Feminists against abortion


Mary McAleese

Professor Mary McAleese, ProVice Chancellor, Queen's University, Belfast, believes there is an irony about the current phase of women's evolution towards full social, cultural, economic, political and spiritual equality.

THAT irony stems from the fact that new voices are telling women they do not have permission to speak and those voices are often the very voices which insisted most successfully and relentlessly on the need and the right to break the silence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate on abortion, where pro choice feminist agenda settlers have colonised the space, planted their flat and proclaimed that henceforth where the gospel of feminism is preached it shall be preached their way and no other way.

Others may come who call themselves feminist but these will be bogus because when their credentials are checked they will be missing, the prochoice badge of admission. The myth that to be feminist is to be prochoice has forced many women to resign from the name, of feminism, to settle back bruised into the silence of the margins, victims of a new colonisation of the intellect.

Why feminism should appear to be so uncomfortable with diversity and even conflict within itself on this issue is probably due more to its relative immaturity as a political and social force than anything more formidable. Still, there is a growing impatience with its failure to deal with the issue and move on. We are all getting much too long in the tooth to be told by the self styled elder stateswomen of the sisterhood that we "are not permitted to speak".

This book speaks out of that impatience. In the pages which follow feminist voices challenge from inside the recent received wisdom that to be a feminist is naturally to be prochoice. There is nothing natural about the deliberate and widescale lawful and routine elimination of babies. When those babies are all girls as in some cultures the right to choose lobbyists must surely begin to feel a distinct wobble in their gut.

In spite of both sides having been beset by unseemly allies, from fundamentalist bigots to anarchic anti masculinists, Professor McAleese argues that maybe the time has come for a debate on a wider level. She concludes:

"There is a day coming when we will hear the voice from inside the womb, when its own authentic pain will be undeniable, when we will know with certainty that it is saying, "I want to live. I have a right to live. I do not need your permission to live."

Breda O'Brien

Breda O'Brien, a founder member of Feminists for Life of Ireland, stresses that she sees herself as attacking the philosophical underpinnings of feminist advocacy of abortion rather than women who have had abortions. "There is, usually, so much pain in the decision to abort, I would not willingly add to it."

SHE lists the reasons given by women seeking abortions to one particular counselling organisation. These were:

Younger women feeling unprepared for a child, particularly where family and social support is unlikely or insufficient; anxiety about causing hurt to parents, especially when a parent has health problems; older women being concerned about the effects of a pregnancy on a grown family, or the possibility of the foetus being disabled, instability in the relationship with the putative father, whether casual acquaintance, exboyfriend, or where a marriage is under stress; separated women fearful of the status of pregnancy or the effect of separation agreements; and professional women worried about the harm to their careers.

All these are reasons given by women as to why they are oppressed. Abortion does not solve - any of these problems, though it may temporarily relieve them. A poor woman does not cease to be poor because she aborts her child. A professional woman will not achieve equality of treatment by becoming unpregnant. Instead, it appears that, far from freedom of choice, women facing termination feel they have no choice at all - no real choice. Shouldn't feminism be working to provide women with real choices so that pregnancy does not represent disaster, personally, educationally and careerwise?

While we consent to seeing pregnancy as a curse, a life destroying event, we facilitate society to go on acting as if this were true, instead of the social construct that it really is. Adrienne Rich and writers like her acknowledge, "Abortion is violence; a desperate violence inflicted on a woman, first of all upon herself." Yet they still endorse the right to choose. Rich advocates the destruction of the patriarchal institution of motherhood without once ever suggesting a viable alternative.

Ms O'Brien argues for full medical and psychological information about what an abortion involves and asks why abortion is not more linked in to the move in feminist circles against the technologicalisation of birth and fertility.

Renate Klein condemns the "ultimate colonisation" - invasive and dangerous reproductive and genetic engineering. She condemns our "ableist" society for only sanctioning the birth of genetically "normal" children, female foeticide, surrogacy and embryo experimentation and then goes on to applaud "safe, compassionate abortion". Why doesn't Klein understand just how much abortion, too, is a tool of technological and male control?

Seeing the promotion of abortion as a central tenet of feminism alienates many women, and worse, shows that women have internalised the worst excesses of male oppression. Feminism must reevaluate its whole attitude to motherhood and reproduction.

The "feminist elite" would, she concludes, be able to speak for many more women if it were to say that its emphasis on abortion had been an abuse against justice and a disaster for real choice for women.

Catherine Spencer

Catherine Spencer, a translator and editor of Hansard at the House of Commons, contributes a personal testimony to the book. She opens her essay by introducing herself as a woman who has had an abortion.

IN other words, there was an unborn child or, if that word seems too emotive, too shocking, a potential child and the parents of that child or potential child took a decision for it to die. It is not that simple or neat, of course: our motivations were complex and various and reached back to the recesses of our own childhoods (although we were hardly conscious of that then), and I was not, as my statement implies, an innocent by stander of what happened.

I shared, ipso facto, in the responsibility for it. As I watched the film (on TV about a woman who killed one of her children and injured the others, because she was infatuated with a man who didn't want them), I left the resurgence of the old guilt (generally manageable now, through my long dissection of and reflection on it), the old feelings of self horror at what I did, or allowed to happen. I felt exactly like a mother who has killed her own child - appalled, confused, remorseful. As I write, the "understanding "and the rationalisations are back in place and I once more feel the compassion for myself that I have trained myself to feel. Yet somewhere within, beyond the reach of my rational mind, the sense of horror continues unabated and is apt to resurface.

Some pro life spokespeople speak, she says, of foetal pain.

Is abortion a terrifying experience for a foetus? I do not really attach much importance to the possibility, perhaps because to do so would be more than I can bear. On the other hand, I cannot, and do not seek to, deny that what was destroyed was a human life, with a universe of talents and desires, a whole destiny and series of meanings lying within it, as the oak lies within the acorn - and the implications of that are enormous. Because my child was not born, his or her children would never be born: who would they have been? What dreams would they now never have, what tales would they never now spin? Such language may sound purple tinged, yet it - does not do justice to the depth of the longing I feel and have felt to go back and choose again, to give birth to this unique individual who was both part of me and separate from me. Such a loss of "all that should have been" and such grief are of course known to anyone who experiences an untimely bereavement but, again, they have a particularly agonised, perhaps even pathological, edge in abortion because things did not have to be this way, because one "chose" the loss.

Why, she argues, are feminists not concerned about the damage suffered by women like herself

Why are the voices of women such as me drowned out when the battle hymn of the abortion republic is sting?"

The pro choice ideology seems chillingly incapable of addressing my pain and the pain of other grieving mothers. It also seems to advance the idea that abortion somehow in itself emancipates women. How many modern feminists know about the early feminists who abhorred and condemned abortion, seeing it as an example of men's exploitation and degradation of women? I, read the literature of prochoice hardliners and I, wonder why women are making themselves so hard, so brutal, why they seem proud of their lack of feeling or sorrow at abortion, and why they need to mock or deny the suffering of others.

Ms Spencer outlines symptoms she suffered which she eels were linked to the abortion: nightmares, lack of ability to respond normally to people, a sense being numb and blank, interspersed with moments of almost unbearable sadness. Doctors pie scribed antidepressants. Now she feels she has suffering from post abortion reaction, a condition she feels is much in is understood.

Could it partly be because doctors - whose primary duty is to do no harm to their patients (indeed, Hippocrates oath included a commitment not to abort women) who regularly refer women for abortion cannot square this with an acknowledgment that at least some of those patients will be severely damaged by the "treatment" they have sanctioned?

Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey is Professor of Psychiatry at University

College Dublin and the Mater Hospital. The mother of two adopted children, she argues that which adoption is rarely discussed in feminist literature, that lacuna has been filled by the prochoice argument on abortion. Many women, she adds, will say: I could never give up my child yet be willing to have an abortion with little awareness of what's entailed. Her essay focuses on alternatives to abortion - and looks at the "hardcase"argument.

THE use of the penis as weapon is acknowledged by many feminists. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the crime of rape. Carrying massive emotional connotations, rape is the most reviled of all crimes against women. When a pregnancy results it is not surprising that many, even those who oppose abortion on principle, believe that in this circumstance it is justified. As with other emotional issues, arguing the contrary is fraught with difficulty and likely to result in vitriolic condemnation. But there are a number of inherent assumptions in this hard case argument that must be challenged. When one examines the justification unfettered by the ideology, the prochoice arguments are less strong than at first appear.

There is very little research, available about the psychological effects of pregnancy on rape victims and this is hardly surprising given its rarity with the totality of pregnancies. Anecdotal evidence, always unsatisfactory, is available and conforms to predictions that some women adjust to bearing the child, even though the initial emotion was abhorrence while others reject the child.

Professor Casey argues that it is important to consider the status of the foetus, asking are the rights of foetuses conceived by rape different from those conceived in other circumstances.

The stages of development, and therefore the physical status, of a foetus are the same, whether conceived by rape or otherwise. Supporting abortion in rape cases exclusively suggests that the foetus is less than human and not deserving of the respect accorded to other foetuses. This is clearly an untenable position and has no justification. In order to overcome this position, supporters of abortion in rape cases resort to using language to demonise the foetus, for example, "a rapist's child", as if the mother were just an incubator, or imply eugenic concerns by asking questions such as "what sort of child will he turn out to be?". This approach serves to displace the hatred for the rapist onto his biological child, blurring the boundary between genitor and progeny. This serves to rob the foetus of any rights that may be usually afforded the unborn.

Professor Casey argues that it is difficult to justify abortion exclusively for a woman suffering after rape, while denying other suffering women the same option.

A further issue concerns whether the pregnancy or the rape makes the greater contribution to the emotional trauma of woman, and there is no research to assist us in this. It can be argued that the suffering is not relieved by aborting the foetus - merely that the anger of the woman and society is projected on the foetus without any impact on the underlying trauma from the rape. If, as some argue, there is a dual suffering inherent in being raped and then carrying the pregnancy to term, the same argument can be made about the dual violation of the woman, firstly by rape, and then by the violence of abortion. The emotional pain associated with either situation cannot be gain said and abortion does not "unrape" a woman or remove the violence that has been perpetrated against her. Thus arguments related to suffering, while superficially appealing, are more complex than at first seem obvious. Swimming Against The Tide: Feminist Dissent On The Issue Of Abortion, edited by Angela Kennedy, will be published this Wednesday by Open Air, an imprint of the Four Courts Press. Price £9.95 paperback.