Towards full abortion on demand

I am going to take a guess and assume that, as a reader of this feminist blog, you probably consider yourself pro-choice. But how far do you go in the fight for bodily autonomy?

I believe in full abortion on demand. I believe that a pregnant person must be able to end a pregnancy at any time they choose, for any reason whatsoever–or no reason at all. I don’t believe a pregnant person should need a reason, that they should be able to end a pregnancy safely if they choose not to be pregnant any more. I believe that a pregnant person should have a right to end a pregnancy when they want to, right up to term. No time limits, no particular reasons given. This is what abortion on demand looks like: the bogeyman raised by anti-choicers as an apocalyptic consequence of abortion laws. I embrace it. I believe that this is what we as pro-choicers should be pushing for.

The thing that happens when we talk about time limits on abortion is that it de-centres the pregnant person, who is ultimately the only person who matters when discussing abortion rights. Suddenly, it becomes all about the foetus. This is a clever and stealthy way of getting anti-choice legislation in through the back door, often without even mentioning abortion at all. Take, for example, this recent example, where the Court of Appeal is expected to rule on whether a pregnant woman is guilty of poisoning for drinking during pregnancy. Jem points out the implications if the ruling goes the wrong way, that it would give a foetus the same rights as a person. That could have devastating ramifications for abortion rights, as well as giving the state further control over women. I say “women” here because the state is a deeply misogynistic institution, and that’s what this sort attitude is rooted in. It doesn’t matter a jot that a lot of women cannot get pregnant: this is a stick to beat anyone read as a reproductively-capable woman. 

We need to de-centre talk of harm to a foetus when discussing things pregnant people are doing. And we also need to realise that any time limit on abortion in strictly arbitrary: the only point in a pregnancy that is not arbitrary is term.

When we talk about reasons for abortion, we inevitably fall into a “good abortions” and “bad abortions” rhetoric. Good abortions are those that happen after rape, or when the foetus stands no chance of surviving after birth, for example (usually, in both of these cases, it’s a nice white woman having the abortion). Bad abortions happen to bad people: that slut who uses it for birth control, and so on. A lot of anti-choicers tend to focus on the stereotypes activated by the bad abortions, while a lot of the arguments we as pro-choicers put forward tend to focus on good abortions: we’ll say things like “surely you don’t want to deny abortions to rape victims?” in a bid to make our interlocutors feel empathy.

And we shouldn’t do that, because there is no such thing as a good abortion or a bad abortion. Reasons for having abortions are only one person’s business: the person having an abortion. It is up to them, and them alone, and it seems unhelpful to contribute to public discourse by dissecting reasons that one may choose to end a pregnancy.

Reproductive rights are under attack. As pro-choicers, we know this. We are permanently on the defensive, holding the fragile ground that we have. But what if we rode out to meet the anti-choicers? What if, rather than defending what we have, we fight for something more, something better, robustly pro-choice and thoroughly unreasonable under today’s terms of debate? By loudly and unabashedly centring the rights of the pregnant person, we could potentially gain ground, without compromises.

I don’t doubt that the idea of full abortion on demand is causing niggling little “but…” feelings in you. I felt it too, when I first thought about the concept. The thing is, so many of those doubts are internalised concessions that we have made to the anti-choice camp, little bits of their propaganda that we, too, have absorbed. When we are constantly told that women are just meatsock incubators, over and over, it starts to seep in and we start to believe all sorts of awful things, including high levels of pseudoscientific biological essentialism.

So I demand full abortion on demand. I don’t want compromises, I want something which centres the rights of pregnant people.


15 responses to “Towards full abortion on demand

  • endocrinegremlin

    Great piece. It has prompted me to do lots of thinking.🙂

  • Argon

    This is a position that I’ve also (very reluctantly) come to. I say reluctantly, because a viable foetus is almost a baby. But, when it comes down to it, I do think that pregnant people should have bodily autonomy. And that’s what it’s all about. Bodily autonomy, the right for a person to have control over their own body. It’s not about rape, or incest, or similar. It’s not about whether a foetus is viable or not. It’s about a person and their body.

    But, if I were the doctor in the situation where a women at 9 months pregnant said she wanted an abortion, I would be seriously asking her why. Because, at that stage, I think it would be better for everyone just to take the foetus to term (and then give it up for adoption if not wanted).

  • cabrogal

    Feminists who don’t think abortions are bad are kidding themselves and very few others.

    It’s just that failing to respect someone’s bodily autonomy is worse, so I too support full abortion on demand.

    However I absolutely draw the line at birth.

    Killing someone who has been brought into the world, and therefore the community, without their active participation is murder, no matter how ‘defective’ they may be. That’s why anti-abortionists love those pre-natal photos so much. They’re trying to make foetuses part of the community. I think pre-natal testing of foetuses for any reason other than the health of the mother is wrong – including gender testing. It’s a way of making the foetus part of the community and it raises the possibility that termination will be sought because the foetus has been judged and found wanting. Female foeticide is no different to female infanticide and any other criteria for judging the suitability of a foetus for life is just as bad.

    • cabrogal

      I need to add a qualification to my last comment.

      Where grounds exist for suspecting the foetus has a treatable threat to it’s health (e.g. incompatible RH factor in the parents when the mother has already had one baby with opposite RH to her) there are also grounds for minimal pre-natal testing.

  • tinyorc

    I agree, even though I do have niggling “but…” feelings, but you’re right. Pregnant bodies are not a battleground for existentialist questions about when personhood begins and that question should not even enter the debate, because as soon as it does you are drawing arbitrary lines which can easily be erased and redrawn to suit the political agenda du jour.

  • Julian Yon (@julianyon)

    I find the niggling “but…” less niggling, and more of an unignorable shout. I’m afraid inductive logic leads to a serious moral dilemma: Like another poster, I am pro-choice but strongly anti-infanticide. What about the case where somebody requests a termination one day before term? There is no reasonable doubt in that case that the baby (I use that word intentionally) is, within any measure of statistical significance, as viable then as if it were born the next day. The whole reason that enforced time limits are set so early is that there is no nice, clear line between baby and foetus.

    For those of us who believe the hazy distinction matters, is there some solution that allows a woman* (*or gestational man) to retain the choice to give up on an unwanted pregnancy while accepting that a baby, that happens to have not been born yet, retains its right to live?

    I think there might be, though I doubt the powers that be would agree, and it involves replacing one “but…” with another. Late abortion cut-offs depend on establishing a point where the potential for viability is considered significant enough to have a moral impact. Perhaps the current line is drawn too early for the purpose I’m about to suggest. A 50% chance of survival in a naturally premature birth would seem reasonable to me. Instead of denying choice past that line, perhaps the option of early delivery on demand, with the baby being treated as a premmie, could help with the dilemma? Signing away parental rights as part of this would confirm that the pregnancy is unwanted, and early birth is not some sort of twisted lifestyle choice. If the baby survives, it could then be adopted by somebody who actually wants it and can give it the love every child deserves.

    The truth is that a late abortion is always going to be a physical and emotional nightmare. One way or another, there is an organism with human DNA in a uterus, that has to no longer be there. All I’m suggesting is that procedures are restricted to methods, and preformed in such a way, that give that organism a chance to prove its viability. The woman* who has undergone the termination would have the right to counselling to deal with the emotional backlash, a backlash that would happen anyway. The 50% of children that survive will be just like any other babies given up at birth. Their biological mother is not their mum, and has done the right thing by not keeping a child that they are not willing (or able) to raise.

    There is still one serious issue that bothers me. Women* are pressured to have terminations they don’t want, both by men and by other women. Women* are pressured to give up babies for adoption that they desperately want to keep. The choice to keep and raise a child is usually absent from these discussions. Regardless of debate about the rights of a foetus/baby, allowing very late abortions hands abusers a very big stick with which to hit their victim. Imagine how being bullied into an abortion at 36 weeks would affect someone. This is not like choosing a termination. It’s more like somebody murdering your newborn child. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the chance of maternal suicide or deep, lifelong mental health problems is probably close to 100%. If we are to allow abortion on demand at such a late stage, how do we protect women* against it being a tool for such extreme emotional abuse? I don’t have an answer, but I think there needs to be one.

  • cabrogal

    What about the case where somebody requests a termination one day before term?

    Or what about where someone requests a termination one day after birth. Here’s what Australia’s most famous moral philosopher has to say about it. The fucking psychopath.

    The fact is there’s no rational point at which to draw the line. But there is a clear and unambiguous one. Birth. So that’s where I draw it. Notions like ‘50% survival chance’ are not only arbitrary, they are not medically realistic. They will vary with every woman, every foetus and every medical opinion. And they’ll change as technology changes. What happens if/when they develop an artificial womb? Would you outlaw even RU-486 and force women to undergo a transplant? And what exactly do you call ‘survival’? Likely to live a day? A week? Fifty years but only in a humidicrib?

    Damned tootin’ a late term abortion is likely to be physically and emotionally traumatic. That’s a compelling reason the decision must be left to the pregnant woman. Unconditionally. Even if she’s ‘retarded’ or ‘mentally ill’. The only outside ‘interference’ should be to give as complete and morally neutral explanation of the options as is possible. Yep, in the real world that’s not going to happen very often. But we sure as fuck shouldn’t be legislating against it.

    As far as I’m concerned a foetus is part of a woman’s body. But as soon as it pops its head out (or feet if it’s a breach) it’s started interacting with people other than the mother. It’s no longer a foetus. It’s part of society. It’s a person.

    • Julian Yon (@julianyon)

      @cabrogal: To be clear, I definitely agree in principle that birth is the only absolute line there is, and that in an ideal world a woman’s* choice would extend right up to that line. And in that ideal world, politicians would have nothing to do with it. So please read what follows with that in mind, and as a response to your comment rather than to the original post.

      The 50% line I suggested was intended purely as a formalisation of “as likely as not” which, while arbitrary in mathematical terms, is philosophically and psychologically significant. In realistic medical terms it’s obviously much messier than that, not least because “early delivery on demand” is an extremely unrealistic expectation. But expecting people to overlook the fact that there is no essential difference between a “foetus” still in utero at 39+6, and a two day old baby born at 39+4, is also unrealistic.

      The exact birth date is an accident of hormones, and is a process that has already started before the mother is aware of it. I was born a few days early. My youngest child was 10 days late after a prolonged pre-labour, and her mum was booked to be induced a few hours later. By your definition, despite being a week and a half more developed than a child born at term earlier that same day, despite being able to experience pain and fear, and despite being several days into the birth process, we are still talking about a foetus without even the right to not be killed to satisfy another person’s whim.

      I’ve never heard a doctor, nurse or midwife (I’ve known many of each) use any word other than “baby” to describe the unborn person at such a late stage. This isn’t just because it’s an emotive subject, but because the only thing that distinguishes that person from any other new human is an umbilical connection that they no longer need. Therefore you are not going to convince me that “cancel the induction, I’ll have an abortion instead” is a morally neutral demand to make. Pushing the reductio ad absurdum even further, what about deciding to terminate when full labour has actually started but no head/foot has yet emerged? This would constitute the extreme case of late abortion under your definition before it becomes neonatal infanticide.

      This represents an abuse of choice and is easy to write off as ridiculous, but it’s an important consideration in the long term. The problem with discussion that revolves purely around individual rights (this applies to both pro- and anti- arguments) is that it depends on there being a correct resolution in the case where those rights conflict, or are ambiguous. But rights extend beyond the individual; what is best for society as a whole? That society, as it currently exists, (a) has laws (b) is very, very broken, and (c) is pretty much run by the media. I’m not too happy about any of these, but they’re not going to go away any time soon. People do bad things. If you can conceive of something you believe to be wrong, somebody will do it. Asserting one’s “right” to a (fatal to the baby) termination at some ridiculously late stage for no good reason would be seen as bad by most people I know personally. Yet it will happen, and some doctor will be prepared to perform that procedure. How many published cases of such choices, plastered across the front pages as “legal murder”, do you think it would take to provoke a severe knee-jerk from the politicians, denying legal abortion altogether or restricting it to very early in pregnancy?

      Activists who had refused to concede to any legal safety net at all will be seen as condoning cruelty and murder when it inevitably happens. The anti- camp will have a “this is what pro-choice really means; we told you so” field day and rally a larger-than-ever support base. That ground, once lost, will never be regained in our lifetime. Is having absolutely no limit on choice for a brief period now worth ruining the whole show for future generations?

      I hope I haven’t come across as antagonistic. To be entirely clear, my previous comment was an off-the-cuff suggestion. As written, it’s full of holes and, were it not, I’m sure it would be completely screwed up by the lawmakers. It wasn’t intended as an argument for political interference with women’s* bodies, but an attempt at a pragmatic concession to reality. A simpler (but equally contentious) safety net might be “terminations beyond week [X] must be signed off by [Y] independent doctors”. In the original post stavvers clearly stated “no compromises” as the objective. This is only possible where there is a moral and ethical absolute, and I personally don’t agree that there is in this case. And if so, then “no compromises” has to become “least compromise”. And unfortunately, that is somewhat harder to reason about or come to agreement on.

      For cross-reference, I wrote about my thoughts (from a Christian perspective) about 18 months ago. Reading it back it has slightly too much emphasis on medical risk and not enough on bodily autonomy, but should serve to further clarify my feelings on the matter: http://www.christianskeptic.org/posts/Abortion/

    • cabrogal

      I’m coming at the question from an entirely different perspective and set of concerns to you Julian.

      First of all the notion of killing per se is one I accept. To live is to be responsible for the death of others, even if you are a vegan or a monk.

      The question of killing humans is what’s important to me here. And I’m talking social policy rather than personal morality.

      I have no reason to believe that the death and suffering of cows at the abattoir or kangaroos driven off the land for wheat farms is any less real or important than my own or anyone else’s. But I do know that allowing people to be killed as a matter of social policy raises the possibility that I or someone I care about could someday fall victim to such policies.

      I could take the Christian fundamentalist position that every blastocyst formed from human germ cells is human but transforming that into social policy would make me, as a proponent, responsible for the sort of death toll we saw from illegal abortions in the mid 20th century. Just giving birth at all is potentially fatal and while late term abortions may be just as dangerous as c-sections which one to go with should be the decision of the person undergoing the procedure, not the moralists in the peanut gallery.

      Peter Singer determines humanity according to capacity. To him infants with Down’s Syndrome (for example) are not worthy of the respect for life that healthy infants should receive. And now you might be starting to see why I draw the line at when others observe the foetus/newborn and why I object to pre-natal imaging and screening.

      If you are going to leave the decision to terminate with the pregnant woman the factors for making that decision must be kept as much as possible centred on her. By the time someone says “He’s a boy!”, “She’s a girl!”, “It’s a thing!!”, “He’s beautiful and healthy!”, “She’s ugly and sick!”, … you are allowing the very real possibility the factors deciding termination will move from the woman to the foetus/baby. You are now in the territory of “life unworthy of life”. I think we all know where that leads.

  • tnt666

    I agree with full abortion on demand. I also agree with the analysis of neonate euthanasia by PPD mother or in the case of completely disabling medical condition.
    As people working in the field of science, we must be adamant that science alone CAN not provide “moral guidance” in this situation (as well as most others). The issue of self-autonomy is the most important factor in this debate.

  • oopster74

    I really want to agree with you on this but I find myself holding back. I don’t like abortion, anyone here who says they do is a liar, but I will defend any woman’s right to an abortion, but, I do think there has to be sensible time limits, and they need to be determined by the medical professionals, not politicians. I think to terminate the foetus at too late a stage is cruel, and there has to be a balancing act of mother’s verses baby’s right here. It’s one of them issues though that is going to get people on both sides of the argument getting extremely emotional about it though, so a calm measured debate is rarely going to happen on it. To clarify though, I think it should remain legal, but we need to educate from an early age (whatever that entails without judgemental crap) responsibility, safe sex, even decency, and then we wouldn’t have half the problems we have now. In essence, take away the reasons for abortion, but still have it there as an option, (I hope that sounds how I meant it to).

  • William J. Grabowski

    I’ll be brief: If there’s another piece more brilliant, and genuinely worthy of wide distribution, I haven’t read it. So glad I “found” you. Good to see I have a lot of catching up to do.

  • Sophie

    Hey Stavvers, I agree with the points you make in this piece but just want to point out that not every person who has a uterus and could get pregnant is a woman – so I would qualify your statement “That could have devastating ramifications for abortion rights, as well as giving the state further control over women”. You are right to point out that not all people who identify as women are able to get pregnant, even cis women like me, but it would be more respectful to trans* people (and more accurate) to acknowledge that restricting abortion affects anyone who can get pregnant, whether or not they identify as women.

  • cabrogal

    I’ve never heard a doctor, nurse or midwife (I’ve known many of each) use any word other than “baby” to describe the unborn person at such a late stage.

    This is a good illustration of the importance of distinguishing between individual morality and social policy.

    The decision as to whether to terminate should be one of individual morality. The decision about resources to terminate and possible sanctions against illegal termination is one of social policy.

    There are plenty of people who start thinking of the foetus as a baby the second the little strip changes colour and I’m certainly not about to gainsay them. The fact that many in the pro-choice camp do is, I think, arrogant and inhumane.

    But social policy needs to be set according to some kind of clear line as to when the foetus becomes socially human, as opposed to human in the mind of a mother, geneticists, eugenicists, medical professionals or religious or moral evangelists.

    To me when you are no longer a ‘theoretical being’ in the mind of a mother or a doctor but someone who is present, subject to interaction and capable of being judged in comparison to others you are part of society and therefore socially human.

  • Todd Rich

    I live in the U.S. where the right to choose is being eroded. Many states have repeatedly introduced “personhood” legislation, where a law would consider a fetus at any stage of development to be a person. There have been a number of cases in which a fetus which has no chance of surviving after birth, is being miscarried or, indeed, is already dead cannot be aborted because someone considers it a person and aborting it is not allowed. One state legislator was opposed to allowing the abortion – if that would be the appropriate term – of a dead fetus on the grounds that his cows and pigs carry dead fetuses to term. And this leads me to ask, “aren’t I a person?”

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