A moral case for abortion?

A new book by a prominent UK abortion provider fails to engage the positions of her opponents while rehashing the well-worn “my body, my choice” argument.

In Britain, Ann Furedi’s name is synonymous with abortion apologetics. She is the director of one of Britain’s largest chains of abortion facilities and she makes frequent appearances at debates and in the press, defending abortion with a zeal that would be regarded as fundamentalist if she were a member of a religious sect. Furedi is a proud former member of the (defunct) Revolutionary Communist Party (which really was as barking mad as it sounds) and contributor to Living Marxism (alas, no longer living), and now writes for its successor Spiked Online. Over the years, she has picked some bizarre targets for her ire, including the parents of children murdered during the Dunblane shooting (how dare they be permitted to express opinions on prime-time TV and be taken seriously?) and organizations attempting to protect children from peer abuse (yes, Ms, Furedi, children do sometimes get sexually abused by other minors).

It’s fair to say, therefore, that a woman who has been known to dismiss her opponents as “vile scum” and who trivialized Kermit Gosnell’s house of horrors as “pretty shoddy service” was going to have to work fairly hard to be taken seriously by me, but I genuinely expected a book published by Palgrave Macmillan to have some substance—even substance with which I was likely to disagree.

Instead, the reader is treated to a well-worn expansion of the “my body, my choice, me, me, me” argument, and the whole book reads like an affirmation of abortion by pro-aborts for pro-aborts. For all its intellectual posturing, at no point is there any real attempt at facing the arguments against abortion in any depth; the pro-life side is just assumed to be wrong and any right-minded person ought to understand this without being told, whilst those who oppose abortion are portrayed as representing a tiny and therefore fairly irrelevant minority (so irrelevant in fact that Ms Furedi has dedicated an entire book and a substantial part of her career to refuting the pro-life position).

Furedi’s style itself is at times highly engaging and articulate, for all its odd quirks, such as her cloyingly deferential tone towards thinkers she admires. She repeatedly adds the adverb “wisely” when introducing a quote from someone who backs up her argument, a habit I have noted in her other writing. The central problem, besides the poor arguments, is that there is so little substance to the style. For example, she speaks warmly of the “Hippocratic tradition” whilst failing somehow to note that this splendid tradition involved an equally splendid oath which prohibits doctors from abortion. It is hard to imagine that the Hippocratic tradition counts for very much to the director of an organization whose doctors break the Oath every day of their lives. 

It is also difficult to know where to start on such a flawed treatment of abortion but a number of key issues bear closer inspection, if nothing else because they are so central to the current pro-abortion position.

Conscience

The importance of conscience looms large at various points in the book. Having spent much of my youth campaigning to free prisoners of conscience, I am never very impressed by anyone who seems to think that “conscience” is synonymous with “I’ll do whatever makes my life most comfortable and I will feel very righteous about doing so,” but Furedi is at her most bewildering when considering the importance of conscience. She is very, very keen on freedom of conscience when it comes to a woman having an abortion; freedom of conscience in this context is inviolable, it is practically what makes us human…unless of course you happen to be a member of the medical profession when the value of freedom of conscience mysteriously evaporates. Doctors who obey their conscience and refuse to perform abortions are “inevitably an impediment to good quality care.” Furedi then goes on cynically to undermine the motives of medics who express a conscientious objection; it is simply “a means to undermine the framework of abortion services.” Worse than that, it’s really a form of laziness: “There is also a deep suspicion that, when medical students and trainees are under pressure, ‘conscientious objection’ becomes less an expression of faith and more an expression of a desire to cut down on their workload, or involvement in what they see as an unpleasant task.” Nothing judgmental there at all.

Furedi concedes that forcing doctors to perform abortion is not “practical or desirable” though the author apparently had no problem with the persecution of two Scottish Catholic midwives for refusing to supervise abortions at a Glasgow hospital. Indeed, so keen was she to ensure that the two women were prevented from exercising their choice not to be involved with abortion that Furedi’s organization, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), directly intervened in the case and welcomed the court ruling against them. Furedi has a more magnanimous long-term plan to ensure that every future doctor is happy to do the abortion industry’s dirty work: “The answer to the problems caused by the extent of conscientious objection is to work to convert clinicians to a different moral standpoint: one that does not regard abortion as a moral wrong, but sees it as an enabling act of consideration and faith in women’s judgement over their own lives.” Indeed. Pregnant women can be trusted to make their own decisions based on their personal values but these heretical pro-life doctors must be converted to uphold the correct values and beliefs.

Misinformation

The book is replete with very basic errors. The terms “embryo” and “fetus” are used interchangeably as though the author is seriously unaware that they mean different things and that most women do not even know they are pregnant when their children are at the embryonic stage. She attempts on more than one occasion to conflate abortion and miscarriage: “in effect, the abortion pill causes a miscarriage much the same as the loss through ‘natural’ spontaneous miscarriages experienced by millions of women around the world.” Comparing the two experiences is wrong on so many levels, but using miscarriage as some kind of justification for abortion is hurtful to those very millions of women who go through the misery of losing a baby. It is also blatantly illogical. Millions die of disease every year, but this sad reality would hardly justify rounding up and hanging the same number of individuals.

It is also safe to say that Furedi could use a few history lessons. When discussing characters such as Marie Stopes, she laments: “It is ironic that the early 20th-century birth control pioneers, Marie Stopes (in the UK) and Margaret Sanger (in the USA) are derided by today’s opponents of abortion.” I suppose it is possible that a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party really cannot see why opponents of abortion object to a woman who sent racist love poems to Adolf Hitler and peddled dangerous and unsanitary devices among poor women (for further information, read Ann Farmer’s work on the early promotion of contraception). But then, Furedi seems equally unaware of the euphemism and gentle massaging of the facts about abortion put out by today’s abortion industry—odd when she is one of its leading figures. “Modern medicine,” she reassures us, “is built upon the principles of informed consent.” It is in doctors’ interests to tell women the whole truth about what abortion involves—apparently. My own children have been directed (by a charity invited into their school) to information about abortion that describes chemical abortion as being “like a heavy period.” By no stretch of the imagination is informed consent a given when it comes to abortion.

Then there are the glaring generalizations. “From the outset,” we are confidently told, “autonomy was contested by religious leaders, traditional conservatives, and others who were distrustful of people making decisions for themselves.” Which leaders? And what particular outset are we talking about here? The Caveman Committee for the Suppression of Choice?

Those horrid pro-lifers

Caricatures and criticisms of the pro-life movement are scattered throughout the book. Opponents of abortion are “fundamentalists.” “Abortion’s opponents have a tunnel vision focused only on the fetus.” Hmm. I can safely say that never in my entire life have I met a pro-life campaigner whose view was, “Sod the woman, the baby’s all that matters.” The opposite tends to be true. Whereas women who suffer after abortion tend to be written off as cranks or attention-seekers by abortion supporters, the groups that care for post-abortive women were largely established by women who regretted their abortions and turned to the pro-life movement as the only place where they could receive compassionate help. Likewise, pro-life medical associations such as MaterCare International work tirelessly to save and improve the lives of both pregnant mothers and their babies in countries where maternal mortality is still shamefully high.

However, Furedi also informs us that “very few opponents of abortion are able to claim that they oppose it under any circumstance” (this is news to me since virtually all pro-life groups hold this line), but then, pro-life campaigners are merely “a small but loud minority of those who are fundamentally against reproductive choice for reasons based on faith and doctrine.” Not long afterwards, she concedes that the religious label she has just imposed is in fact a myth, and that opposition to abortion represents a broad camp.

For US readers who may be unaware of this point, Furedi is a great champion of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and all manner of civil liberties (including the right to produce and consume pornography)—except in the immediate vicinity of abortion facilities, where she is making aggressive attempts to ban individuals from exercising their freedom to pray, protest, and engage women in conversation. Like Furedi, I am not a fan of the indiscriminate use of graphic imagery (possibly as a result of having a picture of a dismembered baby thrust in my face shortly after I had suffered a miscarriage), but can she really be serious in her belief that such images are pornographic or are used with the express purpose of doing harm? She writes: “Of course, the primary concern is the woman, but for many women and their doctors, the fetus seems to matter too. This is why the pictures of dismembered fetuses from later abortions are so cruel; they don’t inform women, but taunt them.” Not so. They are cruel because they reveal a cruel procedure and shooting the messenger is not going to change that. But apparently: “This reveling in the gore, broken bodies, severed limbs, and crushed heads has a pornographic quality.” Presumably the same could be said of any human rights organization which uses photographic evidence, as so many now do. The hideous photographs of torture paraded by the Falun Gong outside the Chinese embassy offend my senses, they leave me feeling physically unwell, and I worry about children seeing them in such a public place, but are the Falun Gong really pornographers for wanting the world to see what is happening to their co-religionists?

The idolatry of choice

The sanctity of choice is vaunted throughout the book, with John Stuart Mill making a cameo appearance. The “choice” mantra has always been dangerously nonsensical and for very sound reasons. The freedom to make choices about one’s life is highly important to who we are and our place in society, but choices are not made in a vacuum. To claim that pro-aborts are right to call themselves pro-choice because “the outcome of the decision is irrelevant to pro-choice advocates” and because “life is full of decisions, and it is who makes them that matters” makes little logical or moral sense. The decision matters. Each and every choice we make has a definite purpose and must be judged—and if necessary impeded—based on the merits of that choice and its intended outcome. I do not expect a man’s decision to mug an old lady to be celebrated (or even permitted) in the same way as his choice to assist her in crossing a busy road.  

That is the nettle never grasped, either in the book or in the wider abortion discourse. Choice is paraded without any acknowledgement of the fact that we limit choice in all sorts of areas all the time, preventing individuals from making certain decisions and punishing them if they do (I might be quite keen to thump my manager at this precise moment but would rather not be arraigned for assault) and only a fully-fledged anarchist truly desires the wholesale breakdown in the rule of law. Upholding reasonable laws that check our behavior need not “stunt and constrain” anyone.

The “special” child

Furedi should be credited with having moved on a little in her understanding of disability from the days she argued that a woman should be supported in aborting a baby with a disability that she might “dread” and “wish dead,” as though she were giving birth to some kind of monster. But Furedi has simply exchanged one ignorant and judgmental assumption about the horrors of disability with a more patronizing one. “A diagnosis of Down’s syndrome may compel one woman to end her pregnancy, while another decides to embrace the child as ‘special.’” The term Special (no inverted commas necessary) is merely shorthand for Special Educational Needs, not the sentimental epithet Furedi implies. Whilst I cannot speak for the parents of children with Down’s syndrome, I can say with complete sincerity that I do not embrace my autistic son as “special,” I embrace him as a human being with the right to life. Women do not generally love and accept their disabled children because they think that they are little angels gift-wrapped by Jesus to enlighten them: my son is my son who happens to have a disabling condition. He is no more or less “special” than his other siblings, it does not take any more effort to love him or accept him than the others—if anything the opposite is true. First and foremost, he is my son, but love seems to be the one quality abortion advocates find hardest to get their autonomous heads around.

Are we talking about human life here? Yes but no but yes but no but YES

Perhaps most predictably of all within the context of the abortion debate, it is the status of the unborn with which the author struggles and fails to come up with a coherent or humane answer. It is in part simply that the science does not offer much consolation for those who wish to deny the humanity of the unborn (or embryo or fetus or whatever the preferred term), and Furedi is forced to acknowledge repeatedly, “Yes, abortion involves a ‘killing’ in the sense that it stops a beating heart, but not in the sense that it stops a person from living.” Unable to avoid the trumpeting elephant in the room whenever the morality of abortion is discussed, the author lapses into bizarre judgments about the value of life and which lives matter enough to be protected, a dark road most of us would rather not go down, knowing inevitably where such dehumanizing judgments about the value of particular sections of society can lead.

Pesky pro-lifers, who are inconvenient enough to have science of their side, are dismissed for apparently being too scientific. “Could there be a more empty and degraded sense of humanity than to reduce it to its biological components, when human life is truly so much more?” Well, possibly the empty and degraded sense of humanity that allows a member of the medical profession to inject an unborn baby’s heart with poison or remove a tiny human being from the womb limb by limb. Possibly. In no other area of social justice are groups which fight for the rights of specific groups accused of “reducing” human life “to its biological components” simply for reminding the world that we are undeniably talking about human lives.

Furedi’s arguments against comparisons with genocides such as the Holocaust come across as particularly heartless. She writes: “The qualities that the embryo lacks are precisely those that make the terror of extermination so dreadful for individual people: the capacity for self-consciousness, the capacity for rational thought, the capacity to imagine a future for oneself, the capacity to remember a past involving oneself and the capacity for being a subject of non-momentary interests.”

Is that so? If (God forbid) a gunman burst into my house with a machine gun blazing, it is likely that I would have enough time to die frightened and distraught, whereas my toddler would have no capacity to understand that she was about to be murdered. In what way would her killing be more morally acceptable than mine? How would her lack of awareness make her murder less of a tragedy, less of an outrage? Whereas I have some sympathy with Furedi’s disdain for using past atrocities as a point of comparison for abortion (though Furedi is perfectly happy to compare the prohibition of abortion with slavery—some atrocities are evidently not off-limits), her argument falls down over her own poor grasp of why genocide is such a terrible crime against humanity. Like my toddler, the millions of young children and infants who have been killed as part of genocidal atrocities over the centuries can have had little or no “capacity to remember a past involving oneself.” No one with an ounce of humanity would suggest that the youngest human lives lost to violence do not matter. If anything, we feel an even greater sense of horror at the thought of little ones being slaughtered along with their parents.

Furedi writes, “Essentially the point for us is not when life begins, but when life begins to matter.” Furedi makes some interesting pronouncements on that issue. “It is indeed this absence of ‘fully-humanness’ that allows some of us to dismiss any claim to ‘the right to life of the unborn child.’” We are also informed: “Our life story is not written by God, or by nature, but in a great part by ourselves—through the decisions we make. The fetus possesses the life the Greeks called zoe—which is common to every being that possesses a beating heart and its own DNA (be it a cat, snake, or horse) —but it has no bios; and it is bios that puts the ‘human’ in human life.” Wrong on so many levels, it’s difficult to know where to start other than to state the obvious: who should have the power to decide when and which human life matters enough to save? And if a fetus does not possess “bios” it is safe to say that a newborn and even a toddler lacks precisely that quality. By the same argument, any child below the age of reason could fall into the category of not really mattering; an elderly person with dementia, a car-crash victim in a coma…the examples are endless, well-known, and completely ignored here.    

Children as property

Few people today, I suspect, would assert that children are the property of their parents in the same way that an adult might own a bookcase or a potted plant, and it would certainly ring alarm bells with child protection services if a mother screamed at a social worker: “That child is mine! She’s my property and I’ll sell her to the mafia if I want to! I bore her, I am her sole care-giver—stop interfering with my conscience!” But it is precisely this incredibly anachronistic belief that parents own their children and have absolute rights over them that Furedi upholds in her defense of abortion. “The contents of her womb are hers and hers alone, by virtue of their location in her womb. How she values the embryo or fetus that she carries inside her body is for her to decide.” Geography is not and has never been an adequate defense of extermination—a baby is no more “the contents of the uterus” than my children are the contents of my house. Clearly the fact that the baby develops inside the body of a woman is highly significant and must always be taken into account within both the abortion debate and with regard to the treatment of pregnant women by society (for an in-depth analysis of the symbiotic relationship between mother and baby, see Dr. Helen Watt’s scholarly work on the ethics of pregnancy), but the baby’s absolute state of dependency does not end with birth, and few advocate the “termination” of newborns.

Various attempts through inadequate analogies are used to defend a mother’s right to refuse to sustain her own unborn baby, but Furedi’s comparison with a mother refusing to donate a kidney is particularly unconvincing. Besides the fact that it would be a pretty mean-spirited parent who would refuse a kidney donation to her own child, transplant may well constitute extraordinary means, whereas pregnancy can hardly be regarded as such. Abortion is a violent assault upon a human life, not a refusal to sustain it. Even if any of these arguments in terms of rights and ownership held as much water as abortion advocates like to believe, I found myself turning the pages of the book with the same persistent questions going around my head: where does love come into all of this? What about decency? Humanity? Dare I use the word “virtue”? Does anyone really want to live in a society where the lives of the most innocent are regarded as cannon fodder in the battle for autonomy? Is that enlightenment in any sense of the word?   

The reader is assured by Furedi that “there is a strong and compelling case for a woman to make her own choices about the future of her pregnancy—and for abortion—if that is her choice.” But if there is such a case, it is not to be found among the pages of this book, for all the soundbites. “The freedom to make moral choices is the most important freedom we have; the freedom to act on our moral choices is the most important privilege we can claim.” Splendid, I am now going to exercise my moral choice to drive off in my car without fastening my safety belt because I deem myself not to need it and only I will get killed if I get hurtled through the windshield during a crash. The choice to smash myself up is mine and mine alone, it is my body after all, and the state has no right to dictate. While I’m at it, I will drive above the patriarchal speed limit since I, in good conscience, can see no reason to stick to some arbitrary rule invented by men to control me and make me late for the school run. As for the safety of the other occupants of my vehicle—my car, my choice, my right to decide. The contents of my vehicle are mine and mine alone.

To make my reading experience complete, Furedi cannot resist leveling a criticism at women like me who identify as both pro-life and feminist, written with the tone of a disappointed schoolmistress: “It is unfortunate that, in denying the importance of individual autonomy, certain strands of feminism have taken positioned themselves [sic] in opposition to the just fight for choice.” No, Ann, naughty little pro-life feminists like me are not opposed to a just fight. We are fighting one. A fight for the right to life, without which all your eloquent utterances about choice and autonomy are meaningless. Watch this space.  

The Moral Case for Abortion
By Ann Furedi
Palgrave Macmillan, 2016
165 pages

About Fiorella Nash 26 Articles

Fiorella Nash is a researcher and writer for the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and has over ten years’ experience researching life issues from a feminist perspective. She makes regular appearances at both national and international conferences and has appeared on radio and in print discussing issues such as abortion, gendercide, maternal health and commercial surrogacy. Fiorella is also an award-winning novelist and has published numerous books and short stories under the nom-de-plume Fiorella De Maria.