The abortion debate never moves on

The right to contraception is about controlling fertility. The right to abortion is having a get-out clause
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The Independent Online

Nicole Appleton has been completely frank. Jodie Marsh explained why she made her decision just the other day. Julie Burchill, never to be outdone, has so far confessed to five. But these women - all of them - are exceptions. One in every three women in Britain has an abortion. But very few are willing to admit to having undergone this most routine of surgical interventions.

A few years ago, a pro-choice group attempted to organise a campaign enlisting celebrities who would stand up and be counted as people who had had abortions. Initially, they got a lot of support. But one by one the women dropped out. Many of them had considered the idea of going public and realised that it would be too hurtful to family members - mainly parents - who had never been told before. The campaign collapsed.

Julia Black, the woman who made the controversial Channel 4 film, My Foetus, does not have familial constraints of that kind to consider. When she was five years old, her father set up Marie Stopes International, one of Britain's biggest abortion providers. When she became pregnant at 21, she told her parents she did not want to have a child, and had an abortion. But when she became pregnant again at 34, she decided to have the baby. Like many women, she started to think again about the fate she had chosen for her previous conception.

Naomi Wolf is only the most high-profile among women who have altered or at least re-examined their views after experiencing childbirth. What is notable about Julia Black, though, is the extent to which she pushes that challenge. At the start of the film, pregnant with her daughter, she speaks of her wish to "face facts" and "confront the reality of abortion". She exhorts the rest of us to do so as well, by including in her programme not only shocking pictures of aborted foetuses that have been used by pro-life campaigners, but also beautiful 3D scans of fully formed babies halfway though their gestation. Most controversially, she includes a film of a vacuum abortion performed on a woman who is four weeks pregnant. In doing so, she shatters one of British television's last remaining taboos.

Channel 4's decision to broadcast this footage on 20 April has raised eyebrows not just because of the shocking content, but also because it refused during the 1997 and 2001 elections to transmit images in pro-life alliance broadcasts in case they broke guidelines and offended viewers. The difference this time, a spokesperson explains, is that the images are contextualised within a half-hour programme that puts both sides of the argument.

Actually though, one of the good things about My Foetus is that it questions whether "the argument" indeed has to have two sides. Essentially, opposing views on abortion are all about whether you put the chicken first, or the egg. In an attempt to break the deadlock, Ms Black suggests that in fact the rhetoric from the extremes of the debate can be eerily similar.

She talks to Fiona Pinto, who was arrested under the public order act for holding up a pro-life poster showing graphic pictures of an aborted foetus. Ms Pinto says she considers that if such images are too terrible to be seen, then they are too terrible to be legal. Ms Black, in deciding that she should film an abortion being performed, extols a similar belief.

This is perhaps why the screening of the abortion has been greeted by opposing groups sympathetically. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children supports the programme. So does The British Pregnancy Advisory Service. Both groups appear convinced that the reality of abortion backs their own arguments.

Yet it is disingenuous to say that this mirroring of views is some sort of indication of common ground. Pictures employed by pro-life groups reflect the underlying message they are employed to give out. The images of aborted foetuses used in such campaigns feature foetuses aborted far into pregnancy, and therefore in the most grisly of procedures.

In Ms Black's film a doctor does describe what it is like to perform a late abortion. He talks of "a dismembered baby falling into a bucket between my legs" and describes this as "unpleasant". But the abortion we actually see involves no such monstrous image.

Instead, while the footage is distressing, the sympathy one feels is more for the prostrate, passive, woman undergoing this intervention than for the unidentifiable morsel of tissue that is removed from her body.

In her narration of the programme, Ms Black emphasises that it is the early intervention that represents the reality of most abortions, with 87 per cent of abortions in this country conducted within 12 weeks and 1 per cent performed after 21 weeks. She also argues that a moral judgement cannot be made on any abortion unless the situation of the mother is known.

She further suggests that while supporters of abortion speak of being "pro-choice" the truth is that in legal terms a woman's right to choose does not actually exist. She claims that the legislation surrounding the 1967 abortion act is "patronising" or "out-of-date" since it demands that no woman can legally have an abortion because she chooses to. Instead she has to - albeit as a technicality - find two doctors who will agree that without termination her mental health will suffer. Are one in three women really that fragile?

If they are, then Ms Black is certainly not among them. As she strides through her film, pregnant belly thrust out, Ms Black appears redolent with sanity and certainty. In fact, despite confronting the goriest aspects of abortion, Ms Black's inherited views emerge at the end of the film not only intact, but to some extent, strengthened. Pro-lifers are dismissed in the end, not because they believe that a human life begins at conception, not birth, but because they, Ms Black argues, rely too heavily on the idea that there is a global conspiracy to make people have abortions. She concludes, rather lamely, that she believes it is possible to be "opposed to what abortion is but still be pro-choice".

I think I know what she means - that early abortion - the earlier the better - should be available on demand, but that at the same time this right should not be taken lightly. Frankly, I don't know if it is really worth filming and broadcasting the minutiae of the extinction of a life just to get across a view that is so prevalent already.

Ms Black says that the right to abortion is all about women controlling their fertility. But that is not quite correct. The right to contraception is all about controlling fertility. The right to abortion is all about having a get-out-clause when we fail for one reason or another, to exercise that control.

Maybe it is precisely because I am pro-choice - but in a cautious way similar to Ms Black's - that I found this film disappointing. It did not challenge my views, but confirmed them. I wonder of it is the sort of work that will do the same for all of its viewers. The three minutes of film showing an abortion confirmed to me that abortion is wretched. To others, it might confirm that abortion is an easy option. To yet others it might confirm that it is an abomination. In the end, maybe this film was necessary, because it ultimately confirms that the abortion debate is never likely to move on much further than it has already.