Is There a "Right" Way to Be Pro Choice? Or Why Abortion Talk Is a Totally Different Ball Game in the UK

Even the most right-wing columnists here know that calls to criminalise abortion would be hugely unpopular, so they although they try and chip away at our rights bit-by-bit, they make no attempt to eradicate them completely.

May 29, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

I’ve been reading the recent slew of articles around abortion on xoJane.com with growing fascination. The thing that really caught my eye was the breadth and volume of comments, covering every possible shade in the spectrum of pro-choice opinion (plus a fair smattering of pro-life opinion).

What really struck me was that so many of the comments seemed obsessed with being pro choice in the "correct" way. It’s never occured to me that there’s a wrong way to be pro choice; you either are or you aren’t, and anything beyond that is down to the individual’s experience of what is always going to be a deeply personal issue.

Is this just a different cultural sensibility? Or a symptom of the fact that your right to choose is a bit more fragile than ours in the first place?

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No one gets to tell me what to do with my uterus. Which is a relief as no-one round here seems to want to anyway... 

In the UK in the past 20 years, abortion has been, if not off the political agenda, certainly shoved somewhere along the bottom, along with Ann Widdecombe and Any Other Business. But this is all starting to change, and recently we have seen women’s right to choose what they do with their own bodies come under threat for the first time in decades.

Last year Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tabled an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill to make "independent counselling" (i.e., not affiliated with an abortion provider) mandatory. She has also been public and prolific about her desire to reduce the time limit on abortions.

At the same time, the 40 days for life campaign has stepped up its action in the UK, with the Guardian reporting two days ago that doctors are starting to fear for their safety as protests outside abortion clinics heat up.

In fact, there’s one round the corner from our UK office, although the two or three sorry-looking protesters who only come out when it’s sunny to timidly try and hand out leaflets AND RUIN MY LUNCHBREAK look more pathetic than dangerous.

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A solitary pro-life protester outside the abortion clinic near xoJane's London office. At least I think it was a protester - he was hanging around outside and offering people day-glo rosary beads. How...rave. 

Earlier this year, health secretary Andrew Lansley called for unannounced spot checks of abortion clinics in the UK, following the revelation that some of them were pre-signing the consent form that two doctors legally have to sign before performing an abortion (personally I think the fact that you still need two signatures at all is pretty archaic, but hey, what do I know?).

So, abortion is back on the agenda, but the first thing this has demonstrated is how organised, articulate and passionate the pro-choice movement in the UK is. As the abortion debate heated up, more and more prominent female columnists and commentators have come forward to speak about their own experience to try and eradicate some of the shame, guilt and self justification that seems to come with your average abortion tale. Pro life versus pro choice doesn’t come into it.

Columnist Tanya Gold wrote eloquently about the regret she feels around the abortion she had aged 24. But despite this, she recognises the need to remove the shame and guilt that still surrounds terminating pregnancies because "[her] shame is [her] own" and isn’t a reflection on anyone else’s experience.

In her book "How To Be A Woman" (read it if you haven’t already), The Times columnist Caitlin Moran explains why having her two children was one of the best things she’s ever done, along with the subsequent abortion she went on to have.

Meanwhile, Guardian columnist Zoe Williams (who has prolifically written about her pro choice stance, as well as her own abortion), spoke at a open meeting in the House of Commons a few weeks ago held by pro choice campaigners Abortion Rights, likening a termination to any other medical procedure.

"I don't think every abortion is a tragedy. It's an accident," she said. "If you've had an abortion you need to stand up and say so and say I didn't need counselling. It was a medical procedure."

The idea that a woman shouldn’t need to justify her abortion, or couch her tale in shame or guilt to make it more palatable to others is nothing particularly new, but it’s become a bigger part of the debate now than it’s ever been before.

There’s also an acceptance that every woman’s experience is different and personal -- that’s the point of choice. You don’t have to be thrilled to bits by your abortion to be pro choice, or even feel good about your decision -- but don’t get making the wrong choice for you confused with thinking you should never have been given the choice in the first place.

On the other hand, the pro life movement here is much less prolific, vocal and numerous in the UK than it is in the States. Get caught protesting outside a family planning clinic here, and you’ll be ignored, or called mad and possibly heckled. Given recent reports, we might be playing a dangerous game by dismissing these protesters, but dismiss them we do.

The other facet here is the right-wing press, who I think of less as "pro life" and more as "anti choice." When the right-wing press here talk about abortion (Daily Mail, I’m talking to you), they have their fare share of abortion shock horror news stories -- Abortion ‘triples breast cancer risk’” screams (screams!) one headline, while a female columnist laments that "Our cavalier approach to abortion is profoundly uncivilised."

However, while the majority of "right wing" columnists and commentators rail against the number of procedures carried out in the UK each year (we’re The Abortion Capital Of The World, apparently), and the 24-week time limit on abortions, they will always add that they’re
"broadly pro choice" or that of course they don’t think abortion should be made illegal. To say otherwise will quickly have you branded as a nut job, and if you try and chuck religion into the equation, then you’re a religious nut job, the worst kind.

Whatever their personal convictions (and I have no idea what these are), even the most right-wing columnists here know that calls to criminalise abortion would be hugely unpopular, so they although they try and chip away at our rights bit-by-bit, they make no attempt to eradicate them completely. 

I’m sure that those who support a broadly pro-life agenda in the UK feel that this is a terribly unfair playing field, and perhaps it is, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’ve got enough to worry about without the pro-choice movement getting a mainstream platform in the UK.

In case you're interested, I have never had an abortion, and I’ve never been in a position where I’ve even had to consider having one (a winning combination of sheer dumb luck when I was younger and slavish devotion to contraception now). 

If I fell pregnant now, I assume I’d have an abortion -- although let’s face it, who really knows how they’d feel in that situation until it was actually happening? But if I ever have to make the choice, I can’t see why I’d have to explain or justify it to anyone, either way. It would be my choice to make, end of.

I think what I’m getting at, in the world’s most round-about way, is that the pro-choice movement here is robust and strong. It may be under attack, but right now, we can cope with it. And so it’s OK to be unapologetic about abortion, to make light of it, or to be downright flippant, if that’s the tone I chose to take. The Daily Mail’s finest can attack me for it if they like, but what does it matter if they do?

The impression I get (and correct me if I’m wrong -- I know you will), from reading the many comments on abortion on this site in the last few weeks, is that some people in the US are still so sensitive to the slightest shift right or left, so concerned about offending or scaring people away and into the arms of the pro-choicers, that they’re determined to couch everything in carefully crafted language to demonstrate just how seriously they take the necessary evil that is abortions (massive generalisations and paraphrasing here, but you get the idea).

It was the discussion about tone of voice really struck me -- so what if you’re glib about abortion? I made a terrible joke about prostate cancer in an audition article I wrote for Jane before I got my job, and I’m pretty sure if you read it you’d all roll your eyes at my terrible sense of humour and then forget about it. Were I to be flippant about endoscopies RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, would you care? 

So maybe we are a bit more laid back about the abortion debate round my neck of the woods, but that’s because right now, we can afford to be. Things aren’t perfect, there are certain elements of the debate here that rankle with me, and the Nadine Dorrieses of this world are determined to set us back 40 years, but for the most part we’re coping.

But for all my flippancy and smug posturing, I’m not complacent. I’m aware that things can change if we’re not willing to stand up and make a big fuss about our right to have control over our own bodies. I just hope that if I ever have daughters or granddaughters, they still feel relaxed enough about their right to choose to make a big fat joke about it when they’re my age.

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We are currently assembling a reader gallery for all of you to talk honestly about your experience with abortion. If you've had an abortion (or if you simply value your right to choose), we invite you to send us a photo with your own handmade sign (and some further notes about the experience if you'd like) to lesley@xojane.com. Thanks!