(Image by 1388843 from Pixabay)

Last week, I argued that pro-life activists need to take women’s rights seriously. This post was driven, at least in part, by the fact that I believe the pro-life movement has for too long ignored the good points made by women’s rights advocates and activists over the years. This week, I’d like to highlight a point that pro-choice activists need to take seriously: the reality of forced abortion and coerced abortion. Forced abortion and coerced abortion are two separate issues, and pro-choice people should be concerned about both.

Forced abortion is where a woman is forced, against her will, to have an abortion, and has featured as part of authoritarian regimes historically. There are reports of forced abortion in some areas of the world even today; we have blogged before about forced abortion as part of the oppression of the Uyghurs in China, for example. I have yet to meet a pro-choice person who thinks this is OK, presumably because pro-choice people are, well, in favour of choice! Forced abortion really does horrify the pro-choice people I know – as it should.

However, there is a tendency by pro-choice people to ignore, question or downplay the existence of forced abortion. This may be because pro-choice people see the issue as a red herring. Forced abortion is so rare, it is not relevant for countries like Ireland, and the answer seems so obvious to pro-choice people – no one should be forced to have an abortion, but that doesn’t mean abortion should not be available for anyone. However, I think pro-choice people need to take the issue a bit more seriously. Forced abortion is a horrendous human rights abuse. It’s time those who support legal abortion in general to honestly confronted one of the harsh realities of abortion, and make meaningful efforts to end forced abortion worldwide. Particularly when you consider that many pro-choice advocates in Ireland campaign for legal abortion in countries such as Poland, Malta or America, they can – and should – campaign against forced abortion in countries like China.

However, if pro-choice activists prefer to focus their efforts at home, then they should consider the reality of coerced abortion. Coerced abortion is where a woman is manipulated, pressured, or even gently steered towards abortion by a third party. Coerced abortion can be done by family, partners, friends, healthcare professionals or society at large. It is far more difficult to address than forced abortion, because coercion is so much more subtle, so much more dispersed, is not illegal, and can be hard to spot, even by the woman herself. 

Some examples are pretty blatant: Baby Christopher’s parents, for example, have stated (through their solicitor) that their doctor raised the possibility of aborting their perfectly healthy baby, on the basis of incomplete test results. This is unacceptable, and it would be naive to assume it’s an isolated case. One of the consequences of being relatively open about your pro-life position is that people are more likely to tell you stories that they may not tell to their pro-choice friends, such as when their GP and midwife both offered, independently, to schedule an abortion, or when their obstetrician repeatedly pressed them to opt for the Harmony test “in case you want to travel”. 

The plural of anecdote is not data, but unless the medical establishment starts to take coerced abortion seriously, we won’t get proper data on this, working instead with no more than people who happen to tell their pro-life friends of all the occasions when they were steered immediately towards abortion by their healthcare providers. Consider also the fact that it is far more profitable for GPs to provide terminations than it is for them to provide antenatal care. Are there any safeguards in place to ensure that GPs do not inadvertently and unintentionally influence undecided women towards an abortion? 

It’s far, far too easy for pro-choice people to simply dismiss these concerns by saying that of course pro-choice doctors would only ever support a woman’s genuine free choice. We know that women’s concerns and views are often ignored by their medical practitioners when it comes to other women’s health issues like hyperemesis gravidarum or endometriosis. It’s ridiculously naive to simply assert that the same would never happen with abortion.

Furthermore, women can be coerced into abortion by their partners or family. In spite of this, the HSE’s 46 page long document of guidelines on termination of pregnancy under 12 weeks contains a grand total of two sentences on the issue of consent:

“All patients should have the opportunity to discuss the different options available to them. Appropriate consent should be obtained prior to medical or surgical termination of pregnancy which clearly outlines the risks, benefits, side effects and complications of both pathways.”

There is no recommendation or requirement in the guidelines that the woman have any part of any consultation alone, in order to allow her doctor to check whether she is freely consenting to the abortion and not being coerced by her partner, parents or anyone else who may accompany her to her appointments. This is such an easy thing to address, and pro-choice people should play their part in doing so.

Finally, society at large can place pressure on women to terminate their pregnancies. We all contribute to this. Every eye roll, every shocked face when someone announces “another?!” pregnancy, every negative comment about how kids ruin your life, every hushed referral to so-and-so’s daughter, every question about whether an employer will “let” their employee take the leave they are legally entitled to, every snide or subtle judgement for people having the wrong number of babies, at the wrong time, in the wrong circumstances, with the wrong person or for the wrong reason builds a culture that can push women towards abortion. Pro-life people are just as guilty of this as pro-choice people, but pro-choice people need to take this problem seriously.

If you’re tempted to ask why pro-choice people in particular have to take action here, and feel the need to point out that it’s perfectly reasonable to simply campaign for legal abortion without also having to campaign against forced and coerced abortion, I know how you feel. I feel the exact same way when pro-choice people tell me I can’t voice an opinion in favour of pro-life policies unless I also campaign for better maternity care, better healthcare, better childcare, better facilities for people with disabilities, better housing, more redistributive economic policies, etc. For the record: the Minimise Project does try to raise awareness on those issues! And believe it or not, we’re grateful to pro-choice campaigners for holding us to account by challenging us to do more than simply campaign on the issue of abortion, but also to campaign against the difficult realities that our position on abortion brings. 

Consider this blog post as me returning the favour.