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
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
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……