Dr John Sharpe of London, who in 1957 […] took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India.
Knowing only that she had broken an engagement […] he said, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want with your life.”
And so begins the dedication to My Life on the Road. Gloria Steinem attributes a great deal to Dr Sharpe’s bravery, knowing that had she not met this man who believed the law to be wrong, the shape of her life would have looked extremely different. I don’t believe that had this baby been born it would have been at a disadvantage, suffered from bad parenting, nor had a bad life, but that is entirely irrelevant to the argument.
The abortion-row’s focus sits in the wrong place, so often focussing on the case of the foetus; the thing that is still within the realm of the abstract, that exists but is far away, indistinguishable, a possibility, a feeling. The pro-life camp views the child-bearer as a secondary concern and the pro-choice contingent spend their time trying to re-establish the primary focus, to shift it back to the woman. For it is she who is tangible, who is present, she who has thoughts, feelings and dreams. And it is she who has ironically been allowed to believe she has options.
It has been possible in the UK to access a safe and legal abortion, financed by the National Health Service since the Abortion Act of 1967. The language used in the act leaves room for interpretation, meaning that all women could effectively choose abortions, citing a negative impact on their own, the child’s, or their family’s mental health. The Women’s Movement’s focus on reproductive rights as responsible healthcare assisted in the passing of Roe v Wade in the US Supreme Court, which in 1973 set the precedent that it was unconstitutional to deny women the right to choose whether to go ahead with pregnancy. These acts however were not the beginning of abortion. Abortions and, perhaps more significantly, attempted abortions, have been taking place for millennia. The problem is not abortion, it is the criminalisation of women’s autonomy.
Texas has always been a key battleground. It was Texas where Jane Roe tried and failed to receive an abortion and took her case to the Supreme Court, and it is Texas that seems to have been trying to reverse the decision ever since. To disallow the termination of pregnancy from any time after the six-week period is akin to disallowing the termination of pregnancy in its entirety. There are no exceptions, including cases of rape or incest. It is simply illegal to aid in facilitating an abortion for any woman who has surpassed the six-week mark. As a woman, I know what this means, but I’ll put some of it into context for those readers who don’t go through a menstrual cycle. Most women will notice something is amiss when they skip a period. This could be a few days after sex occurred, a couple of weeks, or in some cases, if a cycle had just begun, another four weeks. This is of course assuming that the person has a regular cycle, keeps track of her cycle, or knows when her next period is due. If none of these apply, NHS England advises waiting at least twenty-one days after sex to take a pregnancy test in order to get an accurate result. That’s three weeks, half your time. In blatant terms it is unrealistic for women to notice a change in their body, find out they are pregnant, make a decision and book an abortion prior to six weeks. This law says to women if you have sex, if you enjoy being sexually active, or if you are the victim of assault, you must bear the consequences, quite literally, for the rest of your life. There is no comparative law regarding a man who impregnates a woman for, as has been famously observed, ‘if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.’
As long as women can get pregnant there will always be successful and unsuccessful terminations. What effective legislation does is eradicate the need for ‘backstreet’ abortions, procedures that are vastly different depending on what women can afford, what their social background is, their race or their level of education. Prior to equal access to reproductive healthcare lucky women could afford to access safer abortions by bribing doctors and manipulating health assessments. Those not-so-lucky accessed abortions in high-risk settings; where the procedure was not performed by a medical professional, the environment unsanitary and the tools unclean. The women who suffered this fate and the women who have died accessing illegal abortions throughout our collective history is countless. When these facts are taken into consideration the issue goes beyond being for or against the act. The war on abortion is a war on women, where the casualties, although often anonymous, are in their thousands.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued, ‘The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.’ These laws maintain female oppression. It tells women they are not responsible enough to make decisions regarding their own bodies, yet paradoxically are responsible enough to raise a child. Steinem believed, “female bodies are still the battleground, whether that means restricting freedom, birth control and safe abortion in order to turn them into factories, or abandoning female infants because females are less valuable for everything other than reproduction. Anti-abortion laws reinforce ideas that a woman’s worth is her capacity to reproduce. They limit social, personal and professional progression. They maintain an order that is best suited to eras gone by. They regulate social mobility; rich, white women will continue to have access to safe reproductive healthcare. They enforce psychological and physical trauma on fifty-one percent of the population and all this in America; the land that proclaims itself to be so civilised and so free. Yet, as Ginsburg noted, at no point in the Constitution of the United States does it feature either the word ‘woman’ or ‘freedom’. Until the notion of the ‘land of the free’ is universally applicable then the USA is built upon a lie and masquerading its civility.
I am privileged to live in a country where I have the right to a safe and legal abortion, without question, but this does not leave me unaffected by events in the US. Every time a court rules against women it sets the prescient that it is okay to treat women in this manner; it is okay to not respect women and to not allow women the dignity to make their own choices. The right to life, which the pro-lifer’s hold so dear, does have an essentiality in this argument, it just depends which you value more. The right of the woman, she who is here, who is conscious, who has agency, who is taught she has choices, or the right of the unborn.
I’ve never seen the decision to abort as one taken lightly. I’ve always witnessed it approached with an element of doubt, with a concern for the practicality of the situation and a consideration of how well they would be able to provide for a child. The decisions to terminate that I have witnessed have come not only from a place of self-care but care and love for the possibility of their child. I’ve never seen the decision made with no talk of regret or without the wonder as to what life may look like if they were to follow through. I have only ever seen this decision taken with courage and trust in their inner voice, that engagement with a deeper intuition that tells us our most blatant truths.
For me, the central argument is not whether abortion is morally wrong. As long as women can get pregnant, women will get abortions; there is no legislation, no law, no fine, no jail-time that will stop that simple fact. The central argument, for me, is whether society respects women enough to allow them the basic human right of being able to access a medical procedure in a safe and professional environment. The central argument is whether women’s lives are valued enough to let them be lived. Do we value women enough to not pursue needless criminal charges, to not let them die in back rooms from unsafe and unsuccessful interventions.
The sheer joy at the success of Roe v Wade and the countless women who put pressure on government to change the law is under threat and has been for a long time. Because the right to access legal abortion has been commonplace for the entirety of my life it is easy to slip into habits of believing that this is an already conquered fight. But it is not; when it is so easy for laws to be reversed, when reproductive healthcare is not a basic right globally, there is still work to be done.
Until all women have access to safe, legal abortions and are afforded the dignity to make their own decisions regarding the body they inhabit, we are not equal. And until we are equal we deserve the right to be angry and we reserve the right to demand change.
‘I ask no favours for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.’
Saffron Rain lives and writes in Stockport. She was born and raised around Manchester, only moving away to get her degree and subsequent MA in English Lit in Sheffield. During this time she wrote ardently on the North, particularly female writers and filmmakers.
Her preferred form is the personal essay and she enjoys writing about topics that she connects to on a personal level. Some of these have appeared in independent publications and she shares longer pieces on her own blog. She loves to read, particularly women, and will take any opportunity to crowbar Joan Didion into a conversation.
Image: Milos Tonchevski