Thirty years ago, when she was in her early 20s, Ann Furedi’s passion for abortion rights was sparked by an encounter with a young Irish woman. Pregnant in her early teens, the girl had been sent to England to hide and wait until the birth, after which the child would be given up for adoption.
But her father died after she left, and when she came home for the funeral, she shied away in shame and fear from the embraces of her relatives, in case they felt her swollen stomach, and guessed her secret.
Now Furedi is chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK's leading abortion care charity. But she hasn't forgotten the story of that lonely, grief-stricken teenager. In her new book, The Moral Case for Abortion, Furedi says she often thinks of her, and the "barbaric emotional isolation" she endured.
It was a moment of compassion but, as Furedi observes – with characteristic acerbity – compassion in itself is not enough to justify abortion, and it is "a feeble rebuttal to the challenges of those who claim abortion is murder, and counter compassion for a woman with compassion for an unborn baby". Furedi lets nobody, least of all herself, off the hook so lightly. The Moral Case for Abortion, which sets out the ethical arguments for a woman's right to choose, is a bracing, challenging read, perhaps even for people who consider themselves pro-choice.
Those who are opposed to abortion have already reacted with horror and shock to Furedi’s ideas. LifeSiteNews, the anti-abortion website, claimed that Furedi “said the unthinkable” in the book, when she argues that “abortion may be an act of killing – but it kills a being that has no sense of life or death, and no awareness of itself as distinct from others”.
The Christian conservative commentator Rob Slane said that her words amount to an admission of responsibility “for killing 66,000 human beings in the last year”, referring to the number of terminations that Furedi’s organisation, BPAS, carries out.
Furedi contends that while abortion involves a “killing”, in the sense that it stops a beating heart, it does not stop a person from living. “The end of a life in the womb does not compare with infanticide, euthanasia or any other taking of human life,” she writes. “Abortion does not assault an individual that is living a biologically independent existence of its own. Whatever the foetus experiences, it is not human life as we know it, with its joys and sorrows, fears, hopes and expectations. It knows nothing of itself, nor of others. And others know nothing of it.”
While opponents of abortion speak frequently of “killing”, it is unusual for an advocate of choice to use the word. So why does Furedi deliberately employ it? “Well, it would be far more diplomatic to say ‘end the life of’ rather than ‘kills’,” she says. “But I don’t think it helps to obfuscate or be mealy-mouthed. That creates the impression that you want to draw a veil over what happens. You have to be prepared to be quite blunt. It’s not for shock value.
“Some people honestly believe that the women we treat, and the staff who work in the clinics, are in denial or ignorance and that therefore if only we understood what we were doing, we would stop. But any woman who goes into an abortion clinic knows what she is doing. She is not being conned into doing this. We have no interest in trying to hide the reality.”
Furedi insists on a clear distinction between the life of a woman – “a conscious, knowing creature who is self-aware; who has hopes, ambitions, cares and responsibilities of her own” – and the life of a foetus which, despite its human DNA, “does not even know it is alive”.
The foetus may be human in a biological sense, she argues, but not in the sense that matters morally. Furedi does not dismiss the status of the embryo entirely. She thinks that we can acknowledge that it is special, and worthy of respect as a “biologically unique entity”, even if we believe its life can be ended. Yet ultimately, for Furedi, “our humanity is more than the sum of our biological parts”.
This is what underpins her conviction that abortion should be fully decriminalised. “To end a pregnancy should not be a crime, and it should not be punished by criminal sanctions. Here you have a woman who is pregnant: it’s her body, her life, her future. She should have entirely sovereign rights over her body, pregnant or not.
“Why should it be that women should be regarded as having less control over their future when they are pregnant, than they did before they were pregnant? You cannot accord human life in the womb the same value as people once they are born. Pulling women into court [for inducing a miscarriage with abortion pills], as has happened in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, is completely incompatible with any sense of natural justice. As for equal status [between woman and foetus], as you have in the Republic of Ireland, it completely misses the point that however you regard that life, it is inside the woman. It requires the consent and compliance of that woman in order to continue.”
In order to support women in the Republic, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man who have bought illegal abortion medication online, BPAS recently launched a free telephone after-care service.
By calling for complete decriminalisation, Furedi is not advocating some kind of free-for-all with abortions carried out right up until the moment of birth. She points out that the vast majority of abortions in the UK happen at under 12 weeks, while just 2 per cent take place after 20 weeks.
"Women do not want later abortions, and doctors do not perform them except in exceptional circumstances," she wrote in the Daily Telegraph earlier this year. "Removing abortion from the criminal law would not change this. No woman turns up at 30 weeks pregnant requesting abortion because she's a bit weary of it all – and no doctor would perform an abortion on that basis. To suggest otherwise is absurd and offensive to both women and those who care for them."
Furedi’s mission – and it is an ambitious, audacious one – is to show how abortion can be morally good. She wants to demonstrate that abortion can be right, in itself, as well as being seen as a right. A beneficial choice that shows women’s capacity for “rational, responsible decision-making”; not a necessary evil, to be stigmatised, demonised and politicised, or a decision to feel guilty or sorry or embarrassed about.
For Furedi, abortion can be a defining act of selfhood which affirms a woman’s status as an autonomous human being. “Too often choice is described as some kind of consumerist indulgence,” she says. “But the choices we make, the way we determine where we go in life: this is what shapes us, makes us the people that we are. To take away that decision-making is to take away part of our humanity.”
Battle for morality
Pro-choice advocates have for too long allowed opponents of abortion to monopolise the discourse of morality, according to Furedi. Keen to distance themselves from conservative values and the church, they have concentrated instead on rights-based or health-based arguments. But Furedi says that it is time to put pragmatism to one side and mount an assault on the higher moral ground.
Good old-fashioned conscience, that inner personal compass, is at the centre of her vision. “I’m not someone who has religious faith, though I was brought up in the Christian tradition, but I do feel strongly that we have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. We work it out for ourselves. In the job that I do, I’m so struck by the number of women who say that ending a pregnancy is the right thing to do for them and their families. Sometimes they are struggling to support an existing family. Half the women we see are mothers already. There’s a strong sense of ‘I know what is right for me’. For someone else to come along and intervene and say ‘you’re not qualified to know’ is completely unacceptable.”
Another of Furedi’s ideas which raises her opponents’ ire is her refusal to separate abortion from other methods of fertility control. “Instead of asking: ‘Why abortion?’,” she writes, “perhaps we should ask: ‘why not abortion?’”
Furedi questions why it should be a problem if a woman prefers to use a less effective method of contraception, such as a condom, in the knowledge that, if it fails, she has abortion as a back-up option. In the book, she points out that the clinical risks of an early abortion are not significantly higher than those of contraception, “So why should it matter morally or legally if a woman chooses to practise birth control through this method instead of another?”
“Social views are different in different countries,” Furedi says. “In Britain, abortion is used as a back-up for contraception. It’s incredibly important to understand that and to see that abortion fits on the spectrum of birth control that begins with contraception and ends with a woman taking the decision to end a pregnancy she does not want to carry forward to birth.”
One of the most striking things about The Moral Case for Abortion is its cool rationality, its inexorable logic. In a debate so often characterised by heightened emotion, Furedi's writing voice is calm and clear. Her speaking voice is warmer, quicker, livelier and more voluble, but she's equally concerned with establishing the precise terms of her argument.
“I get as emotional about these issues as anyone does,” she says. “The nurses are always pulling my leg because I seem to be in a permanent state of trauma and shock. It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that some people’s lives are so terrible; they’ve been dealt such a bad hand. But I do believe there’s a case to be built on reason. I’m quite old-fashioned in that way, I put emotion to one side.”
This emphasis on rationality takes her down some challenging avenues of thought, especially when it comes to the uncomfortable topic of late abortions. As Furedi points out, most developed countries – though not, of course, Ireland – now accept that women should be able to access abortions up to 12 weeks gestation without much controversy. But later abortions cause disquiet even for some members of the pro-choice movement, who have doubts about whether a woman should be allowed to end her pregnancy once the foetus starts to look more like a baby.
Furedi has no time for this preoccupation with what she calls “visuals”. She writes: “If you accept that a woman should be able to have an abortion because the pregnancy resides within her – and our bodies are our own – then why should it matter if the pregnancy has been developing for three weeks, or 23 weeks, or 33 weeks?” For Furedi, the life that is destroyed is no more or less a potential person than it was in early pregnancy.
“I find it genuinely odd that people’s notions about the humanity of the foetus depends on visuals. I mean, please. Stop messing about; get real with it. You have to stick with the logical consequences of what you’re saying. If you honestly believe that the foetus in the womb has the same rights as a human person, then that must apply from any time after conception. That doesn’t change because it grows in size, or because nerves develop. Either it has the same status or it doesn’t. For me, you can only accord that potential by taking rights away from the woman carrying it. And I can’t find it within me to see how that could happen.”
Furedi also takes issue with the popular notion that terminations should be as rare as possible. Where abortion is safe and legal, she asks, why should it be rare? Why shouldn’t women use it? “Arguing that abortion should be rare in the future implies that we think there are too many now,” she writes. “But what is the proper number, the right number of abortions for a society to have?”
“Most women would rather prevent than end a pregnancy,” Furedi acknowledges. “Waiting rooms in abortion clinics are largely full of women who wish they were anywhere else but there. If they could turn the clock back, maybe they would have used the morning-after pill, or taken extra care to use a condom. But that’s very different from what policy-makers are talking about when they say that abortion must be rare. If one of our main goals is to make abortion rare, the easy way to go about doing that is to make it difficult for women to obtain.”
“In Ireland, both north and south, one of the arguments is that if you make abortion legal, it doesn’t mean more women would have abortions, they would just be able to have the abortions at home. But why would it be a bad thing if there were more? There is no right number. The right number of abortions is the number that women want.”
It is only towards the end of our conversation that Furedi mentions her own life history. She is married to the sociologist Frank Furedi, and they have one grown-up son, Jacob. “I struggled with infertility for years,” she says. “I had problems with early miscarriages and my husband and I had basically given up. I wouldn’t even try with the embryos we had in the freezer. Yet four months later, I suddenly found myself pregnant with Jacob. I really remember two main things from that time. First of all, how overwhelmingly different and amazing it felt to be pregnant. Particularly as the foetus grows, I could feel the movements and it was just wonderful. But it was also equivalently terrifying. It made me think about the difference between pregnancy when you want it and pregnancy when you don’t.”
In the preface to The Moral Case for Abortion, Furedi pays particular tribute to her friend Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice who, she writes, has taught her much about faith and the individual conscience. In 2012, Furedi's organisation, BPAS, together with Catholics for Choice, convened a meeting of abortion providers, advocates and academics. Following this meeting, a Declaration of Prochoice Principles was issued.
Its opening paragraph states: “We believe in a woman’s autonomy and her right to choose whether to continue or end a pregnancy. Every woman should have the right to decide the future of her pregnancy according to her conscience, whatever her reasons or circumstances. A just society does not compel women to continue an undesired pregnancy.”
This reads like Ann Furedi’s personal creed, a summation of the philosophical values which inform her thinking and her practice. Undeterred by her numerous opponents – who like to style her as some kind of heartless monster, the UK’s abortionist-in-chief, presiding over tens of thousands of terminations each year – she maintains her fundamental, unwavering commitment to a woman’s right to choose.