How We Talk About Abortion Needs To Change

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
I have a lot of déjà vu at the moment. This creeping feeling that I’ve had a conversation before. That I’m saying something I’ve already said. I wonder if I’ve finally cracked and then, I realise, it is because I am quite literally repeating myself. I am writing the same words that I have seen staring back at me in black and white for years when it comes to the importance of abortion rights
Over 10 years ago, in 2008, I had a conversation with a Conservative MP just before they voted on whether to reduce the abortion limit as part of the Health and Social Care Bill
They argued that "the rights of unborn children" needed to be considered and thought that women should be "offered counselling" before they decided "whether to abort their child" or not.
The year is now 2022. Abortion is still a fact of life – one in three women in the UK will have one at some point. But people who oppose abortion are still in positions of power, able to take their opinions – often strongly held and loosely formed, with no regard for medical opinion – into the House of Commons and decide on legislation that will impact others. Those people still regularly try to further restrict access to abortion (which, according to the World Health Organization, is essential medicine) and impose their niche religious views on the majority of people.
One of them is the Conservative MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield. She is the latest anti-abortion politician (following in the recent footsteps of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was briefly Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under Liz Truss, and Thérèse Coffey who, similarly, was Secretary of State for Health in that short-lived, ill-fated government) to be promoted. 
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has appointed Caulfield as our new Minister for Women. Since becoming a member of parliament in 2015, she has voted repeatedly to restrict abortion rights. 
In 2018 Caulfield called for a debate on reducing the 24-week time limit for women to access abortion legally. At the same time, she described the 1967 Abortion Act as "one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world" and urged other MPs to be "wary of greater liberalisation of the law" when it comes to abortions. She also said that having to receive approval from two doctors before terminating a pregnancy protected "vulnerable" women.
These views are out of step with medical experts such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG). What's more, they do not reflect what the majority of people think: A YouGov poll conducted in 2020 found that nine out of 10 UK adults identify as pro-choice.
Also in 2018, while she was the Conservative Vice Chair for Women, Caulfield sought to be a voice for "the dignity and rights of the unborn child".
Caulfield was also formerly an officer of the all-party parliamentary "pro-life" group and in 2019 she voted against extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland. 
Last month, plans to enforce buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales and make any harassing approach to people seeking abortion at a clinic a criminal offence were finally backed by MPs by 297 votes to 110. Caulfield voted against the motion.
Speaking to the BBC’s Politics Live programme, Caulfield defended her position. She said that "the definition of harassment is open to interpretation" and added: "There's a possibility of someone going up to a woman who may be upset or distressed, offering them some comfort, that could then be accused of harassment and face six months in jail."
I have stood outside abortion clinics from Bournemouth to Manchester and watched as anti-abortion protestors harass women, give them leaflets full of inaccurate information about the risks of abortion, pray at them and shout through megaphones about the supposed rights of their "unborn children". 
If the majority of people in Britain today are pro the choice of a living person with a uterus to decide whether or not to bring life into the world, then how do minority anti-abortion views find their way into policymaking? 
The answer is complex. Sexism, evangelical religious beliefs, Christianity and Catholicism all play a role. But there’s something else going on. There is a problem with the way that we talk about abortion. 

When you terminate a pregnancy, you do not 'abort an unborn child'. You abort an embryo or a foetus. 

Consider for a moment the insidious language of the anti-abortion movement. Really think about what it means.
When you terminate a pregnancy, you do not "abort an unborn child". You abort an embryo or a foetus. 
The term "pro-life" is a clever construct which has served those who wish to restrict abortion well. It is an affirmative statement which begs the question: "Well, who wouldn’t be pro-life?" The answer to which is: "Well, of course I am pro-life." But that is not what the term really means. 
It is, as Caulfield put it back in 2018, really about being pro the supposed "dignity and rights of the unborn child". 
The conversation about abortion has always been defined by emotive falsehoods and inaccuracies like this. A media obsession with balance meant for a long time that the term "pro-life" proliferated, seeping into everyday discourse as a polite shorthand for "anti-abortion" and evoking images of innocent, helpless babies in just two words and two syllables. 
The problem is that the "unborn child" invoked does not exist. If it did, in theory, every period I have ever had was the expulsion of a potential life from my body by biology. 
At 12 weeks (the current UK limit for medical abortion) there is no baby. There is a foetus. Roughly 5.4cm long – about the size of a plum – it weighs around 18 grams, which is the same as three grapes. Without the person carrying it in their uterus, it has no life. 
Legally, unlike that living person, the foetus has no rights in UK law. It has no "dignity" because it is not a person with legal rights until it is born and draws breath by itself.  
As Katherine O’Brien from BPAS notes, the term "pro-life" is "deeply problematic for this reason". 
"It sets up this idea that there are two sets of rights, which is simply not grounded in law," she explains. "A foetus does not have rights. That’s clear. But I also think it sets up a framework whereby it is made to sound like there are competing rights between a woman and her pregnancy but that’s not how women view the decision to end a pregnancy. Often it is about their lives, their responsibilities. Pitting women and their pregnancies against one another creates a conflict where there isn’t one."
The right to end a pregnancy – to have an abortion – is considered a human right by the United Nations
Indeed, once a woman or person with a uterus gives birth, bloodily and often painfully, to human life, the baby that is brought into the world can only survive with the support of an adult human.
Being "pro-life" is not only anti-abortion, it is a stance which favours forcing people to endure pregnancy, give birth and take on parenthood regardless of their circumstances. When you boil it down, it is not abortion that is "inhumane", as those who oppose it so often try to portray the procedure as being, but rather forcing people to be pregnant and give birth. Studies have found that safe, legal and medical abortion is far safer than giving birth: Women are about 14 times more likely to die during or after giving birth to a live baby than from the complications of an abortion.
As the UN notes: "Denying access to health services that only women require, including abortion, is linked to discrimination and can constitute gender-based violence, torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."
The evidence is clear: Abortion is safe and essential healthcare. The law is clear: The person who is pregnant has rights. A foetus does not. 

In conversations about abortion, euphemism has been used to spare people's blushes because talking about what it takes to procreate – having sex – was deemed unpalatable and embarrassing.

Yet in parliament today, abortion remains a matter of conscience. That means the government adopts a neutral stance and allows MPs to vote according to their moral, ethical or religious beliefs.
"It's incredibly disappointing that Maria Caulfield has been appointed as women’s minister," lamented O’Brien. "She has a proven track record [of voting against abortion] which she is very comfortable defending in seeking to restrict women's ability to access abortion care."
"I can't believe that this role was offered to her or/and accepted by her without there being a discussion of that. It’s almost as if [the government] knew that organisations like BPAS would be concerned, but they just didn't care," she added. 
Language matters. In conversations about abortion, euphemism has been used to spare people’s blushes because talking about what it takes to procreate – having sex – was deemed unpalatable and embarrassing. Shame and stigma created a need for indirect language and it is precisely that which the anti-abortion lobby has exploited because it has made space for inaccuracy. 
"Pro-life" Americanisms have also infiltrated the way we talk about abortion in Britain and informed it with insidious inaccuracies. The idea that there are "early" and "late-term" abortions, for instance, sounds like the language of doctors but is a political construct and not reflective of medical terminology. 
Firstly, in high-income countries, nine out of 10 abortions are carried out before 12 weeks. Terminations that take place after that occur in the second trimester of pregnancy. However, there is no medical definition of what constitutes a "late" abortion at all. Termination after 21 weeks is incredibly rare. Less than 1% of abortions take place in the third trimester. 
The gaps that a fear of being direct has left in the way we talk about abortion need to be closed or they will continue to be filled with anti-abortion propaganda.
The moralising hellfire invoked by the (mostly religious) zealots who campaign against abortion rights has set a trap for those who defend the bodily autonomy of women and people with uteruses. 
When abortion is portrayed as a moral as opposed to a medical issue, those who want to defend it feel compelled to make moral arguments. So often, there is a compulsion to justify the right to choose by laying out the reasons why a person might terminate a pregnancy: financial difficulty, fatal foetal abnormality, age, incest, sexual assault. Well-meaning as they might be, these justifications reinforce ideas about "good" and "bad" abortions, encouraging women – as ever – to tell their stories. To share their pain as "victims" or their defiance as "survivors" in order to prove their worthiness to make decisions about their futures, their health, their bodies. 
In truth, it shouldn’t matter why. If somebody does not want to carry a pregnancy to term and go through birth, that is their decision and theirs alone. The details of it ought to be irrelevant. A woman shouldn’t have to cry, show remorse, reveal the contents of her bank account or have been through something horrific to be deemed a deserving sovereign ruler of her own anatomy. 
Abortion is technically legal in Britain but because of a Victorian law – the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act – it is also still a criminal offence. This has real consequences.
Firstly, that legislation misleadingly equates abortion today with infanticide because the outdated language of the 1861 Act talks explicitly about women as being "with child" as opposed to pregnant. Secondly, it means that if an abortion is not carried out under certain circumstances dictated by the 1967 Abortion Act (which sits alongside the 1861 Act but does not override it)  – with two doctors' sign-off, at a registered premises and within the specified time limit – it is not legal. 
It was because of this that earlier this year, a 24-year-old woman appeared in court in Oxfordshire because she bought misoprostol pills (the medication involved in medical abortion) online. A Portuguese interpreter was needed in court. English was not the woman’s first language. 
Experts like BPAS and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists agree that abortion needs to be decriminalised. To be moved away from criminal law once and for all and classified as a medical issue. 
Anti-abortion views need to be seen for what they are: niche, fanatical and out of step with public and medical opinion.
For as long as politicians with anti-abortion views are given high profile jobs, abortion will continue to be treated as a "problematic" issue and a "thorny" topic, not as a matter of essential healthcare. And for as long as that is the case, we live in a country which centres the imaginary "rights" of  hypothetical "unborn children" and not the rights of women. 

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