About two months ago, a 17-year old in Ireland made newspaper headlines here in England. She wanted to travel to the UK for an abortion – which is illegal in Eire (unless the life of the mother is “threatened”) – because her baby had a fatal brain abnormality. It was only going to live a day or two, tops, and she quite rightly didn’t feel it was necessary for her to carry the thing to term for the sake of dogma. Click here for a posting I wrote about the case for the blog for Shameless, a feminist magazine for teens. (The Irish authorities eventually relented and let her travel.)
I wasn’t surprised that abortion is still illegal in Ireland – after all, they only made divorce legal in 1995. As comedian Dennis Leary puts it, “Blow jobs are a long way off in that country. [Mimics voice of standard government official]: ‘We’re hoping to vote the blow job in by 2050 – right now we’re only alloted three a year and they all go to Michael Flatly.'”
So I expected the Irish to be a bit, well, medieval. But what I didn’t know at the time that I wrote that post was that abortion is restricted in the UK as well. As it turns out, British abortion laws are downright archaic.
MPs and medical associations at the moment are hoping to change the laws and give women the right to have an abortion within the first three months of pregnancy. They refer to this as “abortion on demand” – although I prefer the quaint term “choice” (call me old-fashioned). Click here for a piece in The Guardian about the issue.
At the moment a woman in the UK seeking an abortion in the first trimester needs to have the procedure approved by not one, but two doctors, and for it to be considered “medically justified” (whatever the fuck that means).
What purpose is there in requiring that two doctors approve a woman’s decision, except to undermine her right to choose for herself? As MPs and doctor’s point out, the risks that surgical abortion came with when the Abortion Act was passed in 1967 are no longer with us – so there is no longer any legitimate medical reason for excessive consultation. All the requirements do is delay the process, force more women to have abortions at later times in their pregnancies and force them to carry their burdens for longer (or forgo an abortion altogether).
And yes, the word is “burden.” Whether you’re 17 and have your whole life ahead of you, or are 48 and are no longer able to commit to raising a child (or enduring the pain of childbirth), an unwanted pregnancy is just that: a burden. A burden on your body, on your emotions, your health, your finances, your time, your life – and, ultimately, a burden on the state. A child that is truly wanted is probably the most beautiful thing any one of us can have. A child that isn’t wanted is a tragedy, and the last thing Britain needs is more unwanted children (the island has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in all of Europe).
And make no mistake: this isn’t just a question of the rights of the “unborn,” this is about the rights of women. As the old joke goes, “If men needed abortions, clinics would have drive through windows.”
It comes down to this: Either you have a system that respects a woman’s choice, or you don’t. Britain is treading an uneasy line, where you have only theoretical choice within a system that ultimately seeks to limit it.
I expected better. I really did.