The Moral Maze
This work sets out in meticulous detail many of the fundamental issues and biases that surround abortion decision making and access. In vehement support of a woman’s right to choose, the issues and theses set out in this tome are summarized neatly by the statement at the end of the first section of the Introduction that “Abortion is almost never ‘just abortion.’”
When reading this book, readers travel a rich and challenging, sometimes strident, journey through the complex arena of abortion. The overarching debate about abortion is recounted, alongside an analysis of the moral underpinnings of the right to abortion. Attitudes about sex, life and death, cultural expectations about women, what it means to have personal freedom, issues around humanity, personhood and the role of the individual’s conscience in decision making are explored in depth. The holy grail of bodily autonomy is championed, including of course a woman’s right to freely decide what happens to her body in relation to a pregnancy.
As with this author, to those of us who live in the world of reproductive and sexual health and rights, some matters seem plain. Women should have the right to choose. Whether to continue with or to terminate a pregnancy is not an easy decision for many. We believe there are many equally valid points of view, and the decision of one person is as legitimate and deserving of respect and agency as the decision of another. We easily recognize that the decisions of two individuals in seemingly similar circumstances may be entirely different. We know that each individual has many influencers, experiences, complex needs, challenges and circumstances that may change across their lifespan. We assert that the decision of the individual, made without coercion and with as much information as needed, should be supported. We who believe this are often religious individuals committed to strong community and social values and action. We may believe in God.
However, there are chasms between us and those who fundamentally believe that their own religious or moral convictions must be imposed on others due to their inherent “rightness.” Despite the fundamental position of many religions that values such as tolerance, acceptance and respect are the foundation of human relations and a cohesive society, there are many examples in which religion is used as a weapon of control, manipulated in pursuit of personal validation and power. No area is so great, in this regard, as that of abortion.
We espouse the fundamental importance of respect for individuals having regard to their conscience. We have been encouraged to search our conscience for what is “right” in ensuring the integrity of our decisions. Yet this integrity is overridden with repressive laws and punishment and discrimination, often under the guise of religion, that are a diaphanous veil for political ambition, control of others and sometimes consolation for personal deepseated insecurities and doubts.
Yet, if one believes in the concept of human rights, then one must support the right of individuals to make their own choices, even about issues that seem so vexed to others.
Set out in detail in the book, in the area of abortion there is not only the issue of choice, but also the consequent ability to procure an abortion. There are many impediments to this in the real world. Policymakers cannot make a decision about fundamental rights without also addressing the ability to access what is guaranteed. In no other area of clinical service provision, even in the developed world, is there such rampant inequality of access to services than in abortion. The simple truth remains that, if one decides to have an abortion, then one often can only obtain an abortion if one has the personal means to pay for it. This is raw discrimination. This is not true everywhere, but it is a pervasive and profound problem for many women. We all know that women of limited means also, generally, experience the highest levels of lifelong poverty in society. It is a wicked problem perpetrated by those in positions of power on those without the means to defend themselves.
The overriding issue of personal human rights is what is at stake here—a woman’s right to choose.
There is food for thought offered by Furedi. One can challenge the notion of the actuality of individual rights to control one’s body and actions across the board. Under all legal systems, however, there are many sanctions that mitigate such autonomy. People cannot in many circumstances do as they decide, simply because it may cause harm to others. So too, conscription, brought about in times of war, mitigates an individual’s right to choose.
However, the paternalistic requirement for doctors to “make” a healthcare decision for a woman (even though the woman has already made her choice) is rightly contested, especially because this often involves specious and vague attributions about her mental health. Furedi acknowledges the myriad reasons that underpin a woman’s decision to have an abortion, many of which have nothing to do with her capacity to continue with a pregnancy. At the end of the day, rationales aside, she passionately argues that the woman should decide whether or not continuing with the pregnancy is in her own interests and be able to act on this without obstacle.
Arguments that abortion is a legitimate form of contraception, as a means of birth control, are often contentious even within the prochoice sector. Nevertheless, these are matters of personal interpretation and choice. The overriding issue of personal human rights is what is at stake here—a woman’s right to choose.
Furedi directly addresses the issue of the moral status of an embryo and the personhood of a fetus. She expertly addresses religious notions of “soul” and theological and philosophical not ions about the humanity of a fetus. But that is what they are: ideas and beliefs. The right of individuals to hold such beliefs is sacrosanct, but they are not, in themselves, adopted by all religious people, let alone all people. Similarly, we should not allow these beliefs to be imposed on others. This is the important distinction between church and state and between personal belief and community well-being that so many individuals (including politicians) so often confuse. The critical issue is that it is the rights of the woman that must prevail, as the fetus does not have a life except through the life of the woman. It is she who must be in a position to decide the fate of her life, to search her own soul, if you may, and that includes whether she chooses to remain pregnant or not.
As the book reminds us on many occasions, abortions are necessary. This is a pragmatic reality. Abortion, as unconscionable as it is to some, has been practiced since time immemorial. To preserve the lives of women who choose to have an abortion, we need it to be accessible and safe, provided without judgment or prejudice.
This is not an easy book to read, and not all of its ideas will resonate for everyone. But it is worthwhile. It sets out the important issues and contentions. It makes you face yourself. It acknowledges the woman beside you.
The Moral Case for Abortion
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 165 pp)
Now available in paperback.