Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 3

This is the third part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here and will link to the other parts (although I’m doing them sequentially, so, unless that changes due to anything unforeseen, you could also just click along the ‘Previous Post/Next Post’ links). I’d recommend starting with Part 1, not because I feel any great need to stick with convention but simply because it covers some key points about why I believe what I do.

I’m answering the questions in reverse order; this post covers 5 and 4.


5. Why don’t we talk about the fact that many women suffer unbelievable guilt after having an abortion?

Because of the frequency with which pro-lifers will do exactly what you’re just about to do; claim that this is evidence that abortion is wrong.

(By the way, years of reading pro-life writings have convinced me that this is a no-win conundrum. If women talk about their experiences of having an abortion and feeling guilty or regretful or sad about it, the pro-life response is that, since abortion is such an awful experience, women must clearly be prevented from choosing it for their own protection. If women talk about their experiences of having an abortion and not feeling anything negative about it, the pro-life response is that they’re clearly conscienceless sociopaths who can’t be trusted to have a say in making the laws. So it’s a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.)

[footnote] The most comprehensive review of the evidence in 2013, incidentally by a pro-choice psychologist, found that there is no mental health benefit to abortion and there is an increased risk of psychological problems following abortion including anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality:

That isn’t particularly related to guilt, but I thought it worth saying a few words about this as it’s an example of how research findings can get misrepresented. In that review, the author looked at how the mental state of women who’d had abortions compared to the mental state of women who’d had initially unwanted pregnancies but had chosen to continue with them. (He also looked at comparisons between women having abortions and women having unplanned pregnancies that they were pleased about, but did separate out the results in discussion.)

The problem, of course, is that the two groups aren’t properly comparable. While there are many reasons why someone might go ahead with an initially unwanted pregnancy, and sadly those reasons do in some cases include being forced into doing so (as per the article you linked to in question 4 about reproductive coercion), in most cases the woman’s decision to continue the pregnancy is going to be because, having weighed up the situation, she felt that she would rather do so than have an abortion. It’s also probable that the women facing more difficult or insurmountable problems would be less likely to feel this way and more likely to choose abortion (this wouldn’t be an invariable thing by any means, just more likely overall).

This means that the comparison here isn’t just between a group of women who had abortions and a group of women who didn’t, but between two groups of women of which one probably had a higher level of background problems than the other group. And that, of course, means that we can’t assume that the higher rates of mental health problems seen in the group who had abortions were due to the abortions rather than to the other problems.

Anyway… back to the topic of guilt.

So why do we ignore the fact of guilt after abortions? Is it because the admission of guilt is the admission of wrongdoing?

No. As I said, it’s because pro-lifers will claim it’s the admission of wrongdoing. But there’s also an important flaw in your premise; guilt frequently isn’t ‘the admission of wrongdoing’. Yes, sometimes it certainly is… but what about abuse victims who feel guilty because their abuser has browbeaten them into believing it’s their fault? Rape victims who feel guilty because society’s biases have left them thinking they somehow invited the rape? There are people who feel guilty about wanting to convert to Christianity because the religious tradition they grew up with teaches them that converting to Christianity is wrong; do you believe their guilt means that they’re doing something wrong in converting to Christianity, or just that they’ve been taught that they’re doing something wrong?

Then there are the people who feel guilty over not being able to live up to their own high standards, or to the high expectations others have for them. If your parents set their hearts on you going to university but instead you choose to become a plumber in the face of their visible disappointment, you’re probably going to feel guilty; but is that because you did something wrong, or because others have inappropriate expectations of you? I’ve grappled with guilt over not being able to solve the problems in my children’s lives. Or, in the past month, over not being able to do more to help with the COVID crisis. Does that mean I have something to feel guilty about… or does it mean that my expectations of myself are unrealistically high?

If we’re going to talk about guilt after abortions, then let’s also talk about the fact that it typically occurs in the contexts of groups or societies who transmit powerful messages that abortion is wrong/sex is wrong/women should be superbeings who can manage any and all responsibilities, however many and however heavy, without batting a (perfectly-mascaraed) eyelash. When women in these contexts feel guilty about abortion, is ‘admission of wrongdoing’ really the most likely reason? And what about the converse; when women who’ve chosen abortion don’t feel guilty about that choice, is that a sign that it was the right choice for them and they’ve done nothing wrong? Or is the guilt=wrongdoing equation applied only selectively when it can be used against abortion?


4. Why is a woman’s body pitted against her baby’s?

While I really don’t want to get snarky here, all I could think of when I read this question was “Shouldn’t you ask your god that? After all, you believe that he’s the one who designed pregnancy.”

When a woman is pregnant, the only way for that fetus to survive is for her to allow it to stay within her body for months, wreaking what are typically considerable and sometimes medically serious effects upon her, then forcibly exit with, again, considerable impact and sometimes serious complications. In other words, biology has set up a system where a fetus is in conflict with the body of the person who must gestate it. There isn’t a way round that. If the pregnant person is happy with that – as, again, I was with both of my pregnancies – then that’s fine. If not, then that’s a very big problem for the person who’s pregnant.

The pro-life movement views both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why we fight for babies and for women.

Oooookaaaaay, I did already have my say in the last post about these sorts of general statements about the ‘pro-life movement’ as a whole that, in fact, are clearly not true of a sizeable proportion of pro-lifers, so… must… not… get…. back…. into…. rant.

I’m going to read this as your way of trying to say “I, as a pro-lifer, view both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why I, and many other pro-lifers, fight for babies and for women.” As such; well, that’s nice, I guess, but I do just want to point out that talking about how beautifully valuable you see our bodies as being doesn’t do much for the whole want-you-to-be-valued-and-empowered attempt. Er… thanks for trying, I guess?

We want women to be genuinely valued and empowered, but abortion doesn’t do that.

Being made to go through an unwanted pregnancy because any rights you have to bodily autonomy are considered to come in a poor second to an obligation to gestate really doesn’t do that. Speaking for myself, I support abortion rights not because I think abortion is inherently a wonderfully empowering experience that all women should have (although do note that for some women that’s precisely what it ends up being), but because I think that forcing women to go through unwanted pregnancies is vastly worse.

Why is it that seven percent of women have been forced into having an abortion and it’s used as a tool of coercive abuse?

The simple answer to this complex question is that it’s because there are a heck of a lot of abusers and control freaks out there, and recognition of the red flags in relationships, although improving, still isn’t widespread enough.

The thing is, banning abortion wouldn’t actually solve those problems. I’m not even sure that, overall, it would reduce the number of women who are forced into having abortions; I think it’s a reasonable assumption that someone who is willing to coerce someone into having an abortion against their wishes is, in most cases, also going to be willing to break the law to do so. So, if abortion were made illegal, then most of the people experiencing this sort of coercion would instead be bullied into going to a backstreet abortionist rather than a legal clinic, or whisked away to a country with different laws and forced to have an abortion there instead (or, in particularly horrific cases, subjected to the abuser’s version of a DIY abortion; content warning for abuse and grooming discussed at that link).

While there would be some cases in which this didn’t happen,because the abuser either didn’t want to do something outright illegal or didn’t know how to go about it, that would be counterbalanced by the number of women in this situation who would lose the chance to get help and support from an abortion clinic that might have prevented them from being forced into abortion. The article you linked to talked about how careful abortion clinics are to be on the lookout for this sort of coercion and about the help and support that they can offer when they find out that this is the problem. In some cases – such as that of the woman referred to as Leila in the article – this has led to women being able to avoid the coercion and exercise their choice to continue the pregnancy. Since backstreet abortion services in a climate of illegal abortion would be completely unregulated, it’s considerably less likely they would offer such counselling and support. They also wouldn’t be able to offer methods of tamper-proof contraception, which clinics currently offer and which can protect women who can’t yet leave an abusive situation against further unwanted pregnancies.

So, although banning abortion would prevent some cases of coerced abortion, it would also prevent the very mechanisms that are currently helping to prevent many cases of coerced abortion. It’s quite possible that that factor would actually outweigh any reduction in coerced abortions that a law against abortion would bring about, and that there would be an overall increase in coerced abortions as a result. It’s impossible to know whether that would be the way it went, but it’s a possibility that at least needs to be considered.

Even if the overall effect on coerced abortion of anti-abortion laws did turn out to be a slight decrease in the number, there would be a terrible price to pay for that even if we think only about reproductive coercion and not about other pregnancies. That article also discussed the other side of the coin; women who are coerced into becoming pregnant or continuing their pregnancies, often as a ploy by abusive partners to make it harder for them to leave. That form of reproductive coercion would, of course, be far worse for women in a country where seeking abortion wasn’t a legal option; a woman forced into her pregnancy would either have to go the backstreet route, or go ahead with her pregnancy whether she wanted to or not. The loss of regulated abortion clinics would also mean that the situations discussed in the article where clinic counselling identifies domestic abuse as an issue and supports the woman in leaving her abuser would no longer happen, so one possible route to identifying and supporting victims of domestic abuse would be lost. And, finally, it would potentially be harder for anyone who had been coerced into abortion to seek counselling or support afterwards, because of the fears over admitting to having done something illegal. (In fact, blackmail over this might be yet one more possible route by which an abuser might terrorise a partner out of leaving.)

In short… while the problem of reproductive coercion so vividly described in that article is, indeed, a significant issue, it’s one that would overall be made substantially worse rather than better by making abortion illegal.

Why is it that women feel they have to choose between pursuing a career or education and having a baby? Why can’t they do both?

In that particular case, because the figures on that point that you linked to come from a study done in the USA, which is notoriously atrocious for its stance on maternity leave and on state-funded childcare (which, by the way, are yet more examples of laws that could substantially decrease the number of abortions but are largely opposed by supposedly pro-life politicians in that country). Progressive laws on these policies do indeed help a great deal; that’s one point on which I hope we can agree.

Why do we see an abortion as a central tenet of women’s rights when it seems to cause women so much grief and pain?

Because forcing women to go through with pregnancies against their wishes causes considerably more grief and pain. I’m very sorry for the woman in that clip, and really wish for her sake that she could have got much better counselling about her options, but making abortion illegal altogether does not strike me as a good answer to the fact that some women get inadequate counselling beforehand.

Furthermore, more than 50% of aborted babies are female when you factor in widespread sex-selection on the global scene, so it’s not at all clear that abortion is pro-women on any level.

Sex-selection abortion strikes me as being primarily a symptom rather than a root problem. The root problem here is that some societies place a markedly lower value on the lives of women and girls than they do on the lives of men and boys. The solution to that isn’t making all abortions illegal; it’s working actively to increase the social status of women.