Thursday, 24 January 2008

An Open Letter to Ann Widdecombe as she begins her “Not on Your Life...or Anyone Else’s” Tour.

Dear Ann,

I hope your visit to Glasgow University (23/01/08) to promote your anti-abortion campaign was enjoyable. As a feminist, I believe that it is important that all women’s voices are heard and I welcome your input into the debate. While I think you have every right to share your pro-life beliefs with other women, I think you should seriously reconsider your position on campaigning to change abortion legislation. Supporting the legalisation of abortion does not require you to change your moral beliefs, but to give greater consideration to the complexity of women’s position in our society and to respect their personal autonomy. Most feminists, even the hairy-legged, bra-burning kind, recognise that abortion is not an easy or a simple choice. Some pro-choice feminists even believe that life begins at conception and would personally not choose to have an abortion. Yet, we recognise that legalised abortion is necessary and important for a number of reasons.

The first, and perhaps most obvious response, is that making abortion illegal does not stop abortions from happening. Ireland, where abortion is illegal, is a very good example. Over 6,000 Irish women travel to the UK for abortions each year, not an insignificant number given their population size. Making abortion illegal in the UK will just drive women to travel abroad for abortion, perhaps to countries where medicine is not as well regulated, and certainly ensuring that those women do not have aftercare when they return. This will, of course, be a luxury of the rich. Poor women, and currently Scotland’s deprived areas have twice the abortion rate of rich areas, will be most heavily penalised. It would be naive to assume that these women will not have abortions. Backstreet abortions were a fact of life before 1967. Many older women can tell you who the village abortionist was. Abortifacients were advertised widely in women’s magazines in the Victorian period and are even commented on in traditional Scottish ballads. This information was available for a reason. Legalised abortion ensures that women are able to make informed and safe choices.

Perhaps a more tongue in cheek response might also be: how do you expect to enforce anti-abortion legislation and what punishment will you give that would deter women from this course of action? Currently around one in three women in Britain will have an abortion, almost 200,000 a year. What do you think your conviction rate will be given the chances of 1 in 3 women on a jury having been in similar circumstances? If we assume that we can get a conviction and also let’s rather generously say that half of women are dissuaded from having abortion due to its criminalisation, where do you plan on putting the 100,000 women A YEAR who make that choice? Who would pay for their incarceration? Is this where your support for the death penalty comes in?

Another more serious response may question the support of anti-abortion policies without a similar campaign to ensure the financial security, safety and upbringing of the children that are now born, and to support their mothers. If the state acts to restrict the personal autonomy of women then it must protect them from the consequences of that decision. That is the nature of the social contract. People give up their rights to behave as they wish, but in turn the state has the responsibility to protect them and to provide for them (or create an environment where they can do that for themselves). In this instance, before anti-abortion legislation is put in place, the state would have to address the wide range of causes for abortion (i.e. it needs to provide and protect). A list that is far from exhaustive would include free childcare to all women to ensure that they can access work, further education and respite (for the protection of their mental and physical health). This childcare would have to operate round the clock to ensure that women who worked shifts would be fully supported. The state would have to ensure that the current social inequalities that face women that have children are not only legislated against, but abolished in practice. This includes ensuring that women with children do not lose their jobs, fail to get promoted or earn less because they take maternity leave or breaks in their careers. It means making flexible working hours and part-time work a reality. It means ensuring that women are not forced into low-paid jobs as they are the only industries that they can fit around their children.

Moving away from ensuring financial security, the state would also have to enforce a cultural change where violence against women was not just unacceptable, but not happening. The state would have to ensure that no woman would face violence as a result of her pregnancy or was forced to bring a child into the world to have her or him tortured by a partner. The state would have to ensure that men no longer raped women so that they were faced with remembering the trauma of rape with every passing day of their pregnancy. The state would have to ensure that all women, even the young ones, had full information on and access to reliable contraception and where men were educated to believe that fertility was their problem too. The state should also seriously considering re-educating our culture so that women were no longer objectified and seen as little more than sexual objects. Perhaps, by doing so we would give women greater self-esteem and the ability to insist that contraception is used and to teach men that using contraception when you as a couple do not want to conceive is an act of respect towards your partner. While on the subject of men, I don’t think it would be too much to ask the state to create a culture where parenting was not predominately thrust upon women.

The state would also have to consider the children. Given that so many women who have abortions live in areas of social deprivation, the state would have to ensure that all children are protected from living in poverty; that they had opportunities to access a good education that could lead to well paid employment; that they are protected from crime, gangs and all the other implications of living in a deprived area. With great power comes great responsibility. Is the state willing to take on the responsibilities incurred by banning abortion? Are you ready to campaign for these rights as fully and as pro-actively as you campaign for changes in abortion legislation?

If all these conditions were fulfilled, then as a feminist I might still have a problem with the state’s infringement of my bodily autonomy, but at least then we could have a conversation about whether abortion is a moral choice. The funny thing is, I suspect, that if all these condition were fulfilled, the number of abortions would be considerably less, both because there would be less pregnancies and because choosing to have children would be more of a choice.

I would be grateful for your consideration of these issues.
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