24 Weeks Later: Does Reducing The Abortion Limit Make You Anti-Women?

Maria Miller has been slated for her comments on lowering the abortion limit to 20 weeks due to improvements in medical science, but as a pro-choicer I can't help but think 'what the hell has that got to do with it...'
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Is it anti-women to want to reduce the abortion limit? According to the backlash against Maria Miller’s (multi-tasking minister for women alongside Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) take on the subject, it is. According to the new women's minister, the abortion limit should be lowered from 24 weeks to 20 to reflect dramatic improvements in medical science.

There was a fair bit of comment that this must mean she wasn't very feminist, but "You have got to look at these matters in a very common sense way," she claimed, "I looked at it from the really important stance of the impact on women and children." This chimes with the Nadine Dorries school of thought - that the pro-choicers who want to keep the limit at 24 weeks are, as Dorries put it, ignoring "the number of women who are traumatised and vulnerable during the abortion process". Ms Dorries says a 20 week cut-off makes her "more of a feminist", standing up for the emotional impact on women.

But life in all its complicatedness is rarely so easily divided into 20/24 weeks, black/white, right/wrong, and in this case, pro-choice/anti-choice. Politician’s arguments about abortion are, by and large, about government regulation of individual morality, which makes their opinions and the resulting legislation increasingly problematic.  And a recent case is making that abundantly clear. Sarah Catt of North Yorkshire, a 35-year-old mother of two, was sentenced this month to eight years in prison for illegally aborting a fetus after the legal limit of 24 weeks.

Now bear in mind here that viability is not an exact science, and “personhood” is basically a spiritual and subjective notion of cell-blob vs sentient being. The grey area is pretty wide. But - this is the tricky part - Sarah’s aborted it/him within a week of her due date. Her procedure was self-administered using drugs she’d bought online from India.

According to the new women's minister, the abortion limit should be lowered from 24 weeks to 20 to reflect dramatic improvements in medical science

I’m not struggling with the legal aspect, but rather the question of whether as a pro-choicer I, by default, believe abortion is OK right up until delivery? If I consider a women’s right over her body to be absolute, then surely this ‘parasitic entity’ remains as such right until that moment (if and when) she allows it to be born. I imagine fellow pro-choicers may also be struggling with their own grey area. When does the fetus make the transition from ‘blob’ to ‘cute’? At what point do I stop imagining a glob of cells latching to my uterine wall, and start imagining mothercare onesies?

Catt pleaded guilty to the charges, but refused to tell authorities what she did with the body. Whether she’s in denial or defense mode, I cant say. But I can speculate that perhaps she wasn’t as reproductively responsible as those of us who sit around contemplating abortion laws. Not to cast aspersions on her sexual promiscuity (that has the same effect as “I’m not a racist but…” doesn’t it?) the secret pregnancy was allegedly the result of a seven-year affair with a coworker. It was also brought to the courts attention that she gave a child up for adoption in 1999. She later had a termination with the agreement of her husband, tried to terminate another pregnancy, but missed the legal limit and concealed another pregnancy from her husband before the child's birth.

Regardless of her reproductive history, should she have the right to control her pregnancy right up until delivery? If Catt’s actions were unacceptable even from a pro-choice standpoint, then where do “we”, as pro-choicers, draw the line? Although it’s physically attached to and sustained by the women, is it still deserving of the rights of a person because if she’d have given birth to it then and there, it would more than likely have been totally healthy? Or should we enforce the “personhood” of pregnant women first, regardless of how pregnant she is?

Of course I'd thought about abortion before, but never as much as when I moved to a country where abortion is illegal. I guess I'd always taken for granted the fact that, worst case scenario, my government had ensured that there existed a relatively pragmatic, safe and secular solution. In England, because I'd never had to think about the practicalities, it had always been a hypothetical and purely emotional debate.

I’m not struggling with the legal aspect, but rather the question of whether as a pro-choicer I, by default, believe abortion is OK right up until delivery?

I never thought the idea of not being able to have an abortion whilst in the Middle East would unsettle me but, on a purely hypothetical level, it does. You know that episode of Girls where Lena Dunham’s character gets STD paranoia "what about the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms, huh, what about that stuff?" she barks at a gyno. That’s me right now; paranoid that I’m going to get preggers and have to spend six months worth of paycheck on a flight back to Blighty.

Because although I’m not planning it, I could choose slipping away on a flight back to the haven of the NHS over a bottle of whisky and a coat hanger. And I wouldn’t be the only one. London has long been an enclave of abortion for Irish and Italians but there’s now big business in abortion tourism for my fellow Arabs who head to UK with a bun in the oven and return with nothing but a Harrods shopping bag.

But, like many things in the part of the Middle East where I live, a lot of blind eyes are turned to that. Similarly ignored are the women here who can’t afford to go abroad to get abortions; the often ignored and mistreated immigrant workers from India and the Philippines. These women can’t afford to skip off to another country when they are raped by their employers, but they also can’t afford to have a baby.

She can’t go to a doctor, because a) pregnancy outside wedlock is punishable by law and b) under local law the doctor has to report them to police if they discuss an unlawful pregnancy or highly illegal abortion. Only in cases where doctors are 100 per cent certain - before the 120-day deadline - that the baby will not survive does abortion become an option, with many Islamic scholars quote a hadith by Prophet Mohammed that says a fetus acquires life when "spirit or soul is blown into the fetus" at 120 days. Only a month or so ago a female doctor here was jailed for three years for attempting to give a vaginal suppository to a woman who wanted to terminate.

That’s me right now; paranoid that I’m going to get preggers and have to spend six months worth of paycheck on a flight back to Blighty

So our pregnant economic immigrant hops on the metro to a certain area of town to a certain apartment and a man answers the door and his wife gives her some stomach ulcer medicine (the same sort of thing, I presume, Sarah Catt used) which costs the equivalent of £300. She takes one there and then, two pills at 7am, and another two at 7pm. She wakes up and it passes on the loo. Well, some of them do. Some of them (too many of them) wake up in a puddle of their own insides and they bleed out and die in their bed. If the pills don’t abort the fetus, the seller often guarantees a medical termination for free (you’re wondering about the methods, anesthetic, and sterility of instruments, right?).

Our stories are worlds apart, but I always consider “that could be me” whilst I sit in my ivory tower freaking out that I’ve punctured a condom with my manicure, whilst down the road a maid is bleeding out of her infected womb alone in a public bathroom on her coffee break. We’re not all that different, we’re both at the mercy of our bodies and we both deserve options. More support, more information. Whatever Sarah Catt’s reasoning for her actions, I’m pretty sure that those are two things she found distinctly lacking.

Medical advances aside there is the moral dilemma of whether it is right to end pregnancies which could result in a healthy child, or rob women of the right to make their own choice (I think we can all guess the opinion of the activists who last week sent 600 coat hangers to Health Minister Jeremy claiming that restricting women's rights would cause a rise in illegal and unsafe DIY jobs). Why is it that despite medical advances the number of women who are “traumatized and vulnerable” when dealing with the basic issue of reproduction seems to be increasing?

How about instead of discussing lowering the abortion time limit, we talk about getting better emotional support and decent counseling, and educated medical personnel for the families and singles who find themselves in this deeply undesirable situation? Why are we even talking about lowering the limit before that gets put in place?

Illegal abortions, men dobbing in the women they've impregnated to authorities, girlfriends, sisters, wives risking their lives to end an unintended and untenable pregnancy. If you live in the United States and this story sounds like a mythical third world country far away don’t sit too comfortably, because this may well be coming soon to a state near you, and the UK won't be far behind.

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