It was International Women’s Day this month, but did any one really pay any attention? We don’t think we need it any more, most of us. A whole generation of women has grown up either taking feminism for granted or dismissing it altogether. Plenty of educated, certainly liberated women, would refuse the label feminist.
This is mostly a kind of “been there done that” attitude, but it’s also owed to the fact that feminism now makes many women squeamish. Feminism is deemed fanatical. We prefer our liberation to come a la “sex in the city” rather than in keeping with the stereotypical image of a seventies feminist – hairy underarms and bra-less.
This betrays a western privilege. Liberation is not even on the menu for most women in third world countries. Feminism never arrived in India. In India fifty thousand female fetuses are aborted every month, and many newborn girls are left to die at birth; they are simply thrown away. This adds up to a toll of about one million girls missing in India every year. There are whole towns with barely any women in them. Everyone wants a son.
When we signed up for a new sponsored child a year ago we were encouraged to choose a girl. The employee who talked us through the process was deviating from the official script when she told us “choose a girl, the families neglect the girls first.” And this was with a huge array of children to choose from, from countries in Asia, Africa and South America. Feminism? Not there.
India is an extreme case, and its “gendercide” is unmatched, but we are outraged because it is such a senseless devaluation of women, more than the loss of life in general. We hardly blink at abortion statistics in New Zealand, where 16,630 abortions were carried out in 2010. In the United Kingdom in the same year there were 106,109 legal abortions. It’s harder to get exact statistics in the US, where reporting of abortions is not mandatory, but there are always well over a million abortions every year. There appears to be a slight downwards trend in abortion statistics worldwide, but this may be owing to the unknown quantity that chemical abortions have become. These statistics only invoke outrage and grief among the Christian right, to everyone else they are simply numbers.
Abortion is a feminist issue. You ask any woman for whom a pregnancy would threaten her own life. Historically, in the days before c-sections and antibiotics, pregnant women would settle their affairs as their time to give birth grew near. These women would prepare for the very real likelihood of death in the process of childbirth. For women, death and birth have always been inextricably linked. Even now, with maternal death a rarity in the western world, only women can understand the horror that childbirth often is. And only new mothers know that awful feeling of loss a newborn can bring – life as they know it has completely disappeared.
Abortion is not a modern phenomenon. History is littered with accounts of infanticide and ritual child sacrifice. We have been killing our babies for as long as we’ve been making them. That’s why the pill really did cause a revolution. The idea that sex could be enjoyed without the shadowy threat of death was brand new.
A paper was recently published in the Journal of Medical Ethics entitled “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” The authors’ basic tenet is that newborns are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life.” They believe that parents should be able to have their babies killed post-birth, especially if the baby turns out to be disabled, but even if it’s not. The authors give several scenarios where it might be desirous for a baby to be killed after it has been born.
This idea is horrific and unthinkable to most people. Even those who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at abortion would balk at at the killing of a newborn. The paper states that “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.” In other words, a new born is not an “actual person” but a “potential person.”
What many pro-life activists will miss is that all you have to do is turn this premise on its head and you have a compelling argument against abortion. If killing a child at birth is unthinkable, then to kill a child at eight weeks’ gestation is equally so. Ethicist and Theologian Dr Matthew Flannagan responded; “once we realise that this conclusion is really shocking… maybe we [will] stop… ignoring this whole issue and actually start having a proper rational discussion.”
Is a “proper rational discussion” on abortion possible? I’m beginning to doubt it, and here’s why. We’re all too busy pointing the finger. We’re too busy defending our own position. We hardly give a thought to what it would be like to walk in the other person’s shoes. Not the pregnant teenager’s, nor the month old fetus’. And no one wants to admit that this problem belongs to all of us.
“…one reason violence is so abhorrent to me is because of the abortions I had… I’ve been violent… That is a wound, a sorrow, a guilt, a shame I have carried around for over twenty years, in a sense; will always carry. And because of it, I see so clearly how all violence is connected; how fear – the fear that there won’t be enough to go around, the fear that we are not loved, the fear that we lack the capacity to love – is the same fear that underlies all violence, all cruelty, all war.”
There are plenty of people, pro-life and otherwise, who would swear they’d never have an abortion. Yet who hasn’t at some time preferred not to get pregnant, or preferred not to get some one else pregnant? How many millions of men and women have made the choice to not begin a life at all, by taking that ever so practical pill, or by having a quick vasectomy, or an efficient tubal ligation at the same time as their third c-section? Those millions of women who have fronted up for an abortion didn’t want a baby either. They just weren’t quite educated enough, or quite rich enough, or quite sensible enough to do something about it before hand. Every one else just got on with aborting the possibility of a baby.
You might think I’m getting carried away here. But this issue is much more complex than anyone on wants to admit. Millions of dollars get put into fertility treatment. Women who perhaps thought they could have it all, later found that they couldn’t. When they realised they wanted a baby more than anything, that baby eluded them. Millions of babies aborted worldwide, while millions of women are desperately, incurably, barren. An old fashioned word, perhaps, but poignant.
I’m barren. I had that efficient yet violent tubal ligation after my third c-section. It was the thing I thought I was supposed to do. And three is such a big family, why would I want more? I can tell you I’ve broken my own heart. I’ve spent a year praying for a miracle pregnancy. But my self-inflicted infertility is not reversing itself. I’ll take any baby, right now, from anywhere, and I’m not kidding you.
My second daughter, all five and a half years of her, tells me all the time that she wants “to be a mama” one day. I’m as for her liberation and independence as any modern mother would be, but there’s something so sweet about her sincere wish that it just melts me. I’m one of those women who thought her life was over when she became a mother. And yet, as I’ve ploughed through eight years and three babies I’ve found that I’ve got my life back countless times over. Mothering has become the most fulfilling and enriching thing I’ve ever done.
I’m so aware that one day I’ll have the grim responsibility of explaining to my girls what an abortion is. I’ll have to tell them that some people don’t want their babies, and in words I’ve heard with my own ears, want to “make them go away.” To tell them that a fetus is not a person yet won’t wash with them. They ask me often about “when I was a baby in your tummy.” That period of time, for them, is just as real as yesterday.
There’s no slick conclusion here, no pat answer. The ardent pro-lifers who sent death threats to the authors of the paper on post-birth abortion are as much a contradiction as the woman who has an abortion and then later finds she requires fertility treatment. We want them, we want them not.