8 March 2012

Event: The Americanisation of abortion politics in Britain

The 2012 BPAS Public Lecture was given by Carol Sanger, Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, New York.

We often hear of the ‘Americanisation’ of abortion politics in the UK, but unpicking the substantive threats to women’s reproductive rights in the USA can be a challenge. In the 2012 BPAS public lecture in London on 7 March, Professor Carol Sanger, a leading international scholar in the regulation of abortion, motherhood, and family, explored the current state of abortion politics in the USA and reflected on what lessons can be drawn by those keen to protect women’s reproductive autonomy in the UK, at a time when abortion appears increasingly politicised.

Sanger began by addressing three related issues within the US debate: the popularity of anti-abortion rhetoric; the politics of that popularity; and the way that anti-abortion ideas have become ‘a concrete system of regulation’, which positions women as ‘dangerous, unthinking creatures’. Much of this regulation, Sanger argued, comes in the ‘familiar guise of informed consent’, but in the sense that the principle of ‘medically-informed consent’ has been transformed into the imperative of ‘morally-informed consent’.

This situation has evolved in the USA, argued Sanger, as a result of the ‘calculated resolve of a 30-year campaign to re-criminalise abortion’. Those of us reflecting upon the situation in the UK can learn some important lessons from the tactics that have proved successful to the anti-abortion lobby over there, and also from the success or failure of the pro-choice movement in challenging these claims and putting a positive case for abortion rights.

‘Why is everything in the USA about abortion?’

Sanger began her reflections on the American situation by noting that the abortion issue seems to seep into every aspect of cultural and political life, from the school curriculum to TV advertising and the nomination of Supreme Court judges; and it has become a ‘reliably divisive’ issue, particularly in recent years. Abortion also becomes attached to other long-standing divisions in society, for example those over race.

One reason for this, suggested Sanger, is that ‘abortion itself is about so many things, and adaptable to so many meanings’ - she suggested that the term ‘polysemic’ as a description of this phenomenon, and went on to discuss the particular meanings that abortion has.

In the first instance, said Sanger, abortion is a medical procedure, and subject to regulation as an aspect of medical care. But it is also an issue of rights - the right to have an abortion - and thus also an issue of crime, because if abortion is not legal, women who have abortions (and doctors who perform them) become criminals, and this involves a whole ‘package’ of legal and social sanctions.

In addition to the question of the woman’s right to an abortion, noted Sanger, ‘doctors, too, have made rights-based claims’ - on one side, the right to practise medicine; on the other, the right to holding a conscientious objection to participating in abortion at all. Furthermore, rights-based claims have been made on behalf of the fetus - the ‘right to life’ - and all these claims need untangling.

Abortion is an issue of religion, ‘and, for some, about sin’. It is also about sex, and sexual culture; this is striking, Sanger argued, ‘in the law’s differential approach to abortion based on what kind of sex brought it about - for example, whether the woman was raped or whether she had sex voluntarily’. Abortion is the subject of law-making - it is ‘the most highly regulated procedure in the USA’, and ‘its legality is always at stake’, as evidenced in recent discussions about the (failed) ‘personhood amendment’ proposed in Mississippi.

Abortion is a political issue, and increasingly, Sanger suggested, it has become a partisan issue in the USA: ‘to be anti-abortion is a necessary part of Republicanism’, she said, and this is relatively new.

Yet despite being so highly politicised, abortion is a ‘deeply personal decision’. Sanger noted that in the USA, as in the UK, one in three women will have had an abortion by the end of her reproductive lifetime; ‘but unlike in Britain, no-one ever talks about abortion’. Sanger drew a useful distinction between privacy, ‘nobody has a right to know’, and secrecy, ‘not wanting anyone to know’; and suggested that the secrecy surrounding abortion decisions contributes to the difficulties with putting the positive case for abortion rights.

‘Imagery, imagination, ideology’

Sanger described the situation experienced by abortion providers in the USA. Abortions are carried out in distinct clinics, rather than general hospitals - anti-abortion campaigners describe these as ‘abortion mills’- and the clinics are ‘outrageously regulated’. Abortion doctors attract significant hostility; they are labelled ‘abortionists’ and constantly aware of physical threats.

Women attending abortion clinics are subject to ‘unending tactics by the antis’ - as a recent example, Sanger described campaigners taking photographs of young girls, and if the girls turned out to be minors, reporting them to the police on the spurious grounds that these were unreported cases of statutory rape.

Sanger went on to discuss the perversion of the concept of ‘informed consent’ that has come to underline many of the tactics used by the anti-abortion movement in the USA. This has become particularly clear in the recent attempts to force women to view ultrasound pictures of their fetus before having the abortion. Anti-abortion campaigners present this as ‘a benefit to women’s health’, on the grounds that if they see pictures of the fetus and read about its development, they won’t have an abortion and go on to suffer a lifetime of depression and trauma.

We don’t know if such measures actually change women’s minds about their abortion, argued Sanger, but it’s a safe bet that it makes them feel worse - an ironic (but hardly unintended) consequence of a measure promoted in the name of safeguarding women’s mental health.

The process at work in this kind of tactic, suggested Sanger, can be summed up as an attempt to combine ‘imagery, imagination and ideology’ - in that through seeing a picture of a fetus, you imagine it as your child and think again about abortion. Such attempts to ‘concretise the fetus’ have been effective, chiming as they do with the broader cultural status of ultrasound images of wanted pregnancies, and the way that women with wanted pregnancies now ‘see themselves as mothers’ at a much earlier stage of pregnancy than in previous generations.

Ultrasound in wanted pregnancies has become embraced as ‘the first rite of passage’ in becoming a mother; and in using ultrasound images as an attempt to restrict abortion, ‘statutes scoop women with unwanted pregnancies into the culture of motherhood’, presenting abortion not as the ending of a pregnancy but as ‘the killing of this darling thing’.

In addition to the emotional impact of such measures upon women seeking abortion, there are also some disturbing physical implications. For example, two states insist that women with pregnancies of under 10 weeks’ gestation undergo a vaginal ultrasound, against which there have been some protests against the forced bodily invasion of women that this represents.

The emphasis on fetal life, argued Sanger, has become a very familiar notion both in relation to wanted and unwanted pregnancy, and this has contributed to the stigma surrounding abortion in the USA today. She concluded her lecture by drawing attention to the problem of secrecy and stigma, in hiding the woman’s humanity and experience from discussions of abortion: ‘It can’t be the case that one third of women have abortions, and yet nobody knows that woman.’

Abortion laws and the culture wars

A number of questions and points were raised by the audience in the discussion that followed. ‘Why is abortion so central to the culture wars - what is it about this issue that makes it more central than, say, same-sex marriage?’ asked one attendee. Sanger responded that same sex marriage ‘probably comes the closest’ to abortion in its relationship with the culture wars, ‘but it doesn’t have the word “murder” in it’, and it is this that both gives abortion its emotive power and makes it difficult to people to talk about having had an abortion. 

Responding to a question about whether things have got worse, Sanger argued that, both ‘legally and socially - yes’. She went on to make a point about the ‘luxury of legality’ - a generation that has grown up with legal abortion finds it easier to oppose it, than for previous generations who were only too aware of the consequences of making abortion illegal.

This is a familiar theme to us in the UK, where there seems to be a striking difference in the extent to which older generations see the importance, and moral rightness, of legal abortion, while younger generations are more likely to take its existence for granted and not have formulated strong opinions as to why restricting abortion might be problematic.

A point was raised in relation to Sanger’s observation that ‘the fetus has overtaken pregnancy’, and whether this indicates a changing social sensibility about ‘who we are and what we are’, that is oriented increasingly towards a concern with biological meanings. Abortion politics were traditionally based in ideas about motherhood; now they seem to be increasingly defined by the question of fetal life.

Sanger affirmed this point by noting that, just as ultrasound imagery has transformed a pregnancy into motherhood at an earlier stage, so it has had an impact on the way the fetus is viewed at all stages of development: ‘people just don’t think of the early fetus as “a clump of cells” in the way that they sometimes used to’, she suggested.

A question was raised about the relationship between restrictions on abortion and restrictions on contraception, which Sanger observed relates to a more general concern about women’s access to sex, and an ongoing attempt to problematise that. Another question pointed to the way in which ‘choice’ is often popularly understood in relation to abortion - as a lifestyle, consumer choice, rather than a central question of women’s autonomy. This message can tap into a wider ambivalence about consumer society.

There was some discussion about the existing abortion law, both in the USA and UK. One attendee raised the question of whether the enduring attachment by the pro-choice movement to Roe v Wade was a help or a hindrance to the pro-choice cause: Roe was decided upon by judges, and has been so much amended, that it arguably reinforces the idea that women’s decisions should be controlled by judges on their behalf rather than the women themselves. Another attendee raised the question of whether, in Britain, we are in danger of ‘exhausting ourselves’ defending the 1967 Abortion Act, when we would be better placed to call for reformed, progressive law.

The final contribution came from Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, who spoke about the morality of abortion. The prochoice movement, in the UK as well as the USA, has tended to focus the case for abortion on the extenuating circumstances in which women find themselves, and therefore to stress the pragmatic case for abortion as a solution to an often complex set of individual problems. This can mean that the anti-abortion lobby often comes across as taking the moral high ground.

In fact, Furedi argued, ‘abortion is very moral’, in that to force women to continue with a pregnancy that she does not want is a profoundly immoral act. Similarly, it is ‘morally abhorrent’ to argue that the moral status of the fetus is the same as that of ‘living, conscious people’, for example in suggestions that abortion can be compared to the Holocaust. In relation to the law, the moral case for abortion should be a starting point for thinking about an abortion law that is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century, and how this relates to medical practice.