Abortion Critics Deny the Complexity of Choice

British filmmaker Julia’s Black’s documentary My Foetus won’t screen in Australia until August 8, but debate has already begun about whether the film should be censored, and the impact it will have on political debate about abortion.

The film, made while Black was pregnant with her first child, reconsiders an abortion she had over a decade earlier. It shows a four-week pregnant woman having a suction termination, as well as foetal remains at 10, 11 and 21 weeks gestation. The filmmaker claims, in an article in The Observer, to present both sides of the “reality” of abortion: balancing what she describes as “shocking, repulsive, and confrontational” images of aborted foetuses with the circumstances and emotions of the unhappily pregnant women forced to choose.

There is no question in my mind that My Foetus should be screened. For one, it is an unprecedented opportunity for the public to see foetal-remains accompanied by accurate captions and commentary. For too long, the anti-choice movement has mislabelled images of older fetuses as those of 14 weeks gestational age or younger (not coincidentally, the period when approximately 95 per cent of abortions take place). For too long, the anti-choice movement has used voice-overs in propaganda films such as The Silent Scream (in which the ultrasonographic images used are so fuzzy and unclear as to be unrecognisable without narrative direction) to imply women who abort are heartless and cruel.

More importantly, pro-choice advocates have long seen the foetus as the property of the other side: accepting anti-choice claims that if the fetus is admitted to be both human and alive, abortion must be acknowledged as morally wrong and made illegal – again.

Yet, as fetal imagery becomes increasingly ubiquitous (who amongst us hasn’t seen an ultrasound image or an anti-choice billboard?), this position has become increasingly politically risky. Black is right to feel that the pro-choice movement must reclaim the foetus, though I disagree with her assertion that the reason the movement has shied away in the past is the “repulsiveness” of foetal remains.

No, the real problem with focusing on the fetus is that it leaves women – literally – out of the picture. A typical fetal image is of a balled-up cosmonaut in a circular, disembodied capsule. It is rare for the line surrounding the fetus to even gesture at its reality as a woman’s womb, or to the geographical relationship of the capsule to the rest of the woman’s body (is she sitting or standing? In which direction are her feet and face?)

More importantly than her body, a focus on the fetus leaves the woman’s life out of the picture: her partnership status; her ability to parent well; her plans and ambitions for the future. Yet it precisely this context, and the way the woman approaches and makes her decision, that makes her choice comprehensible, and provides its moral texture and meaning.

The anti-choice movement knows this. That is why the “hard cases” – unwanted pregnancies resulting from incest and rape, or those that threaten a woman’s life – split the movement in two. Because while such foetuses are as alive and human as any other, most refuse to condemn women who abort in such circumstances. Better than any other, these cases show it is our judgements about women’s motives and intentions that determine our moral evaluation of her particular abortion. And experience shows such judgements to be harsher for strangers, and kinder for friends. Abortion clinic staff repeatedly report doing terminations for anti-choice protesters, only to find them – weeks later – on the picket lines again.

As Black’s film testifies, feeling bad about abortion (or, more precisely, feeling bad about finding oneself in the position of having to face the decision at all) is testament that our moral sensibilities are finely tuned, not that abortion is wrong. Most people who choose divorce, particularly those with children, feel less than exultant about having to make that decision; yet few believe this proves the choice was wrong, or should be legally denied.

Black rarely spoke of her long-ago abortion. Few of the one in three women who will have an abortion in their lifetime do. She says she wants her film to change that, and the laws that in both the UK and many states in Australia that hand doctors ultimate control over whether a woman can get an abortion; requiring women “to plead insanity to end an unwanted pregnancy.”

The truth is no one knows what the reaction of the Australian public will be to the film. But there is no reason why, if Black has done her work well – ensuring both women and foetuses remain in the frame – than supporters of abortion rights have anything to fear. It is a anti-choice myth that women don’t really know what they are doing when they terminate, and that seeing foetal remains will reveal some previously unrealised “truth” about the procedure.

The morality of abortion is, and will always be, far more complicated than that.

Publication history

Abortion Critics Deny the Complexity of Choice  Sydney Morning Herald