How Late is Too Late for an Abortion? The Grey Areas Between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life

A woman has been sentenced to eight years in prison for having self-administered an abortion within a week of her due date. Was she wrong to do it? Plus, the secret origin story behind my hard-line pro-choice stance.
Publish date:
September 19, 2012
abortion, pro-choice, difficult questions

When it comes to abortion rights, “pro-choice” and “pro-life” usually tend to form ideologically oppositional camps, with little to no middle ground to stand on. As a result, it’s remarkably easy to come to think of these things in stark black-and-white terms: either you’re in favor of the right to choose an abortion, or you’re not.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and ever since my Catholic high school first introduced me to the horrors of what I called “Bloody Baby Week,” I’ve taken the most hard-line pro-choice stance possible. If a woman is pregnant, I’ve reasoned, the fetus is hers to dispense with as she pleases. End of.

But backing up a bit: Bloody Baby Week, for those of you who did not enjoy the privilege of a Catholic education, was an annual event in which my high school brought in pro-life advocates to explain to us in no uncertain terms -- and sparing no detail -- that abortions are no less than the devil’s work.

One year, it culminated in a film on the realities of abortion that was so gruesome and gore-riddled that it might have rivaled Faces of Death for most talked-about maybe-snuff-film ever. It showed recorded footage of actual abortions, the narration making sure we noted the way the blurry and ghost-faced fetus grimaced and recoiled in horror (the power of suggestion is a hell of a drug) as the vacuum aspiration apparatus drew near. Did the terrified unborn emit terrified screams as it was torn limb from limb, the film wondered? Who can say, certainly they would be drowned out by the roar of the death machine.

The film might have been the sort of thing the most courageous and badass of teens watched in secret and discussed in hushed whispers as a forbidden atrocity, if we hadn’t been made to watch it in the library media room with dozens of our classmates and a handful of pro-life advocates offering satisfied smiles and incredibly wrong answers to our bewildered questions after the screening. There is much of high school that I have forgotten entirely, but I vividly recall sitting in that dark room with its four walls of plastic faux-wood paneling pressing in on me and feeling such helpless rage that I sat on my hands to prevent myself from lunging at and punching our invited pro-life guests.

Indeed, there was no opportunity to opt out, even for those girls in the room who had had abortions, because while abortion was wrong, being pregnant in my particular Catholic high school was far more wrong, and the girls who chose to carry a pregnancy to term were expelled, while a quiet abortion meant they could stay. Irony.

(I’m not Catholic, just so that’s clear -- I begged my father to send me to the private school in question because my grades in my public middle school were abysmal, and I was plagued with massive social problems that would have followed me to the local high school, and I was fairly certain that a change of venue out of the public school system would help me to avert the disastrous course my life was on. I was right, but that’s another story entirely.)

Given my already-keen sense of social justice and politics, it’s little wonder that I responded to these events with such fervent and steadfast resolve in favor of the right to abortion. Even as a teenager I felt strongly that the film and the whole pro-life week was manipulative and traumatic, and that it took advantage of a captive audience of kids with still-forming opinions about the world to spread its horrible ideology. Bizarrely, this experience made me less apathetic and more ferocious in my attention to abortion rights, so I guess I should thank my high school administrators for that.

Unfortunately, life in all its complicatedness and unpredictability is rarely so easily divided into black and white, right and wrong, choice and anti-choice. And a recent case in the UK is making that abundantly clear.

Sarah Catt of North Yorkshire, a 35-year-old mother of two, was sentenced this week to eight years in prison for illegally aborting a late-term fetus.

How late-term? The abortion occurred within a week of Catt’s due date, self-administered using drugs she purchased online from a company in India. Although Catt pleaded guilty to the charges, she has consistently refused to tell authorities was she did with the body, which she claims to have delivered stillborn alone at home while her husband was at work, and then buried herself.

Of course, the story is more entangled than it might seem at first glance; for one, the pregnancy was ostensibly the result of a seven-year affair Catt had with a coworker. For another, her husband had been unaware of her pregnancy. Further:

The defendant gave a child up for adoption in 1999, the court was told.

She later had a termination with the agreement of her husband, tried to terminate another pregnancy but missed the legal limit and concealed another pregnancy from her husband before the child's birth.

Certainly, Catt broke the law, which in the UK states that an abortion can only legally take place up to 24 weeks into the pregnancy. So I am struggling not with the legal issue here but the moral one: is it morally acceptable to abort a fetus right up until delivery? I’m still inclined to say yes, because my reasoning relies on the right of the pregnant woman to self-determine on all matters of things physically attached to and sustained by her body.

But I suspect a lot of people -- even people who generally consider themselves pro-choice -- might not be so sure.

The other glaring question here is whether it is really a good idea to prevent a woman with a clearly troubled relationship with past pregnancies -- plus some pretty obvious problems with denial -- from having an abortion. I cannot speak to her skills as a parent, but my gut says that anyone who has had such reproductive ambivalence as to take the actions she has historically taken might not be in a great headspace to care for an infant she clearly does not want.

Nevertheless, the sentencing judge had hard words for Catt:

Sentencing Catt, who showed no emotion during the hour-long hearing, judge Mr. Justice Cooke said she ended the life of a child that could have been born alive, adding Catt would have been charged with murder if the baby had been born a few days later and she had then killed him.

"The critical element of your offending is the deliberate choice made by you, in full knowledge of the due date of your child, to terminate the pregnancy at somewhere close to term, if not actually at term, with the full knowledge that termination after week 24 was unlawful and in full knowledge your child's birth was imminent," he said.

"What you have done is rob an apparently healthy child, vulnerable and defenceless, of the life which he was about to commence.”

Accounts have called Catt unremorseful, as well as “cold and calculating” in her last-minute efforts to end her pregnancy and her subsequent lies to police about it, at first asserting that she had a legal abortion, and even now refusing to tell anyone what she did with the body. But whether Catt is an unfeeling monster or just a woman in profound denial trying to save herself, should she have the right to control her pregnancy right up until delivery?

And if not, if Catt’s actions were unacceptable even from a pro-choice standpoint, then where is the line drawn? This is why government regulation of individual morality -- which is what abortion laws ultimately are -- is so problematic. Viability is not always an exact science, and “personhood” is barely a spiritual notion of the moment at which the special reproductive magic happens and a clump of cells transforms into an independent (if not fully sentient) being.

In the end I am left to wonder if -- in spite of all the discomfort of cases like Sarah Catt’s -- we can afford not to be hard-line about a woman’s right to choose up right until the moment that she and her offspring are permanently separated. We are losing so much ground to pro-life concessions and compromises already. Maybe it’s time to stop backing down and making apologies; maybe it’s time to enforce the “personhood” of pregnant women first.