Abortion: a medical procedure, not a moral issue

By Kathy Newnam

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, the women’s liberation movement won the public debate about abortion — in Australia today more than 80% of people support a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. But the opponents of this right of women haven’t given up. Having lost the debate, the anti-abortion movement now often uses a different approach, attempting to take the mantle of being “pro-woman”.

Central to this approach is the argument that abortion is damaging to women. For example, Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell wrote in the April 13 Sydney Sunday Telegraph that abortion is “a genuine trauma, an unnatural death, where a mother has often violated her natural instincts as well as her moral sense”. Pell also attempted to paint women as victims of the women’s liberation movement, writing: “In the past, the psychological and spiritual agony experienced by many mothers after abortion was ignored by the media, denied by mental-health professionals and scorned by the women’s movement. Women were told that abortion would bring them relief, but often found only depression and grief whose causes they did not recognise”.

When the likes of Pell write about “post-abortion traumas”, it has nothing to do with medicine or science and everything to do with a “moral” opposition to abortion. Indeed, Pell’s hypocrisy is stunning (although not surprising) — campaigning to stigmatise women who have abortions as “baby killers”, then feigning concern at the psychological health of the same women.

There is a good deal of pseudo-science involved in the mental health impacts of abortion. This reflects the current state of the abortion debate, in which a minority continue to oppose abortion, including in the medical profession. Drawing on a wide range of studies, the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states in its leaflet for women considering abortion: “Some studies suggest that women who have had an abortion may be more likely to have psychiatric illness or to self-harm than other women who give birth or are of a similar age. However, there is no evidence that these problems are actually caused by the abortion; they are often a continuation of problems a woman has experienced before.”

What opponents of abortion do not address is the mental health risks of forcing a woman to bear an unwanted child. Their argument is not a scientific one in favour of women’s health; it is a moral argument based on theology. In this light, the moral argument is just one more barrier put up in an attempt to prevent women from having control over their own bodies. It is no different from the legal, informational and financial barriers that the women’s liberation movement has fought so hard to remove.

A dangerous fringe

The “pro-life” anti-abortion movement continues to campaign for increased restrictions and bans on abortion. While it is easy to portray this movement and groups like Right to Life as a fringe, if it is not challenged, this movement threatens the gains of the women’s liberation movement as it attempts to whittle away the widespread support for abortion rights.
The anti-abortion shock troops provide justification for attacks on access to abortion. They are presented as having more social weight than they really do through their ongoing mobilisation and the support they receive from within mainstream politics.

They also gain legitimacy from governments that refuse to repeal anti-abortion laws with the justification that it would “rock the boat” and stir up the anti-abortion forces. This is a common excuse given by ALP politicians for the failure to repeal anti-abortion laws by ALP state governments across the country.
The reality is that anti-abortion laws are maintained because the right to choose is a challenge to the ideological rationale for capitalist society. Right to Life find a base for their ideas because they are reinforcing the already existing anti-woman prejudices in society. There is a lot to be lost by conservative forces as women gain control over their own bodies, because it may lead women to demand control over other aspects of our lives.

Women’s right to choose abortion challenges the mythology surrounding women, motherhood and the family. If women can choose not to be mothers, then it undermines the basic premise that underlies sexism in society — that motherhood is the valid role for women. This is the real choice that the conservative forces are afraid of.

The theological, pseudo-scientific and moral opposition to abortion is about trying to force women to be prisoners of their reproductive systems. That situation helps to keep women imprisoned in the straitjacket of the family — in their primary social role as mothers, wives and carers, taking care of the young, the sick and the aged. The attacks on abortion serve the broader neoliberal agenda of saving money for governments and big business by rolling back the idea that such services are social responsibilities. They force the burden onto women through the family.

Clouding the debate

This is why Right to Life receive the backing they do from within mainstream political forces — because they play an important role in clouding the debate. They shift the debate away from defending women’s right to access a simple medical procedure to a supposedly complex issue of morality.

Much of the discussion about the “morality” of abortion starts with the premise that many women feel guilt or shame after having an abortion and that this is due to a conflict over the morality of the decision. That is an assumption that ignores the fact that there is still a strong stigma attached to abortion. Of course many women are going to succumb to the pressures to feel guilty for having an abortion when the whole of mainstream society is telling them that is how they should feel.

In February 2007, then federal health minister Tony Abbott told the media: “Every abortion is a tragedy, and up to 100,000 abortions a year is this generation’s legacy of unutterable shame.” That kind of bigoted rhetoric has an effect, especially if it isn’t challenged. Unfortunately, not dissimilar sentiments are sometimes expressed by people who are “pro-choice”.

In Britain, there has been a revival of the abortion debate surrounding a private member’s bill to lower the legal abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks. On May 10 the British Guardian printed an article by Margaret Drabble, from a “pro-choice” perspective. In it she wrote: “The later the abortion, the more tragic the circumstances; that should be blindingly obvious.” Blindingly obvious to who? It may be obvious to those who oppose abortion on “moral” grounds, who, having failed to have abortion banned, campaign to stigmatise women who access it. But supporters of women’s right to access abortion have to reject such arguments. It is high time that the abortion rights movement tackled this moralism head on and aggressively challenged the stigma, shame and guilt surrounding abortion.

Abortion is not a problem; it is a solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. It is a basic medical procedure and should be treated as such by the medical profession (which still treats abortion as an elective and not a compulsory part of medical training) and by society as a whole. We need free, safe, accessible abortion — without apology. This is the only way to demolish the real “tragedy” surrounding abortion, which is the unnecessary suffering that women have to endure in order to have control over their own bodies and lives.

[Kathy Newnam has been involved in campaigns for women’s rights for over a decade and is currently active in the abortion rights campaign in Brisbane. She is a member of the national executive of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]