Ellie Levenson: The misogyny of the anti-abortion lobby

I am from the first generation to grow up knowing we can choose to terminate a pregnancy
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The Independent Online

When I was four days old, I was taken to a party where, by all accounts, I was cooed over and made a fuss of as any tiny baby is. The party, in 1978, was to mark the first anniversary of the opening of the day care abortion service, where my mum worked as a counsellor - though she was on maternity leave at the time.

When I was four days old, I was taken to a party where, by all accounts, I was cooed over and made a fuss of as any tiny baby is. The party, in 1978, was to mark the first anniversary of the opening of the day care abortion service, where my mum worked as a counsellor - though she was on maternity leave at the time.

I suspect some people will find this rather shocking, both the nature of my first party, and also that these were not baby-hating monsters (Nearly half of women who have abortions have at least one child already.) Rather, those who worked for this service were people who placed great emphasis on life, who felt strongly that women should be assisted, if they chose, to have safe and legal abortions.

The symbolism of this party is rather apt - for I am from one of the first generations in Britain to grow up knowing that, should we be in the position of having to make the choice, we can choose to terminate a pregnancy. And though I have never had to make this choice, I have appreciated knowing it is there.

Recently, however, we have seen a backlash against this right to choose, partly the result of the influence of the religious right in America and elsewhere, and partly due to medical advances which have pushed back the age at which a foetus can survive outside of the womb. And when Mike Leigh's film about a backstreet abortionist, Vera Drake, shows at the London Film Festival on Thursday, the pro-life lobby will have a chance to take centre-stage again.

They do this through two distinct types of article in the press. The first goes like this: Some very young women are having abortions (sometimes, shock horror, without telling their parents). These women are portrayed as immature and highly irresponsible (though the biggest group of women who have abortions are aged 20 to 24).

In terms of irresponsible and wicked behaviour, abortion is second only to being a teenage or single (or teenage and single) parent. And as, once pregnant, these women are therefore vilified if they go ahead with the pregnancy or vilified if they abort it, there is only one answer - abstinence. Essentially, these articles are about telling women - and it is women that these pieces focus on - not to have sex.

The other type of article is far more subtle - the confessional article, from women who have had an abortion, and who seek to explain why they made this choice. These articles can almost be seen as a plea for absolution, or forgiveness: I had an abortion and I chose it because of such and such reason but I feel I have to justify it to you and please forgive me. And because society likes, even more than a virgin, a fallen woman who wants redemption, these articles are also encouraged.

To counter this, there must be a pro-choice voice from women, and men, who have never faced an unwanted pregnancy, who have grown up safe in the knowledge that should they ever be in a situation where they have to make this decision, the choice is there. This is the campaign to which every person who has ever thought about what they would do if they or their partner were pregnant should be adding their voice, even if their conclusion was that they would choose not have an abortion.

Being pro-choice is as much about the right to choose to go ahead with a pregnancy as it is to terminate it - for every woman, or partner of a woman, who has ever been a day late with their period, who has ever forgotten to take one of their contraceptive pills or had a condom that split or a "moment of madness" with unprotected sex, be it a one-night stand as the pro-life lobbyists would have us believe, or not (in fact, one in five abortions are performed on married women or those in a long-term relationship). Everyone who has ever lived in poverty, who has ever been in an abusive relationship, who has wrongly thought they were infertile, all have a right to choose.

Pro-life is one of the great misnomers of our age. People who are pro-life refer to the life of an unborn child versus that of a living woman. It is the ultimate misogyny, pro foetal life and anti women's lives.

This gets particularly vitriolic with late abortions, where the foetus may be able to live outside of the womb. Little emphasis is placed on the quality of life for the mother and her family, an attitude which can be seen in The Sunday Telegraph's campaign against the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) which has been found to be referring women to an abortion clinic in Spain for terminations after 24 weeks, the point at which abortion is illegal in Britain.

But if the anti-choice lobby is allowed to gain momentum, if teenagers are forced to tell their parents that they have chosen an abortion, if women are made to feel like ogres for choosing to put their lives first, and if medical professionals who assist women to have safe, and legal, abortions are made to feel threatened, as they are in America, then we will see a return to the dangerous and frequently botched illegal abortions portrayed in Mike Leigh's film, where women die unnecessarily.

The 1967 Abortion Act was one of the great progressive pieces of legislation in British history - the under 35s have no memory of what life was like before it, but we must not let support for it waver.

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