First, before I get into any of what is going to be a very long story: we have a podcast on the topic of abortion, later on today, in which I’ll be participating (and probably telling a much briefer version of this story). If you’re free then, please watch the livestream and ask questions! For those who don’t get to watch it live, the recording will remain up at that link.
On to the post.
I’ve mentioned before that, in my late teens, I was strongly pro-life – as in, anti-abortion – for about a year and a half, eventually changing my mind and becoming pro-choice. That’s a story I’ve been meaning for a long time to tell, and so I’m going to tell it now.
Some thoughts first:
This is a really long post, but after thought I decided to leave it as a single post rather than splitting it up. Thanks in advance to anyone who chooses to read it all.
A quick note on terminology: I will mostly be using the term ‘pro-life’ for the anti-abortion position. I’m extremely well aware that there are many anti-abortionists for whom this term is hideously inappropriate, but there are also a lot of anti-abortionists who genuinely hold that position because they care about fetal life, and I was one of them. Also, although there are good reasons to use the term ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘pregnant women’, I’m writing about my views back in the ’80s when awareness of transgender issues was vastly behind where it is now; as such, I use the term ‘pregnant women’ throughout because it represents the language I used at the time when thinking about the issue. Finally, since I’ll be talking about my former pro-life views I will sometimes be using the phrase ‘unborn babies’ because, again, that was how I thought at the time.
Finally, you guys are good at keeping it civil and respectful in comments. Keep that up! As always, I will enforce if needed. Feel free to ask anything you want about my beliefs then or my beliefs now; but keep it polite. Thank you.
How I became pro-life
“Sarah, I HOPE,” my classmate declared, appearing in front of me, “that when you’re a doctor you’re not going to be one of the ones that KILLS POOR LITTLE UNBORN BABIES.”
“Er…” I said, or something equally articulate. It was first thing on a schoolday morning and I’d just walked into the Upper Sixth common room, thinking about homework or Venture Scouts or whatever I thought about in the mornings; whatever it was, it probably hadn’t been the upcoming school debate on abortion. But two of my classmates (both Catholic, although that wouldn’t occur to me until much later) had taken the opportunity to go for full-on pro-life campaigning, so next thing I knew I was sitting down and reading through a stack of leaflets.
It was early 1988, two decades after abortion was broadly but not universally legalised in the UK by the 1967 Abortion Act, and I was seventeen. Like many people, I hadn’t previously had a definite opinion one way or the other on abortion beyond “it’s complicated”. I could see that unwanted pregnancies could make life really difficult for women, and didn’t know how best to balance that against vague ideas that ‘killing unborn babies’ was not a great thing. This was the first time I’d read all-out arguments for one side.
I read the fetal development screeds, with their heavy emphasis on the cuteness and fingers and toes. I read the arguments as to why each human life started at conception and was thereafter a continuum with no logical place after conception where a line could be drawn. I read the scare lists of horrible risks and side-effects. I read the claims about how easy, how obvious a solution, it was for women with unwanted pregnancies just to put their babies up for adoption by a couple from the queue of couples desperately longing to be parents. I read the whole kit and caboodle of arguments aimed at simultaneously appealing to and bypassing my sense of logic. Naive and unfamiliar with the tricks of propaganda, I was a pushover.
Despite my classmate’s best efforts at passing the same leaflets round the debate audience, the pro-life side lost resoundingly (51 – 13, according to the diary I kept sporadically at the time), but she’d made at least one convert; I was utterly convinced.
What happened next
Well, next I pretty much forgot about it for a while.
I had plenty of other stuff on my mind; my A-levels coming up that summer, the ongoing worry over whether I should convert to Christianity/Judaism/neither, the ongoing stress of being an insecure social misfit despite my best efforts. Then, on one of my regular bookshop browses, I came across a book called ‘Two Million Silent Killings’, which, as you can possibly deduce from the subtle clue in the title, was a virulently anti-abortion book. It all came flooding back. The unborn babies being killed! In horrible ways! With alarming-sounding risks to the pregnant woman! When clearly it would be easy and straightforward to instead have those babies adopted! The logical arguments in favour of life starting at conception! I think the phrase we’re looking for here is ‘hook, line, and sinker’. I was a committed, hardcore, no-exceptions-except-for-life-of-the-mother pro-lifer.
Fortunately, I never got round to doing anything practical about this; it never occurred to me to join a pro-life group or do any campaigning. Instead, my new interest manifested itself in hate-reading anything I could find on the pro-choice side so that I could think smugly about how wrong they were; I diligently checked every feminist book I found (quite a lot) to see what each one had to say about abortion. Unfortunately, every author I read took their readership’s pro-choice beliefs so much for granted that it didn’t occur to any of them to debunk any of the claims from the anti-abortion movement. My smug Sense Of Rightness was fueled further; clearly they didn’t know what they were talking about, and I was entirely correct to continue as a pro-lifer.
However, over the course of the next however-long-it-was between me reading ‘Two Million
Vocal Attempts At Blatant Propaganda Silent Killings’ and the summer of 1989, various things happened that… didn’t alter my view, but certainly rocked it somewhat. I can’t remember in what order they happened, so I’m just going to list them, and the order might or might not be correct. None of them changed my mind at the time, but, looking back, all of them contributed.
The multiple choice book
One of our neighbours was a GP who, enthusiastic about my plans to go to medical school, gave me some of her old textbooks, including a book of practice multiple choice questions for medical students. It was in a different format from the O-level and A-level multiple choice papers I’d done before; instead of a choice of five answers, the book presented a series of statements that had to be marked as true or false. The other side of each page listed the answers, with a brief explanation of each.
I flipped it open for a look. Most of the questions made no sense whatsoever to me at this pre-medical-school stage, when even the parts that weren’t literally Greek to me were very much metaphorically so. However, one caught my eye, because it was about abortion. The statement that had to be marked ‘true’ or ‘false’ was that early abortion carried lower maternal risk than a full-term pregnancy.
OK, that had my attention; I turned over the page to check out the answer. ‘True’, the book stated. The explanatory line informed me that the risks of a full-term pregnancy were always higher than the risks of early abortion.
I had, of course, read all the scary things the pro-life books had to say on the risks associated with abortion. It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment that they hadn’t had anything to say about how these compared to the risks of not having an abortion. And now I realised that they hadn’t directly lied (well, actually, knowing everything I’ve learned since then about the level of dishonesty in anti-abortion propaganda they probably had, but I didn’t know that then)… but they had deliberately left out an important part that significantly changed the interpretation of this particular information.
It was, I think, my first encounter with the way that propaganda can mislead you. While it didn’t change my mind, it did make me realise that things weren’t quite as clearcut as I’d thought. And it made me realise that I hadn’t been told the whole truth.
One thing that had been stressed in the pro-life arguments I read was the folly of declaring abortion all right up to a certain point and then illegal after that. How could viability be a logical reason for drawing a line? Or birth? Or any other stage of fetal development? The only logical place to draw a line, they assured me, was conception. If we drew a line at any place not backed up by solid reasoning, then what was to stop a series of slippery slopes moving it further and further out until it was five minutes before birth, then five minutes after birth, then a free-for-all on infanticide and probably wholesale murder of any other groups society found inconvenient as well? The logic was unassailable; it convinced me completely.
Until one day, apropos of nothing much, I thought “So… when is this supposed to be happening, then?”
I realised that abortion had, by that point, been legal in the UK for over twenty years. That seemed like more than ample time for the slippery slope effect to kick in. By now, surely the limit ought to have edged out at least to the infamous Five Minutes Before Birth point, with campaigning mobs all ready to push it that last step of the way into infanticide. What was actually happening, however, was that we still had exactly the same time limit as we’d had back in 1967, with a distinct lack of anyone marching up the local streets demanding that it be changed.
I was quite confused by this; after all, the pro-life argument as to why this extension of time limits would happen seemed utterly watertight. But I couldn’t really dispute the fact that it clearly wasn’t happening. The hypothetical future I’d been taught to fear came smack up against reality, and that’s an encounter in which reality holds the trump card.
If you’ve read many pro-life arguments, you get familiar with detailed descriptions of embryonic/fetal development that put a lot of emphasis on the cuteness aspect. They would always take care to mention just when the fingers and toes would develop, and how early this was. I didn’t think to ask what the hell fingers and toes had to do with the right to life. But I wasn’t meant to, was I? I was meant to absorb the whole description in a general haze of adoration for the cuteness/lifeworthiness of the fetus, and I did that just fine.
Until I started thinking about what it would be like to be in the very early weeks of an unwanted pregnancy, and my mental spool of all those compelling developmental features faltered. While there’s plenty of developmental stuff going on in the earliest weeks after conception, it isn’t the kind of stuff that bypasses logic to grab straight onto emotions in the same way that the fingers-and-toes screeds do. (Let’s face it: ‘formation of the neural tube and branchial arches’ just doesn’t seize the heartstrings in the same way.) Thinking about a creature that didn’t yet have such basics as a properly-formed face or brain… well, it was harder to find justification for the idea that a woman at that stage of pregnancy shouldn’t have an abortion at any cost.
I still believed it, mind you. After all, I reasoned (or the anti-abortion arguments in my brain reasoned for me), if you don’t draw the line at conception, where do you draw it? There are no other clear and logical lines in development. I thought of it as the Sherlock Holmes argument; however improbable it was that an embryo should be treated as a human with rights from the one-cell stage onwards, it was impossible to find any other clear lines to draw. It just didn’t feel as obvious as it once had.
‘Benefits‘ is a feminist novel by Zoe Fairbairns, written back in… goodness, 1979. I recall it as being a pretty good novel, but what’s relevant here is one specific line; I can’t remember the exact wording, but when the protagonist is thinking about her reasons for not wanting an abortion if she finds she’s pregnant, there is a passing mention that she’s read all the anti-abortion propaganda with the pictures of dead fetuses and it leaves her cold.
That startled me. Up until that point, I’d assumed that the reason people were pro-choice was because of general ignorance on the subject of fetal development. Surely they just hadn’t read the arguments against abortion and would change their minds if they did? But here was an author describing someone who hadn’t reacted that way at all (yes, this was a fictional character, but the author clearly thought this viewpoint was realistic). That must mean that there were people out there who’d read pro-life arguments and didn’t find them convincing. While I still didn’t fall into that category or understand people who did, it did seem to indicate that the arguments weren’t quite as unassailable as I’d thought.
The kidney analogy
Which is, of course, now something of a cliché, but was a new thought to me when it first occurred to me. I was thinking about the issue and realised that a pretty close analogy to abortion was being required to donate an organ in order to keep someone else alive; hard on the heels of that, I realised that that analogy didn’t really come out on the side I’d wanted it to. We don’t expect people to donate organs to keep other people alive, because we accept that the right of people to make important decisions about what does and does get done to their own body is so fundamental that it even outweighs the obligation to keep others alive. I’m sure my mental phrasing at the time was less eloquent, but I definitely recognised, in that moment, that kidney donation wasn’t compulsory and that there was a rather worrying contradiction between that and my views on abortion.
Maybe I’m projecting back… but I do have a clear memory of pausing and thinking “Now what do I do with this one?” Because it was comfortable, having at least one issue in a confusing life on which my mind was made up and I knew which side I was on. I’d thought about it! I’d read about it! The arguments were clear! And I didn’t quite know how to cope with the idea of changing my mind or accepting I’d been wrong about something of which I felt so comfortably sure. So, in a classic case of cognitive dissonance, I shelved it and moved on.
How the hell did I find out about Operation Rescue? I have a clear memory of reading collated photocopies of articles about them, stapled together into makeshift booklets; I just don’t remember where I got the articles from. Maybe I’m lumping two memories together and the booklets came from later on, after I’d changed sides and joined a pro-choice group; yes, that’s more plausible, now that I think about it. But how did I find out about Operation Rescue back in my pro-life days? Oh, well, my parents have always subscribed to the Guardian (moderately left-wing UK broadsheet), the paper probably ran an article on the subject which caught my eye.
Anyway, however it happened, I remember that at some point during my pro-life days I learned about Operation Rescue, the US anti-abortion group that got, um… proactive about their beliefs. Actually, looking back, what I learned was a strongly edited version. I’m not sure whether the rose-coloured glasses came from whatever my source was or from me, but somehow or other I came away with the message that, apart from the occasional shooting or firebombing which I successfully rationalised to myself as being the work of a few nonrepresentative extremists, their regular activities consisted of stopping women outside abortion clinics for polite discussions about why abortion was wrong.
Which… seemed like it should be a good thing, surely? Giving women the information to help them make decisions? Explaining to them what abortion was really all about before they made the decision to have one? Why did the thought make me feel so uneasy?
I realised that, however good I felt about my reasons for being against abortion when the whole subject was comfortably theoretical, it felt distinctly different to think about taking the argument to actual women who would be struggling with actual problems as a result of being pregnant. And this time the issue wasn’t something I could just push aside, because of my future career plans.
Those future career plans
Under British law, abortion is only legal if two doctors agree that the woman fits at least one of a list of criteria. Since the criteria in question are broad enough that in practice they cover everything short of the mythical third-trimester-abortion-for-convenience that never actually happens outside the minds and propaganda of pro-lifers, it’s easy, in practice, for a sympathetic doctor to authorise an abortion whatever the details behind the request; on the other hand, it has also been rather too easy for a doctor opposed to abortion to stall a request. These days, the NHS avoids that problem by commissioning services from clinics run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who will allow people to self-refer; as far as I know (though I’m open to correction), this applies across the UK, meaning that no-one has to go via their own GP at all. However, this wasn’t the case back in the ’80s. Unless a woman could afford to go to a clinic privately, she would have to get referred by her GP to a gynaecologist who would also have to agree, and so an anti-abortion doctor had quite a lot of scope for making things difficult.
And I’d applied for medical school. I was planning to become a doctor, and I anticipated (correctly, as it happened) that there was a fair chance I would want to be either a gynaecologist or a GP. I was going to be in a position of deciding whether requests for abortion should or shouldn’t be granted.
So, once Operation Rescue had got me thinking about the morality of trying to talk women out of abortions, I found myself thinking about how this particular aspect of my chosen career was going to work in practice. I would be in the position of deciding for a woman that she had to stay pregnant, while both she and I knew damn well that I wouldn’t have to take any further responsibility for her problems the moment she walked out of the door, that she was the one who’d be lumbered with all the consequences of that pregnancy. I believed, logically, that stopping abortions was what I should be doing, the right thing to do… so why did this prospect feel so wrong?
And this was where I was up to by the summer of 1989.
The turning point
Just after I turned 19, I holidayed in the US, and the reading material on the plane was some sort of news magazine. Topic: abortion.
If anyone has any idea what magazine this could have been, by the way, I’d love to know; I checked out the covers of Time magazine back issues and it doesn’t seem to be any of them. It would have been in July or August of 1989, and the cover showed a pro-lifer at a march, holding up a sign that said “Unborn women have rights too: Baby had no choice!” I remember that cover, all right, because it summed up everything I felt about being pro-life. I felt my shaken beliefs rise up and rally one last time. Yes! Of course unborn babies had a right to life that trumped everything else! Of course abortion was wrong! How could I doubt it?
Then I opened the magazine and read one of the stories in it.
It was a first-person story by a woman who’d had an abortion in a clinic picketed by Operation Rescue. She’d become pregnant when she and her boyfriend were both students and in no position to be able to take care of a baby, and, although she’d have liked to give birth and give the baby up for adoption, there was a further problem; she was taking lithium, which has a high chance of causing cardiac abnormalities in a developing fetus. She knew that babies with disabilities, unlike healthy babies, were unlikely to be adopted. This was the first time I could remember seeing anyone address the ‘why don’t women just have their babies adopted?’ argument, and, because I hadn’t at the time been able to work out for myself why giving away a baby after nine months of pregnancy might feel impossible or why even going through pregnancy and birth might in many cases be too much of a burden, this argument had always been one of the trump cards that had kept me believing. But here was the story of someone who’d thought about that route and couldn’t do it.
I read how she felt when she found out about the protestors picketing the clinic; not only was she going to have to have an abortion when in better circumstances she’d have wanted to proceed with the pregnancy, but she was going to have to run a gauntlet of people screaming and ranting at her while she did it. I read how upsetting it was for her to hear a protester shouting “Why don’t you just have your baby adopted?” when she would have loved to do just that, had it been a feasible option for her. I read what she said about the other clinic patients; about the irony of protestors screaming “Don’t punish a child for the sins of its parents!” when one of the patients was a twelve-year-old whose pregnancy might have been the result of rape by her own father, about another patient muttering “Are they going to take care of this baby for me so that I can go to college, then?”
I don’t remember the rest of the story. I just remember recognising that that was it; I could no longer support the idea of trying to stop women from getting abortions. The wobbling needle finally swung round the full one hundred and eighty degrees. I was pro-choice.
All of this had a couple of lasting effects on me besides, of course, the fact that I was henceforward pro-choice with the passion of a convert (a convert who tended to get pretty passionate about things even without the ‘convert’ factor).
Firstly, I’d learned the extremely valuable lesson that, even when a group’s arguments sound superficially convincing, it’s still worth hearing the other side before you make your mind up. (This was one of the things that would, later, save me from falling for creationist propaganda.)
And secondly, I’d learned that it’s possible for people to hold a completely opposing position for entirely well-meant, even if utterly misguided, reasons. And this plays a large part in my lifelong commitment to keeping discussion civil (well, all right, sometimes snarky, but my aim is to avoid stooping to insults or ridicule) and to explaining why arguments are bad or inaccurate instead of just trying to be the person who yells the loudest. I fully accept that in most situations this just isn’t going to work and that there need to be a lot of people out there who do keep yelling loudly, or equivalent. And I’ve learned that, in individual situations, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away and not engage. But I think there’s an important place for people who say “This is why I disagree with what you say” and take the time to explain why.
I hope this post has gone some way towards doing that with this particular issue, and I’m happy to keep doing the same in the comments. If you made it this far, then thank you for reading.