by Alison McCulloch

The discussion sparked by Richard Boock’s blog posts (“A Woman’s Right to Choose” and “Defending Your Right to An Opinion”) got me thinking about the how so many moral debates wind up with abortion as their end point. It’s not breaking news that societies tend to act out so many of their moral fears and panics by restricting sexual expression and reproductive rights. That they use contraception and abortion as tools to try to control what they fear or disapprove of. New Zealand has its own long history of doing this, be it trying to get white women to have children in order to avoid “race suicide” to keeping contraceptive information away from teenagers for fear of runaway teen sex – or something.

In a society that devalues certain groups, like those with Down syndrome or others who don’t fit a particular mold, as ours does, again we find the sharp end of the debate being focused on abortion. As if this, and so many other problems, could be solved if only women would stop having abortions for the “wrong” reasons.

The view of the 1977 Royal Commission report on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion, on which our current abortion laws are based, is stuffed full of moral fears and prejudices that quite neatly reflected 1970s society (and, I’d argue, 2011 society, too.) Here, I’ll just offer an excerpt that’s closely related to the issue at hand, from page 200 of the report.

(5) It is not immoral to terminate a pregnancy where the fetus is likely to be born with a severe physical or mental handicap, because the burden of the handicapped person to himself and to his parents may be greater than the sum total of their happiness.

(6) The termination of unborn life for reasons of social convenience is morally wrong.

One could make a good case that (6) and (5) are at odds, that the utilitarian rule used in (5) is completely bizarre and that the use of “fetus” in one case and “unborn life” in the other displays a clear agenda. But aside from all that, look at what this says about societal attitudes.

Then, as now, there’s a desire to condemn abortions that take place for “social convenience” (a nicely loaded phrase the Commission used frequently to conjure up images of women rushing off to the clinic because that pregnancy was going to interfere with their party plans). At the same time, the Commission gave a hearty thumbs up to aborting fetuses that were likely to be a “burden” because society did, and largely still does, both devalue the disabled and approve of such abortions

So the cry goes up: let’s clamp down on the abortions. Let’s ban abortions for X or Y reason to fix X or Y problem. Let’s ban abortions for reasons that we find offensive or trivial or discriminatory or “socially convenient”. That will resolve the difficulty and absolve us. Of course it won’t. Women’s choices cannot but be influenced by the society they live in, the pressures they face, the judgments made by those around them. In a society that devalues women and girls, there’s pressure to abort females, just as in this society, there’s pressure to abort fetuses with certain conditions.

The next step is to make abortion-seeking women (and those who support and facilitate their choice) the culprits for wider society’s perceived failings. It is she who is the root cause of a particular moral problem or a particular group’s being devalued if she has an abortion for the “wrong” reason. It is she who is the cause of promiscuity or moral decline or the breakdown of the family (which hasn’t actually broken down yet). It is she who is the cause of child abuse or our inability to fund superannuation. (A shout-out to Garth George on these last two.)

While we still live under laws that try to pick and choose who should and who should not be able to access abortion care, campaigns to ban abortion for X and Y reason, reflecting X and Y societal failing, will continue. Which is why abortion should be, as of right, up to the individual, its availability not contingent on your having a “worthy” reason, where that reason is dictated and enforced by the state. No, it won’t be a choice made in a vacuum, so campaigns to eliminate, or at least reduce, the kind of pressure to abort that some women say they’ve felt on receiving certain fetal diagnoses, are crucial. Just as important are efforts to stop dumping society’s short-comings at the door of pregnant women and calling them names for choosing to have an abortion.

Abortion restrictions should not be used as a tool to try to deal with wider problems – be they real or imaginary. The social goal might be just, but enforced pregnancy cannot be an answer.

Alison McCulloch is on the National Executive of ALRANZ. The opinions in this post are her own.