By Ellie Lee
April 8, 2004
On 20 April, the UK's Channel 4 will screen a TV documentary,
My Foetus. The programme includes images of aborted
fetuses, at least one of which is the result of an abortion
procedure that appears in the film.
The Pro-Life Alliance (PLA)
- whose 1997 and 2001 election broadcast including pictures
of aborted fetuses were banned by Channel 4 - has cried foul,
and with some justification. Channel 4 certainly does seem
to be skating on thin ice when it argues that the documentary
fetuses make for acceptable viewing, fulfilling guidelines
about taste and decency, while fetuses in the PLA broadcast
Whatever these fetuses look
like, none are likely to make for images that you would hang
on your bedroom wall. And whatever you think of the PLA, it
had a sound democratic argument about why its broadcast should
be shown - namely, that as a political party, it should have
as much right as any other party to show an election broadcast.
On the other hand, while there are certainly no grounds for
censoring the My Foetus documentary, the arguments
put forward to justify its importance so far are rather shaky.
Channel 4 says that the film
should be shown so we can know what an abortion involves (namely
the production of a dead fetus). This is needed, apparently,
because it will help us understand what abortion is 'really'
all about. Really? Women who have abortions are very aware
that their abortion will produce a dead fetus and seem to
be highly alert to the fact that they have a 'life' growing
inside them. This does nothing to help bring understanding
of the key issues at stake in relation to abortion- for example,
why women have abortions, and how they feel about it. For
all Channel Four's pontificating about deepening our understanding
of abortion, this documentary seems to fit very nicely with
the current fad for 'taboo-breaking', recently expressed in
the controversial televised autopsy, 'live sex' on Big Brother,
and the almost-live Russian Roulette stunt. In these morbid
times, it seems that anything with a yuk-factor is game for
broadcasting, regardless of the usefulness of the discussion
that it provokes.
Other arguments for the documentary
say it is useful because it addresses 'laziness' in the abortion
debate. The use of images of fetuses has generally been a
favoured tactic of the anti-abortion lobby. Indeed, it has
tried to turn this documentary to its advantage: we should
'see the full horror', said Archbishop Peter Smith of the
Catholic Bishops' Conference, because the film could prove
to be 'a powerful anti-abortion message'. Julia Black, who
has made the film, comes from a rather different perspective.
She explains her decision to show dead fetuses as a sort of
wake-up call to people who are pro-choice.
It is not enough for the pro-choice
movement to 'rely on just arguing abortion is a woman's right',
says Black. Rather, the movement has to 'start engaging with
the reality [that] a fetus is destroyed'.
But engage in what sense?
The fact that abortion involves the destruction of fetal life
in abortion is well known already. Surely the only useful
engagement with the grisly reality of abortion is one that
makes clear that it does not diminish one jot the case for
Julia Black is right to argue
that it is not enough for the pro-choice movement to rely
wholly on the argument that abortion is a woman's right. But
the problem is not that the pro-choice movement tends to be
squeamish about the procedure - it is that it is often squeamish
about having out the hard arguments. What the abortion debate
needs is clear explanation of why it is right that women have
reproductive choices; why abortion is a solution to a problem
for women with unwanted pregnancies; and why this remains
the case for women who seek abortion later in pregnancies,
as well as earlier on, despite the fact that the fetus is
then more developed biologically. Whether Black's TV programme
is going to help the pro-choice movement in putting forth
better intellectual and political arguments remains to be
seen. It may do - on the other hand, there is a danger that
it may become an unwelcome distraction from the hard arguments,
simply diverting people into another discussion about what
fetuses look like.
Women's need for abortion
is a public, political issue about which there should be more
debate. Abortion itself, and a woman's experience of it, is
a private matter. The thrust of the My Foetus programme
- as the title implies - seems to blur the distinction between
the public abortion debate and the private experience of the
procedure. The effect of this, so far anyway, has not been
For example, anti-abortionists
have argued that since it is good to show a dead fetus on TV,
it must be right that all women requesting abortion see images
of fetuses - preferably their own. Archbishop Peter Smith, adopting
the feminist-sounding language now rife in the anti-abortion
movement, has said that women have a 'right to know what abortion
really involves'. A woman from SPUC whom I debated this week
said that 'informed consent' cannot be said to exist on the
part of women who have abortions, unless they see pictures of
their fetus in advance of the procedure being performed. These
arguments are wrong and need to be challenged.
Where scanning is used in
abortion services, it is to check the gestation of the fetus,
because this has implications for the abortion method used.
Beyond this, there is no medical reason for using scans in
abortion services - and certainly no medical justification
for suggesting women should see fetal images that result.
The suggestion that they should is clear example of the politicisation
of medicine. Arguing that women have a 'right to know' what
their fetus looks like, as part of 'informed consent', is
a blatant case of the anti-abortion lobby using medical-sounding
language to pursue its political agenda.
Another problem with the way
discussion about Black's film is blurring the distinction between
the public and private aspects of abortion is in the debate
it has provoked about how women relate to past experience. Julia
Black had an abortion when she was 21 and a baby at 34, and
it was the latter pregnancy, she says, that provoked her to
make My Foetus. The fact that second time around she
developed, very fast, a relationship with her baby-to-be made
her think about her first pregnancy again, and differently.
The point that needs to be
made is that there is nothing unusual in this, and it is not
a problem. Subsequent pregnancies often make women think about
previous ones, and sometimes they consider 'what might have
been'. What is a real problem is the way that this experience
is easily presented as meaning that women therefore regret
having had an abortion, and even (this being the anti-abortionist
line) develop 'Post-Abortion Syndrome' or severe depression
as a result.
Yet thinking about a past
abortion, and even feeling negatively about it, is not pathological
and has no relationship to mental illness - and it is important
that people adopt a realistic and rational approach to past
events. Women who have abortions choose this path for reasons
that are right at the time - the only time that matters. This
is what they need reminding of; not encouragement to dwell
on feelings of regret about what they might have done differently
if things had been different.
As it happens most women do
not need anyone to tell them this - which is why so few go
for post-abortion counselling. Most women who choose to have
abortions and then go on to have babies, are very clear that
that was then, and this is now. Unfortunately neither Channel
4 nor Julia Black have done much so far to clarify this point.
It would be a truly negative outcome if this reality of abortion,
and what comes afterwards, became even more mystified as a
result of My Foetus.