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  Woman's Hour discussion
Face it - abortion is now a fact of life

A transcript follows of a recent discussion broadcast on the Radio Four programme, Woman's Hour (3/11/99), which may be of interest to recipients of PCF mailings. It featured Jenni Murray, Woman's Hour presenter; Ann Furedi, director of communications for BPAS; and Karen Newman, spokesperson for the National Abortion Campaign.

The article to which the discussion refers can be found at www.informinc.co.uk

***Click here to access the article***

JM: The abortion rate rose again significantly after the pill scare of October 1995, then it was expected to fall again, but it didn't. It's continued to rise and it's led to a debate among the pro-choice lobby. Generally it's been emphasised that being pro-choice doesn't mean being in favour of abortion. It's been argued that termination is generally a last resort for women for whom contraception has failed, and it's always a difficult decision. But an article in this month's LM magazine entitled 'Face it - abortion is now a fact of life' suggests that a high abortion rate is a symptom of a society in which women want to combine sex life with ambition. Well Karen Newman represents the National Abortion Campaign, and Ann Furedi, director of communications of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, is the author of the article. Ann Furedi what do you mean when you say it's not necessarily the failure of contraception or sex education that's created this rise in numbers but a sign of women wanting to combine sex life with ambition?

AF: Well what I think I'm saying is that these days women have a very high expectation that they should be able to regulate their fertility, that they should be able to plan their families. I'm not saying that woman use abortion as an alternative to contraception. But what I'm saying is that when contraception fails, or when couples fail to use it effectively they will often see abortion as a way of ending an unwanted pregnancy and returning their life to the state that they want their life into. And perhaps that's different from in the past where women may have responded to an unwanted pregnancy by perhaps accepting it. I think these days we are saying that women feel that they want to be in control and if the become unintendedly pregnant they feel they ought to be able to end it in abortion and that's a choice that they make.

JM: But as someone who has been responsibly involved in the healthcare of women for a very long time, doesn't it concern you that the numbers are rising?

AF: Of course it's a matter of concern because I think that all of us accept that although abortion is safe, contraception is safer and its also a lot more convenient than obtaining an abortion. But really I think my feeling is that every time we talk about the number of abortions rising, there does tend to be a certain amount of breast-beating. And I think that perhaps we should understand that it's unwanted pregnancy that is the problem, not abortion. And we could all lower the abortion rate by making abortion more difficult to obtain, or by making it illegal. And that would be a bad thing because it would force women to have children that they don't want. If women choose to opt for abortion because they have an unwanted pregnancy, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps we have to accept it.

JM: Karen Newman, it is perhaps a more honest approach to what women are really doing than arguing no woman takes an abortion lightly? Perhaps they do it when it's necessary?

KN: I think for some women abortion is not a traumatic decision, it's very clearly what they need to do at that particular moment. And as Ann said nobody in this country at this moment fortunately wants to take that right away from the except for a very vociferous minority but it's a very small minority. I think the main point is to see what women want at any particular moment. If they are already pregnant and they don't feel they can take this particular pregnancy to term, talking to them about contraception is clearly not very helpful. What they need is access to safe abortion. And what the National Abortion Campaign would like to see is the changes in the law that we need to allow women to have abortion on request in this country which they have in most European countries and not here. Our main problem with what Ann is saying is that we feel that by saying that woman are ambitious, if they don't feel they can have this pregnancy why not just abort it? We feel that has the potential to alienate people who we need within a broad coalition of women and men to help us change the law, to bring it more into line with what the case is in Europe.

JM: But is your objection to what Ann is saying just tactics, because you're being very careful not to offend the anti-abortionists by not acknowledging the fetus, or do you have a truly held belief that the fetus has rights too that need to be considered?

KN: I think where it's important to acknowledge what a lot of women out there think about abortion is that it's very difficult. For some women it's a very easy decision. For a lot of other women it's one of the more difficult decisions they ever have to make in their lives.

JM: I asked you about the fetus not the woman. Do you believe the fetus has rights?

KN: I think that it's wrong to place the fetus in the centre of this debate because when you do that you are putting the woman at the margins and that is simply not an appropriate thing for is to do as we approach the 21st century. I don't think it's possible for us to go back to a time where abortion was against the law, where women couldn't access the services because the you get the apartheid which we see around the world whereby rich women get the abortions they need and the poor women don't. And they pay for it usually with their health but often with their lives.

JM: Ann what's your view of the fetus? Do you believe a fetus has rights?

AF: I think that the fetus has moral status. I think we accord the fetus a large degree of moral respect. We see the fetus as a potential human being and I think that women understand that and women do take the decision about abortion seriously. It's one of the reasons why women would rather prevent a pregnancy from starting rather than ending it. I think even women who feel very strongly that abortion is the right think for them often feel uneasy about it.

JM: Why then have you used this word ambition? Why have you said it's because women are ambitious that they're seeking abortion?

AF: Because what I'm really trying to explain here is that women today feel that they need to be in control of their lives. And they feel they should have the right to plan their families, and they feel that they should have the ability when contraception fails to end a pregnancy in abortion. Now that doesn't mean that they disregard the fetus, it doesn't even mean that they take the decision lightly...

JM: It does if you describe them as ambitious.

AF: No, because we can look at ambition in a whole number of various, different ways. Ambition doesn't necessarily mean trying to get to the top of your profession. One of the circumstances where women may decide to end an unplanned pregnancy may be because their family is dependent upon them for a wage because their husband might be unemployed. Now I would say that that is a woman who has ambitions to support her family. It doesn't necessarily mean that it's a middle class striving to get to the top of a profession. It's a desire to be in control of your life.

JM: Karen?

KN: I think the reason why most women have an abortion is the same. It's because they don't feel they can cope with this particular pregnancy at this particular time. I think some of the difficulties with some of the arguments Ann is making is that some people think, well hang on a minute, that's a bit much to say that women do it because it's not convenient for them at this particular moment. I would never like to second guess why an individual women feels that this is the right decision for them. I want to live in a country which respects the woman's right to make that decision which is why I would like to see the law changed to allow abortion on request.

JM: Last year Ann I know that you upset other pro-choice campaigners on a different occasion when you were asked on television by a woman with cerebral palsy would you have got rid of me and you said yes. Do you risk with taking this argument these steps further associating the pro-choice lobby with eugenics?

AF: Well to put one thing straight is what I was asked was would I have supported that woman's mother's right to end a pregnancy. And I said that I would have supported any woman's right to end a pregnancy in circumstances that she felt fit. And I feel that's a very important thing to uphold because my firm belief is that only a woman who is pregnant knows whether or not she is in a position to raise that child and care for it. And I feel that the choice should be hers. And I feel that the minute we as pro-choice people start imposing our values and saying we think that an abortion is ok in this situation but not in that situation, we actually put ourselves in exactly the same paternalistic position that many doctors have been in when they have refused women permission for abortion because they don't approve of their reasons.

JM: Karen, the anti-abortion movement has always argued that the legalisation of abortion would lead to eugenics. Do you have concerns that if the stance of the pro-choice lobby becomes more extreme, that you risk pushing the argument too far and people perhaps saying we should step back on abortion.

KN: I think the eugnics link is wrong. You cannot link the technology with its misuse. It seems to me that it's very clear that the abortion rights movement has to join hands with the disability rights movement. It's not about better thou hadst not been born. It's about solidarity with those people campaigning for better social services, better employment rights so that in fact being disabled isn't as difficult as it is in the society that we presently live in. I don't think that the abortion people should be set at odds with the disability rights movement. We should be working together so that women have the right to make that choice, but that disabled people have the right to live more fulfilled lives.

JM: So do you set them at odds?

AF: I don't think so. I think that my approach is entirely about looking at whether a woman with a pregnancy has the right to end it and I think that is entirely different actually than a discussion about disability rights.

JM: But you would say that in any circumstances she should have that absolute right?

AF: My own personal view is that in any circumstances she should have the right to make that decision for herself because I think that to deny a woman the access to abortion because we disapprove of her reason is in fact to put our morals over hers. Women are creatures of conscience. They can make responsible and moral decisions for themselves.

JM: But you wouldn't say that in all circumstances a woman should be able to make that choice would you?

KN: I would say that I wouldn't want to live in a society where anybody can second guess why a woman doesn't feel she can take those particular pregnancy to term

JM: Karen Newman, Ann Furedi, thank you both very much indeed.
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