The anti-choicers’ real target is women

Late abortions are emotive fodder for those who deny women moral agency.

ABORTION is in the news again, and once more the terms of the debate are heavily weighted against women. As usual, the anti-choice movement is trying to stir up anxiety about second-trimester abortions as a means of depicting women as unethical foetal containers.

Those immersed in the abortion debate have long recognised that undermining women’s moral agency, not upholding the rights of the foetus, is the centrepiece of anti-choice strategy. Examples abound, but the most obvious is the anti-choice attitude to abortion choices in the hard cases: when the pregnancy is life-endangering or the result of rape or incest. If the anti-choice movement really opposed abortion because it denies the foetus its right to life, then they would oppose all abortions – hard case or not – with equal determination. After all, how the foetus is conceived has no bearing on its ``right to life’’.

However, polls show that few anti-choicers outside the Pope’s intimate circle believe a women ought to be forced to sacrifice her life to bring her embryo to term, or to bring to term an embryo conceived through rape or incest.

What the hard cases demonstrate is that what really lies behind anti-choice sentiment are mistaken views about the motives, intentions and feelings of women who choose abortion. Anti-choice rhetoric abounds with caricatures of women who seek abortions: women who abort because of their careers or their desires to go on ski trips or get into bikinis. The aim of the anti-choice movement is to convince the public to see abortion as proof that too many women hold all the wrong values about motherhood, womanhood and material possessions. That women who choose abortion are, to use Fred Nile’s shorthand, snarling hard-faced pro-abortion feminists.

The fretting of anti-choicers about late-term abortions is part of this strategy. So while anti-choice concern appears to be about the almost-viable foetus, the strategy is really designed to demonstrate the incapacity of women to act as moral agents. What kind of a woman, they ask, could care so little for her baby that she would choose to delay having a termination for so long?

The female, rather than foetal, target of anti-choice rhetoric is summed up well by anti-choice campaigner Margaret Tighe’s wonderment about why a woman seeking a second-trimester abortion doesn’t just ``go on and allow [her] baby to be born – I’m sure the Mafia would be happy to kill it for a much cheaper rate’’.

The irony is that women’s intense concern for the wellbeing of their foetus and others whom they love and to whom they feel responsible is behind most decisions about unplanned pregnancies. Far from seeing herself as locked in an evolutionary and political conflict of interests with her foetus, the woman sees herself as responsible for her foetus: its protector, and the only person who can make the best and most caring decision about its fate.

A woman doesn’t see her abortion decision as ethically justified because her rights override those of her foetus. She deems it ethical only if she has made a careful, responsible decision to forgo motherhood because she does not believe herself capable of parenting in the way she feels is right. Many of the women in my study, for example, felt strongly that before they had children, they should be financial, have a partner and be ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood.

Just 5per cent of abortions in Australia take place after 12 weeks’ gestation. Half of these are done after 16 weeks, the vast majority for grief-stricken women with tragic amnio or scan results.

If the anti-choice movement were really interested in reducing second-trimester rates, they would lobby to remove legislative impediments to Australian women accessing RU486. Ten years’ experience in France has shown that when women gain access to the abortion pill, the overall number of abortions remains steady, but more are had earlier in pregnancy.

The anti-choice movement could also put its considerable funds into unearthing and providing all women with access to foetal diagnostic tools that are safe to use earlier in pregnancy, allowing women who terminate because of a heartbreaking diagnosis to do so sooner.

And the movement could lobby for policies that would limit the abuse and ignorance that lead women to delay. An English study recently concluded that nearly all women seeking second-trimester terminations have severe social and psychological problems. Like the 12-year-old girl found to be 26-weeks pregnant by her teacher. Her father in prison, her mother preoccupied with other children (she thought the girl’s weight gain was puppy fat), the girl said she had been raped in the lift of her block of flats. It turned out the alleged rapist was sexually involved with the mother.

But, of course, the anti-choice movement has no intention of doing any of these things – because concern about the viability or rights of the foetus is not really the cause of their anxiety about second-trimester abortions. Second-trimester abortions are simply the emotive fodder used to gain public support for the goal of prohibiting all women from accessing safe and legal abortions at any point.

Behind calls for prohibition is the belief that women so lack moral agency that the state would be justified in stripping them of their reproductive rights, thereby forcing all who conceive to mother.