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Women's experiences

Essential viewing?
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 did not.

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'.
(See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/tv_and_radio/3600621.stm).

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 reproductive choice.

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 particularly useful.

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.

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