The emergence of right-winger Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate in the presidential election has brought some uncomfortable issues to the fore.
I met up with a bunch of friends the other night. We range in age from the early 30s to the over-60s, and we're a mix of backgrounds, but one thing we all have in common is that we're western Europeans and are therefore pretty comfortable with the idea of abortion.
It is a constant, striking disappointment to Europeans that abortion is still such a hot-button issue in a supposedly civilised country like the US and that the religious right have been able to make such terrifying inroads into denying women's rights.
In western Europe abortion is pretty much a done deal and has been for decades, though we are still having to fight occasional resurgences of religious feeling from countries like Poland, which would like to foist their nasty little views on the rest of us in the EU - so far without success, thank heavens.
Abortion is available on demand in much of western Europe up to nine weeks, and is relatively easy to obtain up to 12 weeks. After that, things get more complicated, but the basis for the viability of the foetus and therefore any rights it might have is grounded in science, not religion, even in countries that are nominally Catholic. This is obviously as it should be in a modern society.
Abortion and sin
In cultures that lack a Judao-Christian tradition, abortion often has no connotations of 'sin' at all, which might come as something of a surprise to westerners. In Japan, for instance, a nation that until recently could never consistently feed and care for its people, abortion has always been, and remains, a commonplace event. It is not something worthy of punishment or moral reprobation - women simply have abortions if their circumstances won't allow them to raise a child well and happily.
In Japan, a woman who loses a child before it is born can visit a Mizuko Jizo shrine and pray to the spirits that protect all who die in a body of water, but there is no distinction between miscarriage and deliberate abortion - they are considered to be equal private tragedies. I find it deeply touching that in such a graceful way, the personal impact of an abortion can be acknowledged in so humane a fashion.
Who and why
There is still much misunderstanding, even in the UK, about exactly who has abortions and why. For all that the right-wingers would have us believe that it is reckless young women who 'indulge' in abortion because they are a bunch of slappers who screw everything in sight (as if, by the way, that was illegal...), in the UK every year as many abortions are performed on women over 50 as on girls under 16. These are mostly women in long-term relationships, often with grown children or even grandchildren, but who for various reasons decide that it would be foolhardy to go through with a pregnancy at their current time of life and in their current circumstances.
Nor do most women who have abortions do so with a light heart as if it were a walk in the park - another argument often put forward by the forced-pregnancy lobby. Having an abortion is always a fraught decision. One friend of mine, who miscarried just before going in for her abortion, broke her heart over the loss of her baby. But she is adamant that she would have had the abortion all the same - being young and not in a settled relationship, she did not wish to go through with a pregnancy, did not want to keep the child and did not want to launch it into the world to an unknown fate. An abortion, in these circumstances, seemed to her the most responsible answer in a difficult situation.
We would do well to remember that pregnancy is a result of biology, not of choice, and that it affects only women. (I don't believe that abortion is something in which men should have any legal say AT ALL). Throughout history, pregnancy has been the leading cause of female death and even today without effective access to contraception, it can remain a death sentence, as it does in continents like India and Africa, where women continue to bear infants with gruelling frequency. Even in the west, in countries with a free health service, pregnancy and birth exact a serious toll on both your health and your finances. Women have always sought to terminate pregnancies as well as prevent them effectively, and they will continue to do so, no matter what the law, the government or even the church says. We may as well make sure they can do so safely.
Pros and cons
For those of us who do not have a religious belief, abortion is a simple matter in which you weigh up the pros and cons of the situation logically. Is it better to bring a handicapped child into the world or not? Is it better for an underdeveloped teenage girl to go through a pregnancy or not? Which should have the greater right - the adult who is already here, or the foetus that hasn't yet drawn a breath? In the end, the decision should rest with the woman involved - it is not happening to anyone else.
The parameters on what is permissible naturally shift and change, particularly as science and technology make inroads, and our laws do their best to keep up with a fluctuating situation. For instance, the General Medical Council in Great Britain is currently looking to review at what age 'viable' foetuses should be saved during a miscarriage. In the past few years, many foetuses have been saved at 22 and 23 weeks, but on review, so many have proved to suffer severe handicap and brain damage that the GMI may choose to reset the barrier at 24 weeks - coincidentally, the time-limit for legal abortion where there is not substantial risk to a woman's life or risk of foetal abnormality (in this case, there is no time limit).
On a personal level I believe that life begins at conception, but that a foetus is only a potential life, not yet a full human being - particularly given that 25 per cent of foetuses under 12 weeks abort spontaneously. There is therefore no way that I would accord a foetus the same legal rights as its mother, who is appreciative of suffering as a full human being right here, right now, on this planet.
And no more than I would force another woman to have an abortion would I force another woman to go through with a pregnancy that she did not want. Empathy is what we need here, not moralising.
Access to contraception and to safe, legal abortion should be rights that apply to all women, wherever they are.