Ever since reaching the age of conscience — that is becoming a twenty-somethings for me, I was always at the pro-choice side of the debate than pro-life. I still am, but perhaps the hard pro-choice stance, which could often be misconstrued as anti-life, had softened over the years, especially during and after the birth of our first child. As we went through various stages of my wife’s pregnancy, and looking at numerous books showing how the fœtus must be doing and looking like, it made me realise that taking a stance for or against abortion on an absolute basis is not as straightforward because of the multifaceted nature of the issue. The two opposing camps have always waged a battle against each other, trying to undermine the views of the other side, and an empathic reconciliation has never taken place. I must admit, taking the pro-choice side, I have always been cognizant and critical of the pro-life arguments, and therefore, rightly or wrongly, I thought that the pro-life argument has always been very loud and desperate to win over supports, compared to the pro-choice campaigns. Adding the religious dimension on pro-life, the arguments also appeared seemingly outdated. The recent Planned Parenthood shootings took the perennial debate to a new and dangerous level, where people would be ready to kill the dissidents. Planned Parenthood shootings demonstrated the root of this rift between the two warring camps transcends the bias or prejudice of the pro-life campaigners and it delves into their identity, religion, race and other dimensions.
Growing up in 80’s India in a middle-class background, discussions around sex was limited to sex education classes in a handful of private schools. Beyond that, everything was discussed behind closed doors. Whilst women still had their mother or other motherly figures to turn to, men ended up in a much worse situation with no sexual education apart from turning to porn or that one famous friend who magically managed to have some sex. The concept of abortion was taboo, partly due to religious and societal paradigm and partly due to lack of knowledge and government help. The contraception had just started to dawn on people, as an alternative to accepting each pregnancy with joy or stress.
With such a background, my first encounter with abortion was through opening of a new Marie Stopes Clinic in Calcutta — in lush green parkland, I often visited. Before the privatisation and swank private hospitals, the edifice of Marie Stopes clinic was a shining beacon of private healthcare. On various advertisements and at the entrance of the building showed a sign ‘Infertility clinic’. Although I wasn’t very familiar with the term infertility, I guessed what it was after a few years, whilst reading John Grisham, Erich Segal and Sidney Sheldon, coming across the term “back-alley butchers”. It was perhaps those late teen years when I first realised the trauma, social stigma and persecution surrounding the issue of abortion.
During my first thirty years of life in India, the issue of abortion revolved around gender and religion, than personal choice in most of the time. India had had a long history, especially in the majority Hindu caste system, of a patriarchal society, and thereby treating women as a burden to the parents and men as the breadwinners as well as the superior genders. Birth of a girl child not only meant a lifelong debt for the family to afford the dowry to “marry off” the girl but also an end to the family line, carrying the family surnames and the heritage forward into the next generation. For the age-old despicable dowry system, the birth of a girl child was unwelcome and often resulting in the parents keeping on having children until they had a boy, or in the worse case, female infanticide in rural areas. With the advent of modern medical science, detection of the gender of the foetus gave rise to another malicious practice — predetermination of the sex and termination of the foetus if it was a girl. It was only in the nineties that the government decided to act and banned the prenatal sex determination to abolish sex-selective abortions. Before this rule was passed by the Supreme Court of India, millions of women have been subjected to inhuman treatments — from quacks prescribing unknown drugs and herbs to the back alley butchers — it was not just the foetus that was terminated, but the mothers ended up permanently unable to have children any more, leading to another societal stigma of being infertile, or worse, being killed in the termination process. Not to mention the social trauma of going through the experience without any support to avoid drawing neighbours’/extended families’ attention. The sex-selective abortion was not as dominant in the Muslim population, but apart from religion, the Muslim community was and still is primarily patriarchal like Hindus; thereby putting preference on the male child. If the Muslim women were not protected by the Islamic rules, the gender superiority, often observed in a Muslim household, would have forced many more women into terminating the foetus due to the societal preference of gender. Marie Stopes and similar clinics provided a professional and compassionate alternative to women through the period before the actual procedure. However, in an urban setting, with possibly extortionate prices, this may have provided an alternative to only a handful of women from an affluent background. The suffering for the rest of the women still continued until the Prenatal gender detection was banned.
However, amongst the Gen Y population in the urban areas, with education and more liberal points of view compared to the previous parochial generations, the taboo of abortion was much less stigmatised than before. The conversation amongst men and women were more open, although the areas such as sex, abortion, pregnancy, period were still veiled under secrecy – only being revealed to the close confidantes. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, abortion in the urban setting was discussed more openly and people were aware of the modes of contraception, and the morning after pills in case of unprotected sex. The fact that the medical help is available to discuss termination of unwanted pregnancies itself lifted a weight off the women from the new generation. Nevertheless, the plight of rural women continued with illegal street-side health centres mushrooming in small towns ready to carry out gender test under the guise of checking the health of the foetus. These clinics also carried out abortions as an outcome of the gender determinations. In the urban areas, however, abortion started to become a choice finally, rather than an imposition from religious or social situations. The women did not shy away discussing the technical details with the doctors and get a professional opinion on the methods of abortion based on the stages of pregnancy. It became a question of more women having specific plans for the future and a child did not fit in that plan, nor was there any impulsion to continue with pregnancy by mistake for the rest of the life. Even though the question of abortion was becoming a question of choice, the secrecy and shame have not been lifted entirely, and it appeared that if the female fœticide factor is removed, the number of Indian women choosing to have aborted a fœtus was still small.
When I emigrated to Western Europe, I expected the number of pro-choice people would increase significantly. On the contrary, what I found from the media, is that society is more pro-life orientated. In fact, a report showed that Western Europe has the lowest abortion rates in the world at 12 per 1000, whilst Eastern Europe top the list with approx 43, and the rest of the world is scattered somewhere in between. My initial ideas of more liberal places to have more liberal views on burning issues like abortion were shattered. It was expected that the percentage of the population pro-choice in the USA would be relatively low due to large conservative republican belts, but finding the rates for Western European was entirely perplexing. However, the more I acclimatised with the Western European society, the reasons became clearer for the low rates.
First, entire Western Europe has a phenomenal welfare system in place, including healthcare and its access to the majority of the population. Apart from religious grounds and misogyny, perhaps the biggest factor for women deciding on abortion is their financial situation, the affordability of providing for another life. The welfare system ensures that that worry is taken away, and the parents/ mothers get state allowances for each child to cater for their needs. The healthcare and education are free as well for children and this may have swayed the women to carry on with the pregnancy. Second, the quality and value of life are seen at a different perspective in Western Europe compared to many places in the world. That the fœtus is still a living organism with possible feelings and sensations make people less willing to carry on with the termination. The education and behavioural aspect of treating living beings with compassion perhaps deter many of the expectant mothers terminate the fœtus. Third, and this perhaps applies to numerous women in developing countries where premarital pregnancy is still a social stigma that resulted in abortion. In Western Europe, the social stigma around children outside wedlock or single parenthood is nearly abolished other than pockets of orthodox conservative regions/communities. Also, the religious bias and the doctrines from Christian and Muslim — the two biggest communities excluding atheists, are against abortion; hence, regardless of the strong affiliation to a religion, people generally tend to live by the religious values and thereby deciding against their choice to abort the fœtus.
The previous few sections described how the observations regarding abortion spanned a large number of wider aspects such as religion, economic situation, values, lifestyles etc. However, that only represents some possible reasons why abortion rates vary across regions and the factors influencing that difference. The main debate of this article between pro-life and pro-choice camps. So, what can be observed from the pro-life and pro-choice campaigns across the countries and various places?
One fact is very clear that neither of the sides is very accommodating to the views of the other nor are willing to lose any ground. The pro-choice campaign obviously gathered momentum with more number of women becoming independent in the patriarchal society and growing number of liberal voices in favour of leaving the decision to the woman, who is actually going to carry the child. The pro-choice supporters, however, at times, go beyond their primary objective of letting the mother choose whether to keep the baby and meddle with branding the pro-life activists as primitive, oppressive and authoritative. With such adversity and acrimony, the purpose of the pro-choice movement is often lost. Often the pro-choice movement appears as a reactionary pressure group against the provocative pro-life campaign. On the other hand, the pro-life campaign has held the moral high ground since the religious texts existed. The life was treated as a gift of almighty God that humankind cannot refuse. Certain texts define the time when the fœtus transforms to life and be considered as containing a soul, thereby prohibiting it to be terminated. Since then, the rhetoric has kept being evolved and the tactics adopted by the pro-life campaigns on the present-day still are passively coercive, and abominable. Apart from making the women feel continuously guilty by reiterating the “life” and “feeling” of the fœtus in various contexts — be it the pædiatrician telling what the baby can and can’t feel at different stages, or the numerous pregnancy books charting the fœtus’ progress from the first week, or the sensationalist media heralding every celebrity childbirth as cover story. The inherent message is quite succinctly delivered as though motherhood is the pinnacle of a woman’s identity. Apart from such implicit anti-choice messages, there are direct actions to discourage abortions, such as legislation for doctors to make women listen to the fœtus’ heartbeat before termination, banning entities supporting abortions from public schools, or in case of recent Planned Parenthood clinic, a reduction in state funding. Whilst writing this article, I came across an article about how thousands of women travel from Ireland to England to have abortions, as abortion is illegal in the republic and punishable offence in Northern Ireland. The political bias is in most cases conservative — irrespective of the parties implementing the policies, to avoid losing public support as the majority in Western Europe are still pro-life. The pro-life campaign had successfully stigmatised abortion through such connotative and explicit actions. And since this process has been going on across generations, children grow up accepting that is the only version truth, not following the norm is tantamount seceding being a model person.
As the voices against such organised brainwashing became louder, the pro-life line of attack changed its subtlety and started direct threats to the activists supporting pro-choice or the clinics carrying out abortions. There have been incidents of violence against pro-choice such as mob raids, arson and bombing at abortion centres in the past with the authority turning a blind eye on the perpetrators. On 27th November, a man entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and opened fire killing three people and injuring many more. After a long stand-off with the police, a certain Robert Dear was arrested, yet he is only referred to as a suspect. Where police shoot innocents in other parts of the USA based on their colour or ethnicity, it was surprising how Dear was arrested without any injury despite the gravity of the attack, and the police are still very silent about convicting him. During his interview, it was rumoured that he mentioned “no more baby parts”, the same words shown in the media coverage on a series of sting operations at Planned Parenthood Colorado Springs centre, allegedly giving body parts to the research laboratories after the abortion. Although Planned Parenthood categorically denied the claims, the link between these sensationalist media coverages and the shootings cannot be denied. The aftermath of the shooting was even more shocking and only proves what significance do women’s rights held in the USA. Rather than passing stricter gun control laws or providing extra security for other clinics, the state authorities defunding for the Planned Parenthood clinic, citing legislation that abortion is not family planning! Each year governments pass numerous legislations, debated by male-dominant parliaments and committees, and the majority of such legislations are anti-choice, taking funding away from clinics, discussing parenting and prenatal developments to women undergoing elective abortions, and many other small measures that are seemingly insignificant but collectively undermine the pro-choice rights and options.
I have mentioned at the beginning that going through my wife’s pregnancy for our first child was an amazing experience and it moderated my views on abortion from hard pro-choice to pro-choice with some appreciation for the fœtus that develops at a phenomenal rate. Whilst sex-selective abortions should be banned as legislated in India, taking a point from the pro-life campaign, never mind the soul, but the fœtus should only be terminated up to a period when it does not experience pain. On the other hand, is there any medical research that can unequivocally say when it starts having feelings? Aren’t most of the existing literature regarding childbirth focus on how wonderful the phenomenon of birth is? Don’t they almost emotionally blackmail a pregnant woman about choosing to continue with the childbirth? The answers aren’t probably straightforward, and in the end, abortion could be a stressful procedure, both mentally and physically. How I interpret it is, that the pro-choice argument, contrary to how it is portrayed as an anti-life campaign, is not about preaching the killing of fœtus at all, but merely presenting a choice to women whether they would want to continue with their pregnancy. It’s all about removing the social stigma of abortion and as a result passively force women to continue with the pregnancy. Pro-choice is about the way of life, where one always has the two options unanimously and chooses to take the path as desired by their plans for the future. Abortion should be a natural question and scenario to be discussed with the paediatrician where they could ask the woman if she wants to keep the child, as well as the women, should expect the question and not be offended by the suggestion of termination being an option for the pregnancy.
Pro-choice is still a utopia in this present world. Whilst pro-life campaigners turning more violent with time, and the governments bringing more legislations that are anti-choice, the pro-choice movement does not have the momentum to effect the change in public psychology nor the legal side of the matter. It will need more campaigns, more people speaking out about abortion rather than treating it shameful and taboo. People like Jex Blackmore, who, through her Unmother diaries, shared experiences undergoing an abortion and the stereotyping she experienced. The campaign needs to be loud enough to be heard beyond the closed doors of the parliaments, so one must be vociferous about their support to the pro-choice campaign, but at the same time, hostilities towards pro-lifers would not help achieve the objective. However, I hope that with time and more liberalisation of the society, a pro-choice society will not be a far-fetched dream but a reality of tomorrow, despite the trials and tribulations and demonisations of today…
PS: I believe abortion and the pro-choice campaign is a feminist agenda at present, rather than humanist, and I am unsure how and where a cis man like me, with their prejudices, should stand. Reading from various contemporary newspaper articles and blogs, it appears that one arm of feminism is completely anarchic – it treats even men supporting feminism to be patronising, and thus consciously or unconsciously emboldening their patriarchal nature. I cannot argue against that school of thought, as not being sure what a man’s position should be on issues such as this. The other line of thought is more classical feminism, where women fight for equality and earn it rather than the male-dominant society divesting the powers to women as they pleased. With that line of thought, I could identify myself as a feminist or humanist supporting equality on all fronts. From that aspect, I would treat this as a feminist blog, but if this does appear patronising, I apologise in advance for my ignorance.