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Women's experiences

My Foetus
Review by Clare Murphy
April 20, 2004

One thing is certain about My Foetus, the documentary about abortion screened on Channel 4 on April 20th. Channel 4 will be pleased with the way their presswork generated so much debate about it. But as one contributor to BBC's Late Review pointed out, the footage of the 'live abortion' carried out on a woman pregnant for just a few weeks, central to the Channel's promotion of the film as 'taboo-breaking', isn't really that shocking. No doubt the anti-abortionists will be upset, because it shows early abortion to be a quick simple procedure. But abortion of this kind is now so commonplace most of will know someone closely who has undergone this procedure. So it could only really shock someone who has lived a very sheltered life. But what about the other claim made for the programme, that it opens up the debate on abortion, and takes it forward? Did it achieve what it aimed to in this respect?

The way the programme went about attempting to open up the abortion debate was through the 'personal journey' of the filmmaker herself Julia Black, daughter of Marie Stopes chief executive Tim Black. As she has explained it, she had an abortion herself at the age of 21 but when she fell pregnant 13 years later - this time with a child she wanted- she began to question her hitherto unwavering support for women's rights.

During her pregnancy she found herself struggling to understand how a woman, whose developing fetus would look as baby-like as her own, wanted child did on the ultrasound scan, could undergo a termination in the later stages of pregnancy. If we were aware of the reality of abortion - the imagery of the fetus and the nature of the procedure used to kill it - would we, and should we, continue to condone it? Can we decide, once and for all, whether abortion should be a woman's right, or is the truth too terrible to allow the practice to continue?

In the course of the 25-minute film, Ms Black introduces her audience to an array of footage and photography of both living and aborted fetuses. The latter, long the preserve of the pro-life movement and the bane of many pro-choicers, has frequently been censored in the UK lest it cause offence - not least by Channel Four, which banned graphic pro-life political broadcasts in both the 1997 and 2001 general elections.

She meets Fiona Pinto, a British anti-abortion campaigner, who was arrested last year under the 1986 Public Order Act for waving a poster of the bloody remains of an aborted fetus. She also travels to the US, where no such restrictions on fetal imagery apply, to meet an activist who travels around the country in a lorry featuring a picture of a blown-up picture of an aborted fetus, its fledgling limbs laid out. "Some people might say it's distasteful, we shouldn't be seeing this," she puts to him. "These are real pictures of real human babies," he replies.

Ms Black is absolutely right to question the censorship of images. Those who want to campaign have the democratic right to show whatever images they chose - however wrong-headed their ideas might be. Black opposes them being censored for a different reason though, because she thinks they do pose legitimate questions: can those who support abortion accept the reality of what they are supporting? Does the fact that abortion results in what is shown in these images represent a fundamental problem for those who support women being able to end a pregnancy - particularly in the later stages?

Black is right to ask these questions in so far as they strike at the heart of how most people think about abortion. In Britain the vast majority of people accept abortion. But they do so pragmatically, not as a mater of principle.

Most find it pretty easy these days to tolerate early abortion, not least because they know from personal experience why it is needed. They have faced - or certainly can imagine facing - an accidental pregnancy that pretty quickly becomes unwanted. What they have not done, however, is accepted the legitimacy of others being able to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy for whatever reason they see fit and in any circumstance. The reaction to the case brought by the curate Joanna Jepson about abortion for cleft palate demonstrates this. And so does the discomfort with abortion at later stages in pregnancy.

In fact it is this issue - abortion later in pregnancy - that is really at the centre of the film. The images that will cause most discussion with be Professor Stuart Campbell's 3D and 4D photographs of the fetus in the womb, taken at his fee-charging London clinic. These images are shown as he and Black marvel at a 23 week-old fetus and agree it cannot be described as a fetus, since it looks - as is undeniably the case - just like a baby. In the documentary itself, Professor Campbell, who has been a supporter of abortion rights, described his unease as he says he has started to change his mind about later terminations. About twelve weeks, he now believes, should be the limit for social terminations.

It is right that this issue is central, because it is where the abortion controversy now lies. It was a shame, therefore, that the film did not go very far in exploring this issue. So focussed was it on 'my foetus' - that is to say, the film maker's own experience - there was little time to do so. So much time was taken up with picture of 'the bump' that not such was given over to discussion of the issues raised by abortion later in pregnancy.

In this sense, the film suggests that viewing the abortion issue through the sole prism of one's own personal experience makes for rather limited journalism.

One obvious problem is that it would be easy to think, having watched the film, that once women become mothers they cannot stomach the idea of abortion. A simple look at the abortion statistics could have shown this is not the case. About one fifth of abortions are provided to women who have had a baby already. It is not just that mothers have abortions, however. It is also that for many women, the experience of full-term pregnancy and motherhood makes them understand more than ever why women need abortion. Continuing an unwanted pregnancy and giving birth involuntarily is not something they would ever want to see imposed on others, and some interviews could have shown this to be the case. While Black does make a brief point of this kind near the end, by indicating that what matters is for children to be wanted by their mothers, it is rather too little, too late.

She does make the point, at least twice, that based on her own experiences of pregnancy she cannot believe any woman would take the decision to abort at 20 weeks lightly. But she relies primarily on a doctor - John Parsons of Kings College Hospital London - who performs abortions up to the legal limit of 24 weeks to offer the justification as to why abortions should be carried out later in pregnancy. If a woman comes to him wanting an abortion at 20-24 weeks, it would not be fair on the child to force her to carry it to term, he explains. "She's had a long time to think about it and that child is seriously not wanted. It's not the women I do it for, it's definitely for the baby in that situation." His comments are valuable, but are the only way the issue of later abortion is really explored.

Given society's clear unease with later abortions - an unease of which above all this film is representative - it would be a challenge for any documentary maker to both find and persuade one of the 22,000 woman who each year end their pregnancy after the 12 week mark to speak openly or perhaps even privately about her reasons for doing so. Yet for someone who claims to have been motivated to make her film after struggling "with the idea of how a woman could abort her baby in the later stages", it seems a rather striking omission.

It is not really possible to 'tell the truth' about abortion, and properly open up the debate, without having something to say on this. Without giving any real understanding of why women choose to terminate their pregnancies after 12- weeks, or any robust woman-centred representation of why they should have the right to do so, all that can really be presented to us is a description of the status quo - a situation where early abortion is increasingly tolerated, but is also one in which abortions later in pregnancy are a cause of unease, even revulsion.

It is obvious from the much of the media debate in the run up to the film's showing that it is this kind of unease that will now come to the fore.

Sunday Times columnist Jasper Gerard has argued that while 88 per cent of abortions are before 12 weeks, 'that means 22, 000 [are] after 12 weeks. When cuddly old David Steel led the charge for legalised abortion he never envisaged such carnage'. Argues Deirdre Sanders, The Sun agony aunt, 'Is it fair to expect medical staff to perform abortions after 15 weeks on social rather than medical grounds? The baby at that stage isn't viable, but looks human. Are we comfortable ending its existence'. Notably the renowned US feminist Naomi Wolf, reviewing Ms Black's film, described her own experience of motherhood had made her reconsider the abortion issue. She now believes there should be a 12 week cut-off point. "After that, rather than abortion, a network of supportive adoption agencies should be on hand to help and sustain the pregnant woman and her baby," she wrote.

This apparently growing consensus - that there is something morally abhorrent about late-term abortions - is what those of us who are pro-choice need to challenge. We need to understand that the abortion debate is no longer really between those who are anti-abortion or pro-choice. It is, as the documentary shows, between those of us who are pro-choice and those who say, I agree that abortion should be allowed, but……

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