Should women have the right to choose abortion? The answer is an emphatic yes they should, and I can see two reasons, broadly speaking, why this is so.
But before I get to these reasons, I want to stress that we’re talking about human lives here. A foetus is not a tumor or an appendix or a fingernail. It is a potential human being (or an actual human being, depending on what criteria you use.) Terminating a foetus – no, let’s be honest, killing a foetus is not an act that can be carried out lightly. It should not be some sort of routine or automatic procedure, like an inoculation. It should be a last resort, carried out when the alternative – carrying the child to term – is worse. It’s like a safety net beneath a high-wire act at a circus. You’d never really want to use that option, if you could avoid it at all. But the safety net should be there.
The decision to abort, hard though it is, is made even harder by the fact that Nature tends to be analogue, not digital. There is no obvious cut-off point, just a continuum ranging from an egg and a sperm at one end, to a new-born baby at the other. Where should the line be drawn? At 20 weeks? 24 weeks? As is often the case in real life, there is no very clear answer – we just do our best with the information we have at the time. One thing is certain though – wherever we draw that line, someone will always say that we should have drawn it somewhere else, or not drawn it at all.
But yes, abortion should be there as an option. Firstly, if it is made illegal, women will still choose to do it. The difference will be that it won’t take place in hygienic, safe surroundings. If abortion is against the law, desperate women will go to backstreet abortionists, and the really desperate will attempt it solo. Do we really want to find teenage girls dying in pools of blood in toilet cubicles? In the western world, in the 21st century? I don’t think we do.
My second reason has to do with women and their bodies. I am surprised when some of the more vociferous opponents of abortion turn out to be men, and I suspect I know what I’d say to them, were I a woman. “You go through what women go through,” I’d say. “You go through the inconvenience of menstruation, the challenges of pregnancy, the risks of childbirth. Then – and only then – will I pay much attention to your opinions.”
In the West, the progress of women to attain the same rights as men has been a long, hard struggle over the years, but it is possible sometimes to lose sight of just how great that struggle has been – not so many generations ago, women were treated like chattels rather than citizens, even in the more enlightened parts of the globe. This has been more or less reversed in the developed world, and we only have to look at some other cultures, where women are hidden away behind burkhas or forced to undergo genital mutilation, to realise how far we have come. Nevertheless, it is never good to take these rights, these freedoms entirely for granted. In some quarters, the notion of a woman having control over her own body and the cells in it, is still a radical one.
Just as a thought experiment, imagine that we men, traditionally the dominant gender, also had wombs and were able to bear children. Would abortion be permitted? Somehow, you know, I suspect it would. I’d be willing to bet that if it were men having the children, sovereignty over our own bodies would take precedence over the right to life of a foetus. And we’d probably be able to justify this perfectly, somehow.
Back in the real world, there are a number of reasons why women end up with unplanned pregnancies, and these include accidents (for instance, a small percentage of condoms are damaged during use), ignorance, carelessness and coercion. I can think of two general solutions to the problems of ignorance and carelessness – more effective sex education and access to contraceptives. (The Dutch provide a good example here – the sex education in Dutch schools is exemplary, and they have much lower rates of teen pregnancy than in the UK, where sex education is generally far from excellent.)
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, accidents will happen. Sex is an inherently risky activity, and there is still no sure way of eliminating human error completely. As well as genuine mistakes, there are also cases of coercion and rape – not every pregnant woman becomes that way voluntarily. By being forced to carry an unwanted baby to term, should a woman really have to suffer the consequences of a defective condom, let’s say, or face additional punishment for being a date-rape victim? No, in a civilised society the safety net of abortion should be there when needed, as a last resort.
If it is made illegal, abortion goes underground, where it joins the shadow economy, becoming neither accountable nor clean nor safe. Making it against the law is a blow to the hard-won rights of women and a step back to the bad old days when women were property.