A pill won't make abortion any less painful

You only have to meet women who still don't have that entitlement to see how fortunate most of us in this country are
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The Independent Online

How tenacious are these memories and how they arise in the head, intact and alive, triggered by the slightest thing. This summer's high street fashions for example – these white petticoat skirts and fine cotton blouses with gypsy necklines and elasticated waists, clothes I used to love in the Seventies when I was a young student, married to another student, both of us ambitious for ourselves and for any future children we might have. I was wearing floating white when the doctor told me I was pregnant, only one year into my MPhil course at Oxford. Nervous of the pill, we had relied on other forms of contraception, none perfectly reliable. An abortion was the only option for me – in those days there wasn't much agonising over whether, only when. The system sometimes failed to get you in within the legal period, which nearly did happen that time.

How tenacious are these memories and how they arise in the head, intact and alive, triggered by the slightest thing. This summer's high street fashions for example – these white petticoat skirts and fine cotton blouses with gypsy necklines and elasticated waists, clothes I used to love in the Seventies when I was a young student, married to another student, both of us ambitious for ourselves and for any future children we might have. I was wearing floating white when the doctor told me I was pregnant, only one year into my MPhil course at Oxford. Nervous of the pill, we had relied on other forms of contraception, none perfectly reliable. An abortion was the only option for me – in those days there wasn't much agonising over whether, only when. The system sometimes failed to get you in within the legal period, which nearly did happen that time.

I didn't expect to cry as much afterwards and sensible people put it down to confused hormones. Three years later I had the same experience again, a week before my exams. Again the doctors understood and arrangements were made for a termination. Maybe aggravated by stress, I miscarried a few weeks later and that was, in many ways, more traumatic because I was alone in the house and didn't know what to do.

Seeing the clothes in the shop windows last week brought these events rushing back. As did the news that the Government is planning to provide abortion kits for British women to be used in "non-traditional settings". These kits remove the need for surgery or anaesthetic and all the complications which can occur with traditional methods.

Two different drugs would need to be taken 48 hours apart leading to contractions, bleeding and a miscarriage. "Medical" abortions have been around for a while in some clinics but now they are to be more freely and widely available. Good, sensible policy is my first response, particularly as new tests have just revealed that modern condoms made of polyurethane break far more than traditional sheaths made of latex rubber.

Long-dead feminists will be cheering in their graves. I feel immense national pride that British women such as Marie Stopes and Stella Browne argued potently for the changes which have served so many of us who might otherwise have become trapped in a life of poverty and bitterness and probably resentful parenting. Ms Browne wrote way back in 1935: "Abortion should not be either a pre-requisite of the legal wife only, nor merely a last remedy against illegitimacy. It should be available for every woman without insolent inquisitions nor ruinous financial charges, nor tangles of red tape."

You only have to meet women who still don't have that entitlement to see how fortunate most of us are. And I wish all distorted "humanitarians", aggressive "pro-lifers" who terrorise women and their health workers, would spend time with children in care to see what is done by parents and by society to unwanted children. It is sickening that in countries such as the Republic of Ireland, parts of the United States and the Islamic world, religious and political leaders still conspire to keep women and girls breeding whatever their circumstances. Do you remember the case of the 13-year-old Irish girl, pregnant after being raped by a family friend, who became a cause célèbre when the state tried to stop her getting an abortion in Britain?

In the maternity wards of some of our hospitals today you can see young women from Somalia or Bangladesh and other countries who look years older than they are. Their eyes are dead, their teeth are rotten, they are worn out from having babies every year (Shhh! We're not meant to talk about this, it might cause offence!) and yet they cannot choose contraception or abortion; they have been made that powerless. However, gender selection clinics are sometimes used by such women to force the abortions of female foetuses. The whole business is heartbreakingly squalid.

The poorest people in the world have no access to safe abortions and so more than 20 million women insert knitting needles, sticks, coat hangers and wires, even bleach douches to do it for themselves or with the help of horrible quacks. Some get helpful kicks to their bellies, especially mothers who have only had daughters. Some 70,000 women die each year from botched abortions. If the new methods eventually can be made available to these desperate women, what a difference it would make.

Having said all this, perhaps readers will be surprised to learn that I also feel some anxieties about these latest proposals and that as I get older I am beginning to understand better that abortions stay in your psyche, images of babies never born appear in your dreams and that it is neither possible nor right to take a purely mechanistic view of what is in fact the destruction of a potential life.

I know at least two women who thought nothing of having abortions when they didn't want children only to find that when they were ready, it never happened again. When I was trying for a child 10 years ago, I suffered two miscarriages before conceiving my daughter and a voice kept telling me it was punishment for the past. Mad, but true. So I think it would be wrong to assume that this greater ease and access will make abortions less emotionally painful and complicated.

The other major issue is more serious. Is this part of a twin-track solution to lower the rates of teenage pregnancies? Another dud idea to complement the one announced last month whereby schools were given permission to provide contraception to their pupils, however young? If so I think we should all be concerned. This roll-over response is one I totally disagree with. We have legal limits for sexual intercourse for good reasons and I find it unnerving that politicians and parents now expect that law to be broken because it is. So if we get an epidemic of 13-year-olds driving cars (and we can't stop them, you know what kids are) will politicians rush out new policies to enable these children to drive more responsibly? Will they reduce all penalties because punitive measures would be "counterproductive"? Will they roll over next with alcohol consumption too?

I don't want my daughter to be secretly having sex at the age of 13 or even younger, facilitated by her school. And I certainly don't want to hear her screaming from behind a locked bathroom door as she ejects a foetus after having this medical abortion, again on her own. Both may, of course, happen, especially as we have made a world where girls have got to behave like open fences and let all in, if they want to be liked, if they want to have mates, if they want to be cool.

Of course in situations of sexual abuse and rape, the sad mistakes that young people themselves make, they must be helped to get abortions, and these safer ones will reduce their terror. But this easy abortion will make it harder for vulnerable girls to say no to unsafe sex and it may encourage the unzipped in clubs and beaches to descend to even more repulsively Bacchanalian romps.

So two loud cheers for easy-access medical abortions, and one tremulous one, just because I am not sure all the implications and unintended consequences have been thought about as much as they need to be.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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