was said to receive a soul). Augustine did not view abortion as homicide and many popes, such as Gregory 1X, held that abortion was “not irregular” if the foetus was not yet “animated”.

The council of Trent upheld the notion of ‘delayed ensoulment’. It was not until 1869 that the then Pope forbade all abortions.

Of course, there is a key commandment not to kill, but this relates to actually existing human beings. Jewish law gave full human status to a child only when its head or more than half of its body was outside the mother’s body. Only at this point could mother and child be said to have an equal right to life.

The Judaeo Christian tradition has always allowed some exceptions to upholding the ‘right to life’ – usually exercised in self defence, capital punishment or in the course of war. Yet the current ‘right to life’ movement does not challenge warmongering governments, but attacks a ‘soft target’ – pregnant women.

In effect, the anti-abortionist position allows men, ‘for the greater good’, to make moral judgements about when human lives can be ended in war, but denies women an equivalent right to make moral judgements about whether one potential life in their own bodies should be terminated.

The real issue is not about the right to life, but about control of women’s fertility.

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