Anti-abortion meme: Crystal bellies?

A couple of days ago, I ran across a pro-life (as in, anti-abortion) meme on Facebook:

For those of you who can’t see it, it’s a picture of a crystal statue of a pregnant woman in the ‘hand resting on belly’ pose. In her abdomen, curled into fetal position, there is what appears from the development level and general cleanliness to be a baby from some point after birth but which I assume is actually meant to be a highly sanitised version of a full-term fetus. The caption reads: ‘Imagine a world where a mother’s belly is made of crystal. Would this make a difference?‘ (No, I don’t quite get what the deal is with the random emphases.)

My first thought, as always on seeing the ‘transparent abdomen’ meme, was ‘Well, if getting naked together meant getting a good look at a woman’s internal organs, then there would probably be less heterosexual sex happening, hence fewer unplanned pregnancies, so I suppose in that sense there’d be a difference’. Because this meme specified crystal as opposed to non-specific transparent material, I went on to have a few more thoughts:

  • But crystal can’t stretch. Wouldn’t pregnant people all just end up miscarrying somewhere early in the second trimester, when the fetus had no room to grow?
  • Also, for this meme to work at all, we have to hypothesise that part of the pregnant person’s uterus would be crystal as well. Crystal can’t contract either. Wouldn’t this end up with either the crystal being shattered by uterine contractions, or the rest of the uterine wall ripping away from the crystal segment and causing a uterine rupture? Neither sounds like a good thing to have happening inside someone’s abdomen.
  • Also… holy crap, are pro-lifers actually passing around a meme aimed at getting us to picture women as fragile ornaments who literally have no internal existence other than gestating? Seriously?

But, yes, yes, I know; none of this is addressing the point the author of this meme actually wanted to make. So let’s rewrite it in a way that gets at the point a little better, then answer that.

If pregnant people could somehow see exactly what the embryo or fetus within them looked like, at every point throughout gestation… how would that affect the chances of them seeking abortion?

I’m not sure this would work out quite the way that the pro-lifers passing along this meme would like to think.

First of all, of course, there’s the fact that a lot of the people seeking abortion are desperate enough that knowing what the fetus looks like doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. After all, it’s not as though Operation Rescue have much success with their tactic of waving fetal pictures/models at people on their way into abortion clinics. If you’re in a situation where having a baby is going to tie you further into an abusive relationship or render you unable to pay for the basics for the children you already have or shoot down your one chance at getting an education or any of the many, many reasons why continuing a pregnancy could have terrible consequences for the pregnant person, then the details of exactly what your embryo/fetus looks like right now are probably going to be very low on your list of potential deciding factors.

But, secondly, there’s the fact that most people seeking abortion are doing so early in pregnancy. In the UK, almost 90% of abortions take place by or before 10 weeks gestation, which means that the majority of decisions are made before then. There are always going to be exceptions; sometimes people don’t realise they’re pregnant until later on (which is, by the way, a point on which I would have thought embryo/fetal visibility would be helpful; I should think one consequence of ‘what if you could see your own fetus’ would be that people would be less likely to miss an early pregnancy, and hence an even higher proportion of abortions would take place in the early weeks), sometimes the pregnant person’s circumstances drastically change in some way, and some abortions are on grounds of fetal disability, which normally can’t be diagnosed till at least 10 weeks gestation and often later. But, overall, most pregnant people making the decision about whether to have abortions are making that decision at a gestationally early stage.

Now, that’s not the bit of embryonic development that pro-lifers want to show people. You know how I mentioned the very late gestation of the fetus in the picture above? That isn’t because someone accidentally copied the wrong picture. It’s because pro-lifers want the pictures they use to be thoroughly into the developmental stage where the appearance brings out our automatic reaction of ‘Baby! Must protect!’ The fetuses shown in pro-life propaganda are almost all from the 10-weeks-or-later stage, with a heavy emphasis on ‘later’; the majority are second or third trimester.  Pro-lifers want abortion banned from conception on, but that isn’t reflected in their selection of photos.

And what that means is that if every pregnant person actually could see what the blastocyst/embryo/fetus inside them looked like at each stage, a significant part of pro-life propaganda would simply fall apart. I’m not sure the pictures pro-lifers use are that effective in convincing people anyway, but they’re really not going to be effective on someone who can see perfectly well for herself that what’s growing inside her right now looks a lot more like a so-small-it’s-hard-to-see-anyway version of this, this, or this.

Bottom line? I think the biggest effect of being able to see the fetus growing inside you would be that pro-life campaigners would suddenly find it a lot harder to get people to take them seriously, because the level of misrepresentation in their propaganda would become really obvious.

Finally, this seems like a good point to remember once again that ‘pro-life’ groups and political movements typically refuse to support the things that we know do make a difference to abortion rates. If you happen to be a pro-lifer who supports the above ‘crystal bellies’ meme, ask yourself if you also support the idea of 1. making contraception easily and widely available to reduce the rates of unwanted pregnancies and 2. making sure there’s an excellent social safety net with widely available/affordable childcare and health care to avoid being driven to abort a pregnancy for financial reasons. If you do, then great, because not only have both of these approaches got other advantages but they’re also both evidence-supported ways of reducing the rate of abortion. If you’re against abortion but don’t support those two ideas, then it would be a good idea to consider what your motives really are.

How I changed sides on the abortion rights issue

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.

Time limits

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.

Early pregnancy

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.

Operation Rescue

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.

Richard Dawkins, abortion, disability, and human suffering

Most of the people who pay attention to Richard Dawkins probably remember exactly which tweetstorm I’m referring to, but, for anyone who doesn’t, here’s the quick version:

Some years back, when a woman made a passing comment in a Twitter discussion that she didn’t know what she’d do if she found she was pregnant with a fetus with Down’s syndrome, Dawkins responded with the bald statement “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Faced with a storm of outrage in response, he followed this up with a ‘sorry if you were offended’ post in which he explained that his beliefs on the matter were based on his ‘desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering’ and that thus giving birth to a baby with Down’s Syndrome rather than having an abortion ‘might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare’.

This was, as I say, several years ago, but was brought up again a few weeks ago in a radio interview in which the host (after stating that he himself had a child with Down’s Syndrome) asked him about this view. (Hemant Mehta on the Friendly Atheist blog at Patheos has a transcript of this part of the interview, for anyone who wants to check out what Dawkins said without listening to the whole thing.) Dawkins has dialled it back at least somewhat; if he learned nothing else from the previous brouhaha, he does at least seem to have learned the practical wisdom of trying to avoid getting too inflammatory on the subject. However, from what he says here, it’s clear he still holds the general view of thinking that it’s advisable – the exact phrase he used was ‘wise and sensible’ – to abort a fetus diagnosed with a disability rather than continue the pregnancy.

In case anyone reading this isn’t clear on why people have objected so vehemently to this viewpoint: To reach this belief, it’s necessary to be working from the assumption that disability is likely to impact a person’s life so adversely that it will prevent them from ever having as good a quality of life as a non-disabled person. This is an inaccurate and horribly ablist belief that, in itself, impacts adversely on the lives of disabled people by contributing to myths about disability and by sending an unfortunate message about which lives are or aren’t worth living. I have every sympathy for anyone who’s felt the need to choose abortion for themselves when faced with this situation – we live in a society where support for disabled people and their carers is sadly lacking – but treating abortion as some sort of advisable optimum solution to a diagnosis of fetal Down’s Syndrome or other disabilities is reprehensibly ablist.

That’s the obvious reason, and the one that reactions focused on at the time this happened. However, when Mehta’s post brought this up in my mind again, I realised there was also a second problem with Dawkins’ approach that got somewhat obscured by the extent to which he’d offended everyone with the first problem. I thought it was worth mentioning now: Dawkin’s formulation of ‘abortion advisable here because that’ll reduce suffering’ also completely ignores the experience of the person who would have to go through with the abortion.

Now, there is a huge range of possible reactions to having had an abortion, and I do not wish anyone to misread this post as some kind of claim about the supposed miseries of abortion; there are plenty of people out there whose main reaction post-abortion was ‘Thank goodness for that’. However, that isn’t really representative of the experience of people who have abortions for a diagnosis of fetal disability. Abortions for fetal disability are usually on pregnancies that were otherwise wanted. On top of that, they are, on the whole, carried out later in pregnancy than the average abortion; most abortions are done in the first trimester, but, because of the need to reach particular gestational stages before tests for disability can be performed, most abortions for disability are done in the second trimester, and on rare occasions even in the third. This makes them significantly harder both physically and emotionally.

The result of these factors is that abortions carried out for disability are typically, overall, some of the most difficult and distressing abortion experiences; in short, they cause suffering. Now, obviously, there are many times when people faced with this choice decide abortion is going to cause less suffering than continuing the pregnancy, and that is a choice that I believe should remain available for any individual in this situation. But ‘aborting a disabled fetus causes less suffering than continuing the pregnancy’ is absolutely not a blanket one-size-fits-all rule, because there are so many times when the reverse is true.

What all this means is that when Dawkins assumed abortion was the more moral choice because it would reduce levels of human suffering, he was not only making offensively ablist assumptions about disability equating to suffering; he was also showing utter disregard for the suffering that this would cause for pregnant people in this situation. It’s not that he actually wants them to suffer; he doesn’t. It’s that, when he weighs up what he believes to be the different degrees of suffering, it doesn’t even occur to him to include the feelings of the pregnant person in there. That factor simply isn’t on his radar.

Dawkins is, in fact, providing a sterling example of the Dunning-Kruger effect; the effect of having so little knowledge about a situation or issue that you don’t actually recognise your ignorance. He’s saying what seems right and reasonable to him, because he genuinely does not realise that disabilities such as Down’s don’t have the degree of negative impact on life that he’s picturing, or that abortion for disability is as hard to go through as it is. But, unfortunately, he hasn’t realised that when you don’t know much about an issue, it’s a good idea to avoid making categorical pronouncements about it, and also a good idea to listen to people who know more about it if they’re trying to set you right. And he hasn’t realised the importance of listening to people about their own lives and experiences. Which is a terrible shame, because that certainly is a wise, sensible, and moral thing to do.


Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 4

This is the fourth, and I hope the final, 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 (they’re also written sequentially so you can just click ‘Next Post’ each time to read them in order). Without wishing to be hidebound by convention, I would recommend starting with Part 1 as it explains some key points about why I hold my beliefs.

The questions are in reverse order; I hope to cover 3, 2 and 1 in this post.

One other issue. I’ve spent a lot of time in these posts so far referring to pregnant women, or to women affected by these laws. Which might seem obvious to you… except that transgender people exist, and some of these are trans men or genderqueer people who have uteruses and ovaries and hence can get pregnant, which means that, when I talk about pregnant people as ‘women’, I’m ignoring groups of people who are also part of the debate. I was aware that this is a problem, but was ignoring it for the not very good reason that I didn’t want to deal with a lot of argument about it in the comments. Given that I literally still have a post up on my ‘recent posts’ sidebar about the importance of transgender visibility, this was hypocritical of me. I apologise.

So, for this post, I have tried to use gender-neutral terms to describe people who are pregnant. And I still don’t want to deal with a lot of argument about it in the comments. So: transphobia will be deleted, whinging about political-correctness-gone-mad or anything along that line will be deleted, and what does or doesn’t fall into those categories will be at my discretion. Genuine questions (that is, not questions that are thinly-disguised point-scoring/JAQing-off attempts) on the subject should be OK, but I’d prefer it if we didn’t get too far off the original topic.


3. Why are abortion laws based on viability outside the womb?

As ‘background history of time limits in UK abortion law’ is one of the rather small list of Obscure Subjects About Which I Actually Know Something, I seized on this question with glee and wrote a whole essay on how it was that our abortion time limits came to be based on viability. As interesting as I found this, it was rather lengthy for something that isn’t really addressing what you meant by your question, so eventually I saved it elsewhere in case I wanted to use it in the future and cut it out of this post. You’re welcome.

What you’re actually asking here, of course, isn’t what the backstory is of how the limit was chosen, but why we have a limit that is, as you put it, ‘blurry and arbitrary’. This is something I covered in the last part of my answer to question 9; time limits typically are based on reasons that are blurry and arbitrary because development rarely presents us with clear-cut and obvious points, but that doesn’t mean that we throw time limits out of the window altogether.

You’re not objecting to the viability time limit because you want to propose one that you think is better. You’re not objecting because you want to do away with time limits altogether and declare abortion legal at any stage of the pregnancy. You’re objecting because you’re against abortion at any stage of the pregnancy. I’ve already explained why that belief is one with which I can’t agree.


2. Why do we fight to save the lives of disabled and premature babies?

While I do not like to put words in people’s mouths, I’m going to go out on a limb here and deduce that this is not actually your question. You’re not questioning why we fight to save the lives of babies. You’re questioning why we don’t apply that same reason to fetuses of similar gestation.

Again, this goes back to my reply to question 10 (same link as above). When we fight to save the lives of babies – or people of any age – we don’t do so by expecting one particular person to make prolonged use of their own internal organs to do so regardless of the impact that that’s going to have on their health and circumstances. Most of us don’t believe that doing so would be OK. (When someone volunteers to be an organ donor, that’s wonderful; but it’s not something we think it right to force unwilling people to do, even to save lives.)

While on the subject of abortions taking place this close to the viability limit, it’s always worth remembering how serious some of the reasons for these abortions can be. Andreas Avester, on this site, has just written a lengthy post about the impacts that hardline ‘pro-life’ stances can have on people in terrible situations, and, while it does not make easy reading – the stories described are truly distressing – it is well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand more about why pro-choicers have a problem with the aims of the pro-life movement.


1. Why is there a double standard at work here, in which we stay quiet about abortion while mourning miscarriage?

Because of the impact of pro-life reactions to abortion discussions. Firstly, abortion is heavily stigmatised; it’s hard to talk about having had an abortion when you never know (or know all too well) who’s going to consider you a child murderer. Secondly, there’s the problem I described in my reply to question 5; pro-lifers have a long history of using people’s reactions to their abortions, whether positive or negative, as fuel for anti-abortion arguments, and many people do not want their experiences used in this way.

I would love a situation where this was different, where people who had had abortions could talk freely about their experiences without stigma or shame or fear, where people who were devastated by the experience yet still felt it to have been the right choice could talk openly about their pain and receive sympathy for it without receiving criticism or seeing their experience warped to fit an anti-abortion narrative, where people who were pleased or relieved to have been able to abort an unwanted pregnancy could speak openly about this without being branded as selfish or unfeeling or cold-hearted. Sadly, that isn’t the world we live in.

Last year we had the tragic experience of losing a little boy at 15 weeks. […] Anyone who has felt sadness about a miscarriage feels that way precisely because it is the loss of life.

I’m very sorry for your loss, and understand that this is likely to be a difficult topic for you. Please understand that, when I disagree with you, it is in no way because I wish to dismiss your or your wife’s feelings about your own loss or your own grief.

I do, however, think that this is about more than just ‘a loss of life’. Miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy typically means the loss of the parents’ dream of having this baby, and that is also a powerful reason for grief. When an infertile person who has never been pregnant/fathered a pregnancy grieves the loss of their dream of parenthood, is their grief any less because no loss of life was involved?

I’ll never forget the woman who attended our emergency clinic during my gynaecology attachment with suspected miscarriage; she’d started bleeding after thinking she had a positive pregnancy test after a long period of trying unsuccessfully to conceive. But the ultrasound scan showed no sign of the uterine thickening that would be typical after even an early miscarriage, and we had to gently break it to her that there was no sign of her having been pregnant in the first place. To this day I can remember her face crumpling, the way she struggled to say something but then turned and fled. I don’t think that that woman went home that night feeling that her shattered dream wasn’t a problem because no actual loss of life was involved.

Finally, of course, there is the question of people who don’t feel sadness about a miscarriage. Many people feel deeply relieved by miscarriage of an unwanted pregnancy. It seems problematic to me to treat reactions to miscarriage as some sort of barometer of objective fetal worth.


Anyway… that’s it. Ten questions, ten answers, for what they’re worth. I’ll add the links of the later posts to the first post I made, and e-mail Andrew Haslam to let him know the discussion exists. Thank you to all those of you who read and who joined in.

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.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 2

This is the second part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here; it covers some key points about my own beliefs, so I’d recommend reading that one first.

I’d intended to cover three more of the questions in this post, but found I had far more to say for each answer than I’d anticipated, so I’ve broken it down further. This post answers question 6. I’m hoping to cover two in the next post and then the last three in a fourth post, though I’ll see how it goes.


6. Why is the pro-life movement vilified and bullied as though it was somehow backward to campaign for human rights at this fundamental level?

Because of the behaviour of so many pro-lifers.

Please note that absolutely none of what I say here is intended as a generalisation about every pro-lifer everywhere. As I told you in my last post, I used to be pro-life myself, and I don’t believe any of this would have been true of me at the time; I fully recognise that there are many pro-lifers out there of which these things are also not true. If you’re one of them, great. Feel free to mentally insert the words ‘some’ or ‘many’ or ‘a proportion of’ or ‘a heck of a lot of’, or ‘#notallprolifers’ or anything similar at any point here where you feel I’ve left those words or phrases out and should have included them.


1. There is a rather strong correlation between pro-life views and the following behaviours/beliefs:

  • slut-shaming/policing the sex lives of women
  • holding strong and limiting ideas about women’s role in life
  • anti-contraceptive views
  • homophobia
  • transphobia
  • the sorts of anti-immigration views that we’ve all become a little too familiar with during the whole Brexit fiasco, with versions of racism/jingoism lurking not too far below the surface.

I do realise that there are not only many pro-lifers out there who hold none of these beliefs (I was one such) and, for that matter, many pro-choicers who hold at least some of them. But there’s a strong enough pattern of association there that, while the stereotype of the backwards and misogynistic pro-lifer isn’t by any means correct for all pro-lifers, it also did not come out of nowhere.

2. Pro-life movements have a rather unattractive history of dishonesty in the name of their cause. I do realise that there can’t be many movements out there that haven’t included someone, sometime,  who’s stretched a point to make a point. However, I can personally vouch for the fact that the levels of misrepresentation of the evidence that I’ve come across in reading pro-life literature have been… notable. (At one point, one of my hobbies was debunking this sort of misinformation on a discussion newsgroup.) And then, of course, there are the ‘crisis pregnancy centres‘ who have become known for disingenuously advertising themselves in deliberately vague terms in order to hide the fact that they will be very actively trying to talk their clients out of abortion, then giving out alarming amounts of misinformation to the people who visit them for help.

3. There are quite a lot of pro-lifers out there whose commitment to saving fetal lives does, in practice, seem to be very secondary to their desire to police the sex lives of women. I don’t know whether you’ve ever read How I Lost Faith In The Pro-Life Movement, by blogger and former pro-lifer Libby Anne, or the several follow-up posts she wrote in reply to various objections (linked at the end of the initial post), but they’re well worth reading for anyone interested in the issue.

The short version of those essays is that, having grown up as a very active, committed member of the pro-life movement who certainly was sincere about wanting to prevent abortions and who believed other members of the movement were in full agreement about that priority, Libby Anne found out that the best ways to reduce the numbers of abortions happening were not laws against it, but better social welfare policies, better sex education and more readily available contraception. However, the pro-life movement that she’d grown up with and thought she knew, despite supposedly wanting to prevent abortions, was against all these measures. And the reasons for this typically seemed to boil down to some version of ‘We don’t want women to be having unauthorised sex’. That was more important to these supposed pro-lifers than actually saving fetal lives. Or, for that matter, making conditions better for children or their families.

When people consider it so important to police the sex lives of anyone with female genitalia that they will treat ‘make women suffer for having unauthorised sex’ as a higher priority than ‘prevent abortions/improve health and conditions for children’ then, yes, that is misogynistic and backward. When these beliefs are seen this frequently among people calling themselves pro-life, then that is going to lead a lot of people to the assumption that it’s normal for pro-lifers to be misogynistic and backward.

Yes, that is not true for all pro-lifers. Yes, it is very possible that your reaction right now is something along the lines of “But… but… the group of pro-lifers I belong to are lovely! We do go out and help women in dire straits! We do want better social safety nets for children and families so that no-one is in the position of having to get an abortion because of their practical circumstances!” If so, then that’s wonderful. But, unfortunately, people like that are not a very representative sample of all pro-lifers everywhere.

The pro-life movement is often portrayed as led by white men and as fundamentally backwards and misogynistic, despite the fact that women of all races are involved and are more opposed to abortion than men)

You do realise that the last part of that sentence doesn’t actually contradict the first part? Yes, many women are against abortion, and many of those get involved in pro-life movements; that doesn’t say anything about who’s leading the movement. What organised religious or political groups have the strongest associations with the pro-life movement? In no particular order, the three most obvious ones are Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, and the political right wing. Well, the first two of those are explicitly led by men, and the third has a history of being predominantly male (not just a history, for that matter). So, while it’s certainly more complex than ‘the movement is led by men’, it’s also not as though that portrayal came out of nowhere.

But talk to a pro-lifer. Generally, they believe a basic ethic: All human life has sanctity. Which part of this is backwards and misogynistic?

Hoo boy. Look… I’m about to go into a rant. So, just before doing that, I will not only repeat ‘Not all pro-lifers’, but will also give you this link, which is to a lengthy and beautiful essay by an American blogger who’s clearly pro-life in the truest sense of the term, explaining why the very pro-life beliefs that make her against abortion also prevented her from joining in with the rush to vote for Trump as the candidate promising he’d be tougher on abortion. So, yes, definitely not all pro-lifers.


As you know, Trump did get voted in as US president. As you might or might not have known, a significant part of the reason for this was the reaction to his vs. Clinton’s respective platforms on abortion rights; Trump promised tougher and more punitive laws on abortion, and got a big slice of the anti-abortion vote that way. That means that a heck of a lot of people who were calling themselves pro-life on the grounds that they were against abortion were quite willing to vote in a racist sex abuser who mocked the disabled and bragged about his plan to barricade the USA against refugees who were, in many cases, fleeing for their lives.

Less than a year later, the overwhelmingly anti-abortion Republican party (the term ‘pro-life’, in this context, is seeming more and more hideously inappropriate) were making the latest of their many attempts to drastically cut the health care funding that is keeping tens of thousands of Americans alive. They did not seem particularly bothered about the sanctity of those lives, or at least not in comparison to the sanctity of their own millions of dollars.

While you were writing this post, the news was full of that same Republican party’s callousness and dismissal of the appalling conditions in migrant camps. Three days before you posted it, Mike Pence was photographed on his visit to one such camp, turning away indifferently from desperate migrants crowding against the wire. I remember one person on Twitter commenting wryly ‘Someone should tell him those men were fetuses once’.

Now, of course, we have right-wing anti-abortion site The Federalist campaigning to lift the current quarantine restrictions that are so vital to minimise the horrendous death toll from COVID-19. Apparently their belief in the sanctity of human life isn’t important enough to them to put up with restrictions on their freedom to act how they want.

I know all of those stories concerned America’s right wing, and, yes, they are particularly egregious offenders, but it’s not just them. Mother Teresa ignored or diverted millions of pounds’ worth of donations that, if used for the purpose for which they were surely intended by the donors, could have provided life-saving medical care for thousands of people in need. Instead, she deliberately kept the clinics she ran in terrible condition, letting people who could have been saved (and people who could have at least been palliated) suffer and die with minimal medical help.

In Ireland, less than a decade ago, Savita Hallappanavar died at the age of 31 after the medical staff caring for her concluded that, under the anti-abortion law of the time, it would be illegal to shorten her doomed pregnancy by a few hours even to reduce the growing and ultimately overwhelming risk to her own life.

Further back, there were the infamous Magdalene Laundries, whose founders and staff were, of course, from a religion very well known for their staunchly anti-abortion stance. Their horrific history of abuse and of burials in mass graves demonstrates all too clearly just how those particular ‘pro-lifers’ felt about the sanctity of the lives of the people under their care.

You want to know what part of ‘All human life has sanctity’ is backwards and misogynistic? The part where that principle is selectively applied only when any resulting difficulties will fall exclusively on people with uteruses.

Pro-lifers are merely consistent in applying this fundamental ethic to every single human being, including people in the womb.

You know… when I first read this question and started composing my answer, my read of it was that you genuinely are motivated by a belief in the sanctity of human life and, as such, you’re frustrated by people who make negative stereotypical assumptions about you. I still think this might have been what you meant to get across when you wrote this paragraph. Unfortunately, however, it is not what you actually wrote. What you did write is a kind of wide-eyed bewildered ignorance about the problems within pro-life or pro-life-associated movements. You are talking here as though pro-lifers generally, not just a subset of them, are consistent about applying the sanctity-of-life ethic to every human being. You’re talking as though you have no idea why anyone would think otherwise.

No matter how charitably I look at this, this does boil down to one of two possibilities:

1. You genuinely are that ignorant about the many problems associated with the pro-life cause. You genuinely have no clue about any of the stuff I wrote above. If that’s the case… well, I know you couldn’t have known all the stuff I wrote up there. I mean, you literally couldn’t have known it, because the whole business with people who are supposedly pro-life wanting to break the quarantine hadn’t yet happened at the time you wrote your post, but there are also a lot of other things I mentioned that you might quite plausibly and reasonably not have known about; I’m not going to condemn someone just because they spend less time reading left-wing feminist blogs than I do. However, if you had no idea about any of those things… well, that is a level of ignorance about the world about you that means you probably shouldn’t be out alone on the streets.

Look. When I was pro-life, it was because I genuinely cared about fetal life. But I was at least aware that there were a lot of pro-lifers out there whose beliefs actually stemmed from the view that women should be eschewing careers in favour of bearing and raising children, and/or were associated with other objectionable views such as homophobia, the hellfire-and-brimstone type of religion, and/or strong anti-contraceptive views. I certainly wasn’t among the number of pro-lifers who felt that way, but I did recognise that such people not only existed, but existed in fairly significant numbers. If blogs had existed back then and I’d had one, maybe I would have objected to the stereotyping of pro-lifers generally… but I’m pretty sure that I would not have expressed this sort of bewilderment about why such stereotypes would possibly exist. Even as a very naive and uninformed teenager, living in the pre-Internet era and almost entirely ignoring current affairs, I was still more aware of the world around me than that.

You, however, are talking as though you really are that unaware of all these issues. If that’s true, and not just an act you’re putting on, then that is a truly stunning level of obliviousness. I would have thought it quite hard to be more oblivious about the world out there than I was at seventeen or eighteen, but if you really do know this little about this subject, then, congratulations, you’ve managed it. I personally suspect that in fact that is not the case and the actual reason for what you wrote is the second one, below; but if I’m wrong and you really are that unaware, then, good grey grief, you need to get a clue, fast.

2. The other possibility here is, of course, that you are aware (to whatever degree) that there are a lot of objectionable views/actions associated with pro-lifers and the pro-life movement, but decided to act as though you don’t know any of that. If that’s the case, then not only is that disingenuous, but it’s also backfiring badly as regards your desired goal of convincing people you are not, yourself, misogynistic or backward.

I’d have happily accepted it if you’d acknowledged that some pro-lifers are misogynistic and backward but disavowed yourself from such beliefs. I’d have happily accepted it if you’d stayed off that particular subject altogether; I like to assume the best of people, so that’s what I’d have done. But, instead, you chose to claim that pro-lifers are just people who believe in the sanctity of all human life, that’s it, nothing else to see here. If you did know something about the problems within the pro-life movement and/or the movements commonly associated with it, then your choice to ignore all that and claim that it’s all really just about the sanctity of life is a choice to defend the indefensible. If you don’t want to be misogynistic or backward, then do not excuse or overlook views that are misogynistic or backward.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 1

I love it when people who disagree with me have questions (actual questions, not just point-scoring attempts) about my beliefs. So I was delighted to come across London preacher Andrew Haslam’s post ‘Ten Questions for Pro-Choice People‘.

Let me state my purpose up front: I’m a pro-lifer with ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people, and I’m hoping that you (dear reader) will keep on reading to the end.

I’m in!

But I’m also realistic. The chance of keeping your attention on such a matter of deep division is not going to be easy, not least because you may well imagine me to be misogynistic and backward.

I was passionately pro-life for a year and a half in my late teens after being recruited to that viewpoint by two schoolmates; I was too disorganised to join a group, but it was still a belief I held 100%. So, no, I don’t assume people are misogynistic or backward just because they’re pro-life. (Readers will probably wonder how I came to change sides so thoroughly on this; the short answer is that all the reading and thinking about the subject that I was doing in order to mutter righteously to myself about how much I disagreed with pro-choicers eventually had the opposite effect and brought me round the full 180o on the topic. I’ll write the full version someday.)

And so, I urge you to read and even respond.

You betcha. You had me at ‘ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people’.

A few quick notes:

1. I plan to answer the questions over the course of multiple posts, as I think there’ll be too much material here to cover in one go.

2. I originally planned to work through them in order (dull and conventional person that I am), but, as I mentally drafted my answers, I realised that some of the most fundamental points come up in the last couple of questions and that it’ll work better if I answer those first. So I’m going to answer the questions in reverse order. (The first two have ended up being particularly long, by the way, but this won’t be the case for all of them ooookaaaay, forget that bit, I think most of them are ending up a lot longer than I’d anticipated.)

3. Like Andrew, I want this discussion to stay rational and civil, so I’m going to stipulate now that any commenters have to stick to that rule as well. If you want to disagree (with me, with Andrew, or with both of us) go right ahead; but either keep it polite and respectful, or take it elsewhere. I will enforce this if need be.

That covers the background, so on to the questions!

10. When does a person become a person? This is really the question to rule them all. Everything depends on this.

No, it doesn’t. Here’s why:

No-one has the right to make use of an unwilling person’s organs. Yet that’s what happens when a woman is made to continue a pregnancy she doesn’t want; a decision that that fetus should live cannot be separated from the decision that she has to keep it within her body with all that that entails. And ‘all that that entails’ is not trivial by any means. Even a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy is typically going to involve significant amounts of nausea or fatigue or both, with intense pain at the end in giving birth. There’s a high chance of either genital tearing or major abdominal surgery at the end. That’s in a normal pregnancy. There’s also a non-negligible chance of developing more significant medical complications, which can in some cases be long-term. While it’s rare for medical complications actually to reach the point of proving fatal, it still happens and it’s less rare in women with continued pregnancies than in women who have early abortions.

On top of this, the rest of a woman’s life is not going to stay on hold while she deals with all this. So pregnancy can have severe impacts on her ability to manage her day-to-day responsibilities, and that, again, can have far-reaching consequences. And on top of that, she’s faced with a dilemma that will have consequences for her lifelong: due to the way hormones prime the bodies of the pregnant to bond to the children they give birth to, it’s going to be difficult, often impossible, for her to face giving up even a child that was unwanted in the first place… but the alternative is to take on the massive, life-changing job of raising that child.

There isn’t an exact analogy to all this, but the closest we have is organ donation, which saves the life of one person at the cost of significant physical impact and bodily invasion for another. Well… we don’t legally compel people to donate their kidneys, even though that saves lives. We don’t even compel people to donate bone marrow or blood, which are considerably less invasive procedures. The law recognises that even the saving of lives doesn’t override the basic right to have veto power over what gets done to our bodies.

It’s possible that you, or another pro-life reader, is shocked or offended that I describe pregnancy and birth in such negative terms. In case anyone reading it did react that way, to them I say this: Ask yourself what part of the description above you believe to be inaccurate. My guess is that what bothers you is not that you felt any part of it was actually inaccurate, but that it’s incomplete; that you’re bothered that I would list only negatives about pregnancy and childbirth without mentioning the positives. Then think about how often our society in general holds precisely that expectation; that women should be willing to overlook or tolerate all of the risks and difficulties I mentioned, all in the name of a sort of awe and reverence at the wonder of creating new life. If it makes anyone feel any better, I can assure you that, on a personal level, I certainly do feel the ‘wonder of new life’ aspect to be the overreaching one; that’s why I have two loved and very much wanted children and was more than happy to go through all of the downsides to pregnancy and birth. But doing so only made me much more aware of how difficult it can be (and, in fact, my experience was a relatively easy one in all sorts of ways) and of how horrible an idea it is to decide that we should force this experience on pregnant people collectively, regardless of their feelings on the matter.

So, to get back to your question above… no, the question of when a person becomes a person doesn’t do a thing to decide the abortion debate. I don’t, as it happens, agree with the idea that the answer is ‘As soon as the chromosomes are all together in the same cell’, but that’s still irrelevant. To answer your follow-up question of ‘When did you become you?’, my personal answer to that is probably that I started becoming me when I was sixteen and that I’m still making tweaks here and there (and probably always will be). Which, of course, is irrelevant to the question of when I first had a right to life; neither of us believe that my right to life started only at the point that I retrospectively feel, based on changes and developments in my personality at the time, to be the start of what I’d consider as my essential me-ness, so ‘When did you become you?’ isn’t that useful a question here. But, far more importantly, it’s also entirely irrelevant to the question of ‘When did you first develop the right to make prolonged and intimate use of someone else’s body against their wishes to keep yourself alive?’ The answer to that question is that I never had that right and never will have. I’m delighted that my mother did choose to have me – I love being alive – but my happiness that things turned out the way they did in terms of my existence doesn’t give me any sort of retrospective right to claim that they should have turned out that way.


9. What do you think our descendants will think of us?

I doubt that either side of the debate will ever win out significantly enough for our descendants to look back on the other side as some horrifying archaism (although I certainly hope we reach the point where use of reliable long-acting reversible contraception is so routine and widespread that our descendants look back in astonishment on the times when unwanted pregnancy was ever as common a problem as it is now), so I don’t think this question itself particularly gets the debate any further. However, I want to look at some of your follow-up questions in this section, as they’re worth discussing.

Western society has been shown to be wrong on some key human rights issues in the past – most notably slavery and racial prejudice. […] But do you not suppose that we have equally glaring blind spots in our seemingly advanced age?

I’m sure we do; I just don’t believe that ‘people should not be compelled to remain pregnant against their wishes’ is one of them.

I am confident that some future generation will look back on us with disgust for two reasons: (1) The logical inconsistencies of the pro-choice movement will become clearer over time, just as the pro-slavery movement eventually lost the argument

I think there are a couple of problems with that analogy.

The pro-slavery movement were initially able to hold sway because so many of the general public believed that black people were fundamentally different from/inferior to white people, but this view was gradually changed by, in large part, black people themselves; the writings and speeches of former or current slaves made it very clear that they were people and that it was a monstrous injustice to enslave them or treat them in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable to white people. That wasn’t by any means the only factor that eventually led to abolitionists winning the day, but it was a significant part of what changed the minds of the public as a whole.

Now, of course, the first problem you have with applying that strategy to the pro-life message is that fetuses don’t write or make speeches. While that doesn’t in itself make your arguments invalid, it does mean that you’re missing one of the major factors that changed people’s mind over abolitionism. The other big problem with your analogy is that we don’t really have the same situation here; ignorance over facts isn’t that significant a reason why people disagree with you. Most people already know about fetal development. They already know that development starts from conception. They already know what fetuses look like. The problem is not that we don’t know these things; the problem is that we disagree with you about what conclusions to draw about the morality of abortion. Most people (even among the nominally pro-life) don’t really see ‘This cell now has the full genetic makeup of a human being’ or ‘This cell has the full potential to develop into a baby’ as good enough reasons for a zygote to be regarded as equivalent to a child.

(2) Advances in medicine and science will make it more difficult to sustain a hard boundary between ‘blob of cells’ and ‘human being’, and with no such boundary there is no longer any conscionable reason for allowing abortion at any point after conception.

There’s an assumption here that’s a key argument among pro-lifers, and certainly one I initially found compelling in my pro-life days; the idea that we have to have some sort of clearly definable reason for drawing this boundary at one point rather than another. I remember thinking of this as the ‘Sherlock Holmes argument’; when you have eliminated the impossible then what remains, however improbable, must be your answer. It’s impossible to point to any other reasonably clearcut point on the continuum of development, so therefore, however improbable it is that a single cell should be considered a person and granted full human rights, that has to be the point at which we do these things. And I was utterly convinced of the necessity of this; after all, without that kind of clearly definable boundary, obviously we would be on a slippery slope in which allowing abortion up to any given time limit would inevitably, due to the lack of clear reasons for that particular limit, lead to us allowing it after that time limit, and then to allowing infanticide, and then inexorably on to allowing us to kill off anyone of any age.

And then one day, apropos of nothing much, it hit me that… this was not actually happening. This was in the late ’80s, so abortion had been legal in the UK for over twenty years by then. During that time, the legal limit on abortion had remained exactly the same. It hadn’t been pushed out further. We hadn’t legalised infanticide. There didn’t seem to be any howling mobs calling for those things to happen. I remember being quite confused by this – after all, the pro-life argument in this area seemed unassailably logical – but I couldn’t deny that, however logically pro-lifers argued that this would happen, it clearly wasn’t happening.

It was only years later that I realised where the flaw had lain in my initial logic: people are, in fact, completely capable of drawing an arbitrary boundary across a continuum, and do so all the time. We do that with deciding the age at which people are old enough to consent to sex, to drive, to vote, to marry. We draw legal boundaries for the ages of all those things and we keep to them; not because there is any sort of fundamental identifiable difference between a person on their sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth birthday and the same person the day before, but because we recognise that’s the best, albeit imperfect, way to deal with the fact that people gradually develop from a stage in which they can’t safely handle those situations to a stage in which they have the mental development to be at least allowed to try. We disagree on where exactly those legal boundaries should be, and sometimes those disagreements result in us changing them… but we don’t, as a society, reach the conclusion that because there is no biological or developmental reason for drawing a hard boundary between a teenager of fifteen years plus 364 days and a sixteen-year-old then that means it’s fine to have sex with young children.

And we do the same thing with abortion laws. Most people don’t want a situation where abortion is banned from conception on. Most people don’t want a situation where a person can legally decide to abort at any time up until birth. (That ‘most people’, by the way, includes people giving birth, which is why the apocryphal ‘but what if a woman chose to have an abortion five minutes before birth??’ scenario that crops up so often in pro-life arguments has never, to my knowledge, been known to show up in real life.) People do, for the most part, acknowledge that fetal development is a continuum and believe that this continuum should be reflected in abortion law.

So, no; the lack of a hard boundary after conception does not mean that we need to ban abortion from conception on.


8. Why is it more acceptable to fight for the rights of animals than of unborn humans?

Overall, I’m not sure it is. (Granted, that collection of links is pretty anecdotal evidence, but it does indicate that there are a lot of people out there getting stick for their beliefs in animal rights.) Of course, there are certainly some people who are more sympathetic to the animal rights cause than to the pro-life cause; without wanting to generalise about anyone else’s views, I think the factors there are a) the view I described when answering question 10 in the last post, namely that enforced continued pregnancy isn’t morally acceptable regardless of how we regard fetuses, and b) a belief that ‘presence of sentient awareness’ is a more defensible deciding factor than ‘species membership’ when regarding what protections a being should have.

As a rule, vegans are not considered to be among the lunatic fringe. Unlike pro-lifers, they usually get respect for their beliefs.

Apart from the points I made above, I think you’re talking apples and oranges there. Veganism is typically a decision that someone makes about their own personal diet; the pro-life equivalent would be a person whose beliefs about abortion lead her to decide to continue her own unwanted pregnancy, but who doesn’t believe she should make that decision for others. Vegans who go round actively campaigning for meat-eating to be made illegal and chanting that meat is murder are likely to receive rather less respect for their beliefs.


7. Why not prefer adoption over abortion?

Because it still means a) going through with the pregnancy with all that that involves and b) having to relinquish the child at the end, both of which are extremely hard to do (even with a pregnancy that wasn’t wanted).

Of course, this is still the choice that some women prefer, and I entirely agree that anyone for whom this is the choice should be allowed and supported to go through with it. However, if you’re asking why it’s usually not the preferred choice for an unwanted pregnancy… well, that’s why.

Wouldn’t it be a heroic thing to carry a baby to term and let that child live and be raised in a loving home?

It would, yes, just as it’s heroic for a surrogate mother to make the decision to become pregnant for that same purpose. Heroic acts, by definition, are over and beyond; they should never become things that people are legally compelled to do.

I don’t want to minimise the pain involved in giving away a child, but it seems to me quite obviously preferable to ending that child’s life altogether.

It’s certainly preferable for the adoptive parents who receive the child, and in most cases it’s going to be preferable for the child. In most cases it is not going to be preferable for the person who’s actually pregnant, for the reasons I gave above.


That’s four questions covered and a lengthy post so far, so this seems a good point to finish Part 1. I’ll aim to cover questions 6, 5 and 4 in Part 2 and questions 3, 2 and 1 in Part 1, and link them back to this post when I’m done.

Amended: I found vastly more to say about question 6 than I’d anticipated, so that now has a post on its own, which is here.

Answers to questions 5 and 4.

Answers to questions 3, 2 and 1.