Life is not a film
'My Foetus' by Ann Furedi
April 21, 2004
On 20 April, Channel 4 screened a TV documentary showing
footage of an abortion, My Foetus. Much has been made
of the fact that this is the first time that images of abortion
have been shown on British TV, and the documentary has been
described as 'daring' for breaking a supposed taboo. The filmmaker,
Julia Black, who insists that she supports legal abortion,
said that her intention is to cause those of us who share
her views to 'start engaging with the reality [that] a fetus
But do these images convey
the 'reality' of abortion? Do we need to see them to 'engage'
with what abortion really is? Are women really ignorant of
what abortion involves?
American feminist Naomi Wolf
would answer 'yes' to these questions. Once stridently pro-choice,
she now courts opportunities to explain how her own wanted
pregnancy caused her to consider the 'humanity of the fetus'
and acknowledge that 'abortion does stop a beating heart'.
She and the maker of My Foetus seem to agree that women
with unwanted pregnancies should be encouraged to confront
what the procedure involves, and its consequences for the
life in the womb.
So let's consider the reality
of abortion for the thousand or so women whose abortions are
carried out by doctors in clinics run by the British Pregnancy
Advisory Service (bpas) every week. Since my appointment
as chief executive last year, I have made it my business to
talk to clients and staff, and I can assure you that nobody
is in denial about what abortion involves.
Women know that abortion stops
a beating heart and ends a life that would become a child.
How could a woman requesting abortion be oblivious to this?
It is, after all, what she wants. A woman requests an abortion
precisely because she wants to be un-pregnant and without
the immediate prospect of a child. An abortion that doesn't
end a pregnancy is a failure; one that resulted in a living
baby would be a disaster. Some women may choose not to think
about the finer details of exactly when the heart stops beating
- others are anxious to see the fetal remains. Why should
journalists feel the need to judge which is the appropriate
Women are not whimsical about
the decision to end a pregnancy. They are sometimes ambivalent,
but that is a different matter altogether. Often a woman would
like to have her child if things were different - but her
decision must be made taking account of things as they are.
Nor are women's decisions made in haste. By the time a women
comes for her operation she will have discussed her pregnancy
with a doctor and possibly a counsellor. She has probably
shared her concerns with her family and friends. Many have
found the decision agonising, for others it has been straightforward
- but all have confronted how their lives will be affected
by having, or not having, a child; by having, or not having,
Women understand what abortion
involves - those of us who provide services must ensure this.
Like any other medical procedure, abortion requires the client's
informed consent. To give her consent she must understand
what will happen during the procedure and its risks. At bpas,
a client will usually choose which procedure she prefers -
a suction procedure under local or general anaesthetic, or
drugs which cause a miscarriage. Making such a choice requires
Women understand the difference
between ending an early pregnancy and a late abortion - which
is why so few women request late abortions, and why women
having made their choice are anxious for a fast appointment.
It is profoundly insulting for journalists to assume that
women seeking abortions at the stage when they will have felt
fetal movement have not considered the morality of their request.
Women live with the decisions
they make. Some, looking back, will wish that they had embraced
motherhood, just as some mothers will regret that choice.
But if we believe that women are capable of responsible, moral
choices we must allow them to make them - even when they do
not conform to our own views and values.
The right to abortion is a
political issue. A woman's ability to control her fertility
shapes her whole life. Birth control allows us to enjoy sex
and participate in public life. Without it, the choice is
between celibacy or the constant risk of maternity. To deny
a woman the right to abortion is to limit her human potential,
which is why the right to abortion was one of the first demands
of women's liberation. But the individual choice of abortion
is profoundly personal. A woman does not exercise her right
to abortion like she exercises her right to vote. For a woman,
abortion is the considered answer to her personal, private
problem; it is not a demonstration of her views or beliefs.
Journalists, and society,
should discuss the rights and wrongs of abortion. We should
consider the moral principles that should be applied. But
in doing so, we should remember that a woman does not seek
an abortion in the abstract, but as the solution to the specific
circumstances she faces. For women, the reality of abortion
is not captured by photos of destroyed fetuses or videos of
suction procedures. The reality of abortion is the reason
why it is requested and the consequences if it is denied.
Ann Furedi is chief
executive of bpas. bpas supports reproductive
choice by advocating and providing services to prevent or
end unwanted pregnancy with contraception or by abortion.
Call the bpas actionline on 08457 304030 to make an appointment.