This article from the London Times on June 30, 2010 is worth copying in full. I couldn’t find the link online, so here’s a link to a commentary about the article:
I’ve been wavering. But a woman’s right to choose her own way of life is paramount.
In the Cradle Tower at the Tower of London is an interactive display that asks visitors to vote on whether they would die for a cause. Hmm, let’s see. I like dolphins, but if it came down to a straight choice, goodbye Flipper. I’ll shout abuse at a Uruguayan linesman when my country calls, but I wouldn’t take a paper cut for England, let alone a bullet.
Standing where religious martyrs were held and tortured in Britain’s turbulent reformation, I could think of one cause I would stake my life on: a woman’s right to be educated, to have a life beyond the home and to be allowed by law and custom to order her own life as she chooses. And that includes complete control over her own fertility.
Yet something strange is happening to this belief that has, for so long, shaped my core; my moral certainty about abortion is wavering, my absolutist position is under siege.
It’s not a baby, it’s a foetus, you God-squaddies, the teenage me would have crowed at the pro-lifers. It’s a woman’s body, her choice, end of, I would have proclaimed in whatever patois we were speaking back then. The report last week by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which found that the human foetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks, would have been waved triumphantly at anyone who crossed my path, along with an invitation to be taught the meaning of pain. This is not, you see, a rational debate, but one of passion and vitriol and tribalism.
Then came a baby, and everything changed. I think of it as the Anna Karenina conundrum. If you read the book as a teenager, you back her choices with all the passion of youth. Love over convention, go Anna! Then you have children and realise that Anna abandons her son to shack up with a pretty soldier, and then her daughter when she jumps under a train. She becomes a selfish witch. Having a baby paints the world an entirely different hue. Black and white no longer quite cut it.
The abortion issue hinges on the notion of life. The pro-life position is clear: a baby is a life, with rights, from the instant of conception. The pro-choice position insists that we are talking only about a potential life, with no rights. An embryo is not a person.
Baldly, the debate is foetal rights versus reproductive rights. But you won’t see such dispassionate wording from the campaigners. Both sides are adept at using language to further their position. Women terminate pregnancies or kill their babies, depending on who is talking. In pro-life propaganda, the gory details are recounted with a prurient relish — during a suction abortion, a foetus is “decapitated and dismembered”.
If scientists had established that an early foetus can feel pain, rather than the reverse, the pro-lifers would have seized on it, but actually it makes little difference to the central arguments on either side. Either a foetus is a life from conception, or it is not — ability to feel pain is not, in itself, a defining factor.
In fact, a definition of life is extraordinarily difficult to arrive at. Friedrich Engels said: “Life is the state of being of proteins.” But no single definition is agreed by scientists or philosophers. Some scientists argue that the Universe is set up in such a way to make the spontaneous eruption of life inevitable — Christian de Duve, the Nobel-prizewinning biologist, called life a “cosmic imperative”. Others claim that the existence of life is so unlikely that it is a miraculous fluke. Either way, there is something utterly extraordinary in the notion that we are all recycled matter — that our atoms were once part of something else, animate or inanimate, and that some miracle of assembly created me or you.
Is life defined by consciousness or an awareness of self? Is it simply the ability to breathe? Take a few moments to try to define being human and alive. Done? It’s not easy, is it? What seems increasingly clear to me is that, in the absence of an objective definition, a foetus is a life by any subjective measure. My daughter was formed at conception, and all the barely understood alchemy that turned the happy accident of that particular sperm meeting that particular egg into my darling, personality-packed toddler took place at that moment. She is so unmistakably herself, her own person — forged in my womb, not by my mothering.
Any other conclusion is a convenient lie that we on the pro-choice side of the debate tell ourselves to make us feel better about the action of taking a life. That little seahorse shape floating in a willing womb is a growing miracle of life. In a resentful womb it is not a life, but a foetus — and thus killable.
So we are left with a problem. A growing movement in America, spearheaded by Sarah Palin, is pro-life feminism, This attempts to decouple feminism from abortion rights, arguing that you can believe in a woman’s right to be empowered without believing in her right to abort. Its proponents report a groundswell of support among young women looking to reinvent their mothers’ ideology.
But you cannot separate women’s rights from their right to fertility control. The single biggest factor in women’s liberation was our newly found ability to impose our will on our biology. Abortion would have been legal for millennia had it been men whose prospects and careers were put on sudden hold by an unexpected pregnancy. The mystery pondered on many a girls’ night out is how on earth men, bless them, managed to hang on to political and cultural hegemony for so long. The only answer is that they are not in hock to their biology as much as we are. Look at a map of the world and the right to abortion on request correlates pretty exactly with the expectation of a life unburdened by misogyny.
As ever, when an issue we thought was black and white becomes more nuanced, the answer lies in choosing the lesser evil.
The nearly 200,000 aborted babies in the UK each year are the lesser evil, no matter how you define life, or death, for that matter. If you are willing to die for a cause, you must be prepared to kill for it, too.