As the abortion debate hits the headlines, Venetia Rainey talks to students on both sides to try to understand the issues behind perhaps the most sensitive of taboos
“It is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make, and probably will ever have to make,” Claire*, a softly spoken 2nd year humanities student, explains to me. “To choose a particular path in life, and reject another path, a path that involves a potential living person, a path that would change you so utterly forever; that’s a really hard thing to face at our age. At any age, for that matter.”
One in three women will choose to have an abortion at some point during their lives, making Claire just one of the hundreds of thousands of women who yearly decide to terminate an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy. Yet for many the subject remains taboo, clouded and distorted by misconceptions and highly emotive images of aborted foetuses. Most people avoid discussion of the topic, either for fear of offending people, or out of a lack of real understanding of the matters at hand.
Recently, however, the debate has been brought firmly to the fore of attention when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was recently re-opened to further amendments. Amongst other suggestions concerning embryos and IVF, various MPs submitted several proposals to cut the time limit in which abortions can occur from 24 weeks to 12, 16, 20 or 22 weeks. Appropriately, MPs were given a free vote (according to their conscience rather than a party line) on the matter.
Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, is one of the louder voices in the pro-amendments group. Her evocative retellings of her experience as a nurse holding the result of what she terms a ‘botched abortion’ have convinced many of her argument, which largely rests upon the premise that she believes, “a baby has rights. Those rights kick in if that baby were born and it would have a chance of life, and if it feels pain as part of the abortion.” For many, this was the crux: could a foetus, currently legal to be aborted at latest at a gestation of 23 weeks, otherwise live if allowed to be born?
Conservative MP Edward Leigh fanned the flames of the controversy when he said “in modern Britain the most dangerous place to be is in your mother’s womb. It should be a place of sanctity… 98% of abortions are social… It is a bleak picture of modern Britain… I believe we should give that silent child a voice.”
“It really bothers me,” Claire sighs when I ask her what she thinks of the then undecided debate. “You know, all these old conservative men. What would they do if their teenage daughter became pregnant by accident, that’s what I’d like to know.”
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the political debate was the absence of any real consideration for the people who feel the effects of such laws most keenly: the women who, for one reason or another, end up choosing to have an abortion. The words of the campaigners busy speaking on behalf of the voiceless unborn children drowned out those who should surely have been given centre stage.
Marie Stopes International, one of Britain’s leading private reproductive health agencies commented that not only was late abortion incredibly rare, accounting for just under 2% of all abortions conducted in 2006, but also that “the foetus has become the centre of the debate, to the detriment of women.” They emphasized that no over-arching judgement could possibly be made. One partaker in the research, aged 21, who had chosen to have an abortion at a gestation of 20 weeks, said: “People have a lot of different circumstances… until you are put in the situation yourself you can’t really judge, you can’t say what’s right or wrong until you’re there.”
Claire agrees whole-heartedly with this. “It is so much easier than you would think to end up having a second, or even third, trimester abortion. My periods have always been fairly sporadic, so when I didn’t have one for two months, I wasn’t that worried. I did a pregnancy test, because I was seeing someone at the time, but it came out negative. I even went to the doctor a few weeks later when it still hadn’t come, but the pregnancy test I did there came out negative as well. She told me that all sorts of things like stress can delay your period, and that I shouldn’t worry, because that would postpone it further, so I tried not to think about it.”
She pauses, biting her nails. “It was only when my breasts started to feel really tender and heavy, and I threw up one morning that I really suspected anything. I burst into tears in front of the health centre nurse when she told me. I’ve never felt so lost and alone in my life. When I eventually rang up Marie Stopes to arrange an abortion, I was told that they judged how pregnant you were by when your last period was. I was already 12 weeks by that time, which meant that I had to have a surgical abortion instead of the less invasive medical option.”
Her story is by no means uncommon. MSI quotes irregular periods, changes in domestic or relationship circumstances, and delays in the various stages of referral involved in the NHS route as the principal reasons for why women present themselves for late abortion.
“I was incredibly lucky,” Claire tells me. “My mum supported me one hundred percent, and paid for me to get it done privately at a Marie Stopes clinic in central London, which took a matter of days. I’ve heard horrible stories about how long it can take to get the two signatures you need for an abortion on the NHS, and the waiting time to get the appointment itself. I would have gone out of my mind if I had had to wait weeks to get seen.”
Anne-Marie Canning, the current YUSU president, is a staunch supporter of the union’s controversial Right to Choose Fund, which provides financial aid to University of York students or students’ partners who find themselves pregnant. The fund covers both abortion costs (done privately) and the various costs involved with having a child, from pre-natal care to babysitting. She told me a similar story: “A student had approached the clinic on campus and they had been quite slow in dealing with the case. She came to us and we were able to facilitate [her abortion] as soon as she wanted it; [the fund] is very quick and efficient, and really helps students to access abortions when they need them rather than leaving it later and later and later. They go to Marie Stopes in Leeds and we offer to go with them… I think it’s really important that we offer that support as well. Getting the two doctors to sign off and things like that can be a really difficult experience for students.”
Students are clearly one of the most vulnerable groups in society when it comes to an issue like abortion. Financially unstable, without permanent residence, often in full time studies and still learning how to live without parents, the average student would be poorly equipped to bring a child into the world. For those like Claire who make the decision to terminate their pregnancy, the claustrophobic world of campus can feel like a particularly hostile and judgmental environment. “I didn’t know who to tell, to be honest,” said Claire, looking into the distance. “Everyone, all my best friends, everyone I would normally go to for help… I felt were completely and utterly removed from my situation. Just days before I had been moaning off-handedly about crap… now I felt like I was the only one in the whole world, or at least my whole world, who understood my situation. I felt like any reaction my friends could possibly give would be ridiculously insufficient… In the end, when I told some of them, they were amazing, and the more people I told, the less of a big deal it felt.”
The first step for most will be the University Health Centre. Usually, only if two doctors agree that an abortion is necessary can the termination go ahead. This process of referral only applies to the NHS route (which accounted for 87% of abortions carried out in England and Wales in 2006), as patients are able to self-refer if they can afford to take the private route. The result is that for the majority of women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, their mental and physical fate rests in the hands of two GPs, each of whom will have their own personal opinions on the issue of abortion.
A Marie Stopes investigation into the attitudes of General Practioners to abortion revealed that just under a fifth of randomly surveyed GPs described themselves as anti-abortion. Women seeking abortions therefore may well be being discouraged or delayed by the first person they will properly turn to for help, their GP. One doctor said they felt that: “GPs have to lie and say it is detrimental to mothers’ health. when actually it is a social abortion.” 97% of all abortions in England and Wales in 2006 were performed on ground C, that “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
For many, the obvious conclusion is to scrap the need for doctors to give their approval to women seeking abortion. It can be, in cases where the process is hindered by obstructive practitioners, extremely dangerous and distressing for those involved. One 24 year-old woman speaking to Marie Stopes said, “[the doctor] wasn’t very nice at all… she said to me, ‘What about adoption?’ and I said I really couldn’t, and she just said that there were so many women that wanted kids and I was being selfish.” Scrapping the referral system remains a highly controversial issue, one which is seen by the pro-life lobby as a descent of society into a state where people can are free to pick and choose their own morality.
Fighting this descent, as vocally as possible, are the Christians. Not every Christian is anti-abortion, and not every anti-abortionist is Christian, but there is definitely a very strong correlation. For them, the argument is not about the pregnant woman, but about the foetus, and its rights as one of God’s living creatures.
Joseph, a Christian 3rd year at the University of York, is one of the thousands of people who is completely against abortion for such reasons. “It stems from being a Christian and valuing human life. The Bible says that God knew us before we were even knitted in our mother’s wombs, which means that a foetus is a person, so it’s a life and therefore if you kill it, it’s murder. Women get very up-in-arms about their right to choose, but I think ultimately the child’s [right to] life is more significant than her right to choose.”
I ask him whether he thinks there are ever exceptions to this rule, for example, if a woman conceives after she is raped. “The abortion is still wrong because its still a child, whether she chose to conceive it or not. The child still has a right to live. Yeah, the woman has a right to choose but that right was taken away by the man, so now the child has rights as well as the woman. Choosing one person’s rights over another is a bit dodgy in my mind… We have this thing where we allow one person’s right to choose to override somebody’s right to live; we have no death penalty or euthanasia and yet we are allowed to kill people before they have even breathed their first breath.”
“So many abortions nowadays are social and economic abortions, as opposed to medical abortions… If you had sex and you got pregnant… then you should deal with the consequences. Like if you choose to do archery, you accept the consequences if accidents happen; if you play the game then you take the risks and you accept the consequences.”
I ask him to qualify what he means by ‘social abortions’, a term bandied about a lot by people debating abortion. “Its choosing not to have a child because you weren’t ready yet, you didn’t plan it; your parents might find out and then they’ll know you’re having sex; people getting pregnant before they are legal and not wanting to get into trouble…” He tails off, before finally adding, “We need to put more effort into letting people know the responsibility they have when they do have sex.”
Claire finds the opinions of the pro-life lobby particularly hard to deal with. “It seems to me that the main point of the pro-life argument is that, according to Jesus, the moment an egg is fertilized, however it happens, whether it’s carelessness, a broken condom, or even rape – its life is instantly of greater value than that of the mother’s.”
For Joseph, it’s a matter of putting the foetus’ right to live over the woman’s right to choose. “I would always choose life over choice,” he says.
It is at this point that the debate comes back round to the question of whether a foetus, or even an embryo, should be given the full rights of a human being. The basic definition of alive in biological terms is an organism that can move, respire, be sensitive to stimuli, grow, reproduce, excrete, and feed. But this is not necessarily helpful in determining at what point the embryo/foetus can be deemed humanly alive, and ultimately the debate becomes one of personal beliefs and morals, with meaningless bits of science drawn in from all sides. Most pro-life groups use, as evidence for their case, emotive ultrasound images of fully-formed foetuses apparently smiling, or facts about how much they can feel in the womb from a very young gestation, pointing especially to the stress response exhibited when invasive procedures occur to the womb.
Michael Appleton, a University of York 2nd year and chair of the York Labour Movement, was educated at a Catholic school, and recalls similar messages being pressed upon him. “During the GCSE period we were introduced, supposedly impartially, to the issue of abortion… one moment sticks in my head when we watched a video called ‘The Truth About Abortion’… they took an abortion of about 22 weeks which is very late and showed bits of babies in tubes. It was very, very harrowing. Our parents had to sign a consent form to let us watch it… There was another video called ‘The Silent Scream’… those videos were so horrifying that I don’t think there was anyone who could actually defend the practice of abortion in the face of such horrifying images… there were montages of babies heads in medical containers. It was nauseating, and it really quite upset me.” So did he feel that, because of this education, he was now anti-abortion? “I took the line that I was going to keep my eyes open about it… It was just a constant bombardment of ‘you can talk about abortion, and we will have the discussion, but at the end of the day, we’re right. It is completely abhorrent.’”
“I don’t think, however,” he continues, “that [religious arguments] are very helpful to the abortion debate. I think we should take it away from the so-called moralistic argument. We can’t have a national system of morals in this country because everyone has different morals.”
The poignancy of such images, however, is often hard to ignore. “When I went to [get the abortion]… they do an ultrasound scan, to check how far along you are,” Claire explains to me. “I didn’t want to look, because the idea of seeing it made me feel a bit sick. I knew I was making the best choice for me at the time. I didn’t want to be swayed by the image of something which I knew wasn’t properly alive yet… the scans just have so many connotations, through films and stuff, that I didn’t want to confuse myself. I did look though. I wanted to make sure that I was directly facing up to my decision.”
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee addressed the issue of foetal feeling, concluding that, “while the evidence suggests that foetuses have physiological reactions to noxious stimuli, it does not indicate that pain is consciously felt, especially not below the current upper gestational limit of abortion.” Further, they also commented that there was a need to distinguish “between conscious pain (which is perception of pain with an emotional response) and subconscious pain (which is a physiological stress response to a stimulus).”
The darkest part of the whole issue is the part kept behind closed doors. “The actual process?” Claire hesitates, before inhaling deeply. “Well like I said, I had to have a surgical abortion. I was really distraught at first… ideas of invasive processes and stuff running through my mind. But then I heard from someone who had had an abortion a few months before that the medical abortion is really painful and lasts for days, and my mum said this way it would be over quicker. I felt better hearing that. The people at the clinic were really nice, even if the place itself was really sanitary. I had to go into a separate room from my mum, where only the patients were allowed to sit… it was all blue reclining chairs and soft music… then I had to put this hospital gown on and go into the procedure room. I don’t remember much from the actual process. I was drugged up on a local anaesthetic, so everything is really hazy.” She stops again to look out of the window momentarily.
“It hurt. That’s all I remember. I think I screamed out. I think I was told to relax. All I could think afterwards was whether they had got it all out. I was drowsy for the next few hours, and nearly fainted on the way out of the clinic. I just wanted to be with my mum at home. I would never have been able to do it here at university… I just wanted it to be separate from everything else in my life. I think it worked out for the best actually, now when I look back I don’t associate it with anything here in York. It’s just a detached, awful memory… it doesn’t define me, and I don’t feel the need to talk about it. It’s just there, a choice I made in my life due to a set of circumstances. That’s it.”
At this point, the debate can go no further. For some, there will never be any question of the existence or value of the life of the embryo or foetus. For others, such a persuasion will be unintelligible when put against the multiplicity of reasons why women, in the best interest of not only themselves, but also their unborn child, choose to seek an abortion, at whatever gestation. 87,674 18-25 year-olds in England and Wales had an abortion in 2006. Who in society has the right to tell someone what to do with their body, how to perceive a bundle of cells, or how the rest of their life should be lived? “The point is,” says Claire, “that in modern society, every individual has a right to make their own choices, rather than have someone else’s choices impressed upon them. No one makes the decision to have an abortion lightly. They just make the choice which, at the time, they think is best for them.”
“It’s essentially an issue of morality,” she concludes quietly. “and I don’t think anyone should have the right to choose my morality. That’s my right. After all, I’m the one who has to live with my choice, no-one else.”