On Thursday 11 July, Ireland passed an abortion law legalising abortions for women if a woman’s life is under threat.
The critical part of the legalisation bill that I take issue with is the specification that a woman’s life must be threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy, including by threat of suicide, and that neither rape nor a woman’s values, interests and wants are given any consideration in the matter.
How positive a step towards women’s rights has the Irish government made if it considers death to be the only valid release clause from an unwanted pregnancy? By its own words, the state is content to withhold the power of a woman to control what happens to her own body to the point that she resorts to suicide as a final act of control. This is an act of a government that has no respect for its women.
Anti-abortionists need to recognise that suicide is not the only way a woman’s life can be destroyed by an unwanted pregnancy, and that failure to acknowledge this fact is a failure to acknowledge the value and personhood of women.
Imagine a medical student. She is in her first year of university when she is brutally raped and subsequently falls pregnant. Suddenly, any plans or aspirations she may have had – to finish her degree, begin her career, help hundreds of sick people, and start on the road to achieving any number of anticipated life-goals – are blown out of the water. The life she would have had is terminated, for better or worse, before a physiological threat to her life even enters the picture.
On top of this, this woman then has to face a number of oft unappreciated, sometimes grim, realities of pregnancy.
When carrying a foetus, a woman’s body is no longer her own, it becomes unpredictable, even uncooperative. She may get nauseous for weeks on end, feel exhausted, physically and mentally, her changed body may well prevent her from doing many of the things that she finds important or enjoyable, she might even lose her job.
She then faces uncountable hours of labour, the threat of post-natal depression, or other, non-life-threatening consequences of childbirth. But most importantly of all, she has to take responsibility for a human life, even if this takes the form of putting that child up for adoption.
Even with the smoothest of pregnancies, the changes it wreaks on the mother’s life will stay with her for ever. To assume that the threat posed by pregnancy to a woman can be such a simple, black and white, life or death calculation is insulting and sexist.
Historically men have been permitted, if not encouraged, to take out threats to their valued way of life, whether in the form of a household intruder or a war-time enemy. It is viewed as a necessary and sometimes honourable act, even if it means harming an unwitting assailant.
Yet when the threat is to a woman’s valued way of life in the form of an unwanted pregnancy, the threat is ignored and the woman is refused powers to protect herself. This sends the misogynistic message that a woman’s only real purpose is as a mother, and her life could not possibly have as much value and meaning to herself and society as that of the undeveloped foetus.
It is time opponents of abortion realise that the debate surrounding the legalisation of abortion is not simply a question about the biological health of the mother, or the imagined potential of the foetus. It is about the complexities of a human life, and respecting a woman’s intelligence, autonomy and desire for fulfilment as having equal status and complexity as any man’s.
Much time is spent during abortion debates on the imputing and impugning of motives. Without it, coverage of the Texas legislative battle over late-term abortion, for example, would consist mainly of blank pages and dead air.
But political outcomes are not always reducible to the intentions of the winner. Results are often influenced by deeper trends that neither side of a debate can do much to change or control.
The national abortion settlement declared by Roe v. Wade — rooting a nearly unrestricted right to abortion in the right to privacy — has been unstable for 40 years. The reason is a tension between the state of the law and a durable public consensus that human life has an increasing claim on our sympathy as it develops. This view does not reflect either pro-life or pro-choice orthodoxy. But it predicts a more sustainable political resolution.
The media have a slothful tendency to place Americans into rigid categories of pro-life and pro-choice. The reality is more complicated. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 79 percent of people who describe themselves as pro-choice support making abortion illegal in the third trimester. “One of the clearest messages from Gallup trends,” concludes Gallup’s Lydia Saad, “is that Americans oppose late-term abortion.” Saad adds: “A solid majority of Americans (61 percent) believe abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, while 31 percent disagree. However support drops off sharply, to 27 percent, for second-trimester abortions, and further still, to 14 percent, for third-trimester abortions. Gallup has found this pattern each time it has asked this question since 1996, indicating that Americans attach much greater value to the fetus as it approaches viability, starting in the second trimester.”
An opinion this consistent and nearly universal must be based on something. The late political scientist James Q. Wilson gave the most persuasive explanation. In his 1994 essay, “On Abortion,” he argued bluntly that “people treat as human that which appears to be human; people treat as quasi-human that which appears quasi-human.” Sympathy, in his view, grows with resemblance. This explains why the miscarriage of an embryo is (generally) treated differently than the death of a newborn. It is also the reason, according to Wilson, that we recoil from “the thought of killing an infant that does not differ from the newborn in any respect other than that it receives oxygen and food via an umbilical cord instead of through its nose and mouth.”
“Life emerges,” Wilson said, “or more accurately, the claims that developing life exert upon us emerge, gradually but powerfully.” As a fetus becomes more recognizably human, it invokes “attachment that is as natural as any sentiment that ever enters the human breast.” Wilson placed the decisive stage of development, as many Americans seem to place it, at 10 to 12 weeks of gestation.
Wilson was broadly criticized, by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates, for attempting to turn sentiments into principles. As a moral matter, I share that criticism. His gradations strike me as ethically arbitrary, and even universal opinions do not add up to moral rules. But Wilson’s theory of natural “moral sentiments” on abortion does seem to describe the way most Americans think about this issue. Which makes it politically predictive.
If Wilson’s description is correct, pro-life advocates are unlikely to secure legal limits on abortion during the first trimester — the period in which most abortions take place. At some point, after late-term abortions are restricted, legislative approaches will become unproductive, and persuasion and the provision of alternatives to abortion will become the main avenues of activism.
But because the Supreme Court imposed a national settlement at odds with natural sentiments, pro-choice advocates are on the defensive. Their political challenge is to prevent the working of politics. Their real opponent is democracy, as state after state considers late-term abortion restrictions.
We have some models of what happens, even in very liberal societies, when public views prevail on abortion. Across most of Western Europe, abortion is legal during the first trimester but heavily restricted later in pregnancy — after the 14th week in France, Germany and Spain. These limits are not a violation of liberal principles but a recognition that the inherent violence of late-term abortion is at odds with liberal principles.
A Wilson-like settlement on abortion in America would be unsatisfying to many. But it would have the virtue of being sustained by consensus, not imposed by fiat.
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The needless death of Savita Halappanavar last year, after a Catholic hospital refused to terminate her doomed pregnancy, drew a worldwide outpouring of fury against the religious dogmatism that killed her.
But as I wrote at the time, Savita’s story was only the tip of the iceberg. What happened to her wasn’t a fluke or an aberration: it was and is the official policy of the church that if a pregnant woman’s life can be saved by abortion, it’s better to let two die than to save one.
It’s only by a stroke of good fortune that we haven’t had any Savitas in the U.S. (that I’m aware of, at least). It’s certainly no thanks to the church hierarchy. And that makes it especially ominous that the Catholic hospital system is quietly expanding its reach across the U.S., merging with or gobbling up many of its secular counterparts:
“We are starting to see what was rare in the past,” said Lisa Goldstein, who follows nonprofit hospitals for Moody’s Investors Service and predicts more such partnerships… About one-sixth of all patients were admitted to a Catholic hospital in 2010. In many smaller communities, the only hospital within miles is Catholic. (source)
This is still going on today, as Americans United reported in a blog post from last month about Catholic entities seeking to take over public medical institutions in Texas and Kentucky. And when the church takes over, they’re not reluctant to throw their weight around: Irin Carmon reports on Salon that an astonishing 52% of OB-GYNs at Catholic hospitals have reported clashing with church-run ethics committees over the proper treatment of women with complications from pregnancy.
This is bad for men too, since it cuts off their access to procedures like sterilization that these hospitals no longer provide. But as always, the burden of religious oppression falls most heavily on women, since it’s only women who are denied access to literally lifesaving medical care by Catholic dogma (not to mention access to emergency contraception if they’re raped).
I regard this as a more serious problem than most other manifestations of the anti-choice movement. The noisy protesters who cluster outside reproductive health clinics can frighten and harass, but they can’t actually, legally, prevent anyone from getting an abortion there or otherwise making use of the clinic’s services. On the other hand, buying up hospitals does make it possible for religious zealots to cut off women’s access to legal, essential medical care.
There’s only one solution to this, and it has to be a legal one. Just as businesses that serve the public can’t discriminate by religion in whom they hire or whom they serve, so too should hospitals be forbidden to pick and choose which procedures they’ll offer or which medicines they’ll dispense based on the decrees of a religious authority.
We wouldn’t tolerate a Jehovah’s Witness-run hospital that forbade blood transfusions, even for people rushed into the emergency room dying of blood loss. We wouldn’t tolerate a Muslim-run hospital where doctors and nurses refused to wash their hands based on their interpretation of Islamic modesty laws. We wouldn’t tolerate an evangelical Christian-run hospital that turned gay people away at the door. Just the same way, we should refuse to tolerate a Catholic-run hospital where the imperial decrees of a bishop mean that a woman dying of sepsis or eclampsia can’t get a life-saving abortion as long as there’s any detectable fetal heartbeat.
It doesn’t matter exactly how we implement this – the “hospital within a hospital” created in one case in Austin seems like a reasonable compromise. But this is something we have to insist on. Religious individuals can decide what care they want for themselves based on their beliefs. But in a secular nation like America, it should be absolutely illegal for a religious authority to turn any part of the public square into a private fiefdom and exercise power over the lives of people who haven’t voluntarily agreed to abide by those rules.
BLOODY hell, New Mexico. In that corner of the land of the free, moves are being made to force rape victims to carry any resulting pregnancy full term. Abortion will be deemed “tampering with evidence”. If a mugger breaks your face, you should not keep it showing sings of brutality to please the judge when the trial comes up. In what demented mind is a pregnancy evidence of rape?
The bill is being brought by Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R).
According to HB 206, if a woman terminates her pregnancy after being raped, she and the medic who performed the abortion face 3 years in state prison:
Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.
So, rape victim, what’s it to be: prison or carrying the rapist’s child?
Aviva Shen notes:
While anti-choice advocates maintain that a fetus should be afforded the full rights of personhood, charging abortion as “tampering with evidence” effectively turns the fetus into an object. This isn’t the first time so-called pro-life supporters have dropped the fetal personhood crusade when it was convenient — last year, a Catholic hospital in Colorado reversed its stance on fetal personhood in a malpractice suit, arguing in court that the term “person” should only apply to individuals who have already been born.
One question: who the hell voted for
Cathrynn Brown, the pressure group Rapists for Dads?
Musical supremo Elton John has revealed that scientists have successfully made him pregnant, using the genetically modified womb from an old bear. Sir Elton, 65, has barely suffered any signs of morning sickness, although he did feel the urge to hibernate in late November.
The pianist and his partner, David Furnish, already have one baby, born by a human surrogate somewhere in California. But the happy couple are expecting the follow up to be ‘even better than the old one’, thanks to the miracle of science, a grizzly’s second-hand lady-pocket and cutting edge techniques which have combined to produce what Elton describes as his best albumen yet.
“There’s no feeling like it, having a little human growing inside you”, explained Elton. “It’s fantastic that these days, age is no barrier to being a mum. And a Christmas baby? Well, that’s the best gift I could have hoped for. Although I’d still like that steam train and a Dubai island shaped like my face.”
Furnish explained that differing gestation periods between the species ‘Homo sapiens’ and ‘Ursa Minorus Keyus’ make it hard to calculate exactly when the baby is due, but a full medical team are on stand-by for Elton’s sell-out Christmas tour. “Obviously, it would be a dream come true for Elton to squeeze it out on stage during an encore”, admitted Furnish. “But failing that, I think we’d both quite like a water birth.”
The singer has denied media claims that he is ‘too posh to push’, and is adamant that he won’t resort to a C-section. But doctors are keeping a sharp knife handy just in case he changes his mind, and have seized the opportunity to warn other elderly men in a similar position of the risk of hernia at least, or even a full rectal prolapse.
Mumsnet have criticised the star for being ‘too old’ to have a baby, but Sir John’s team are unconcerned. “David’s found this wonderful nanny to take care of everything, and Elton will be singing songs from his back catalogue to sooth situations and ease any tension as the child grows,” said his gynaecologist. “But hormones do play an important part at times like this. Obviously we’ll move everyone away to a safe distance if he storms off to his piano starts playing ‘the Bitch is Back’.”