Ellery responds to Julia Black’s documentary ‘My Foetus’, which used images of aborted foetuses and was the first to screen footage of an abortion taking place. She ponders the use of imagery and pictures in the abortion debate.
Anyone who reads a broadsheet newspaper will be familiar with the issues covered by Julie Black ‘s recent programme, “My Foetus”. Screened at 11pm on Channel Four on Tuesday 20th April, it attracted controversy for its use of graphic footage showing aborted foetuses, and for being the first programme to screen footage of an abortion taking place. This article is more of a response to the television programme than a formal review. I should also at this point acknowledge my debt to Jackie Ashley, whose excellent article in the Guardian influenced my response. I recommend reading it to anyone interested in the issues raised by the programme. Whilst overall I felt the programme was a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate over abortion, it had some major flaws that I intend to discuss here.
To be fair, there is a limited amount one can cover with only half an hour’s screen time, and Black clearly wanted to focus specifically on the reality of the appearance of both the foetus and abortion. As such, her programme gained a lot of attention for its use of images, in particular the images of aborted foetuses and an early abortion being carried out. I have two main points to make about this. Firstly, whilst I respect Black’s willingness to seek out those who campaign against abortion, I am curious as to why the images shown of aborted foetuses had to be the same ones used by the anti-abortion campaign. Couldn’t she have found some photographs taken in a medical context (especially given that her father works for Marie Stopes International)? Admittedly, the subjects of such photos would not look much different to those used by anti-abortion campaigners. The abortion doctor’s gruesome, though undoubtedly accurate, description of a late termination – “bits of foetus falling into a bucket between my feet” – makes that clear. I should mention Black ‘s interview with him was one of the highlights of the programme – it is rare to hear the viewpoint of anyone who actually performs abortions in this debate, and he was very frank about what he does and why. However, the images shown in the programme had been specially designed to shock by those who produced them, with the foetuses’ limbs carefully arranged to make them look as much like full-term babies as possible, the entire image being drenched in blood and enlarged to make the foetus look as big as possible. If shown at its actual size of about six centimetres, perhaps the viewer might have a different response.
Incidentally, I found the footage of an actual abortion (at four weeks using the ‘suction’ method) less shocking than I’d expected. You see more gruesome pictures on ER every week – I remember thinking “Is that actually all it involves?”. Though not pretty, it didn’t look much worse than a cervical smear. The foetal remains of an early abortion (the ones shown were at seven weeks) really didn’t look much like a baby, more like a heavy period gone wrong. Apparently some anti-abortion campaigners disliked this section, saying that it made abortion look ‘easy’ and ‘good’. An interesting statement about their attitude to the debate; is it all about the images? To a certain extent, perhaps it is.
I also rather wish Black had challenged the views of the anti-abortion campaigner who brought up the old ‘Abortionists are Hitler returned’ and ‘Abortion is genocide’ arguments. Since she didn’t, I’ll add my two cents here. As a philosophy and politics student, I was trained to use the ‘Nazi principle’ in debates; it’s the rule of thumb that suggests that the first side in an argument to compare the other side to the Nazis loses the argument. We should argue about how things are, not seek to win arguments with vacuous comparisons designed to evoke revulsion without thought. Genocide is the deliberate and preplanned attempt to wipe out a particular race of people. Developing foetuses cannot be defined as a ‘race’ in any meaningful sense, and a seriously planned attempt to wipe them out would swiftly exterminate the human race. If you believe that a foetus has full human rights, then you can define abortion as murder, but it’s not genocide and it’s a lazy argument to suggest it is. If Hitler were alive today he’d probably be on the side of anti-abortionists, since the Nazi party outlawed abortion as part of their ideology that the best role for women in society was producers of children (I acknowledge my debt to Gloria Steinem for pointing this out).
My second point contains the frequent use of pictures of Black walking around and swimming, usually used to fill the screen during introductory narrative, and with the camera focussed upon her pregnant belly, not her head or entire body. In another context, these could simply have been seen as lovely images of a healthy pregnant woman. In the context of the programme, these seemed to be making another point: something like “This is the reality of pregnancy – see, it’s not so bad after all”. In fact, Black was inspired to make the programme by her pregnancy. If she was thinking at the time of making the programme; “this is what I gave up when I had my first abortion”, I can understand that – though, of course, I could be completely wrong about her motives. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that the camera’s incessant dwelling on Black’s pregnant belly is rather leaving out some other important images. How about a woman being sick with morning sickness, day after day, or screaming whilst having labour, or being unable to sit down following a torn perineum after labour? In the same vein, we are shown cute photos of Black and her infant daughter; nice to look at, but let’s not forget that, like all babies, the same infant requires 24-hour care, regular nappy changing and has probably woken its parents regularly with screaming. Babies are cute, but they’re hard work.
I really wish Black had given similar airtime to pictures used by the pro-abortion campaign. Except that it’s hard to imagine what these pictures could be. Some reviewers have suggested that pictures of backstreet abortions, as used to occur before abortion was made legal, would make one sort of point, as would statistics about how many women used to die having them. They would, but the pro-abortion campaign faces a problem in this respect. It’s easy to show pictures of aborted foetuses. It’s not so easy to what happens when abortion isn’t available, to show the decades of hard work required of parents – especially single parents, whose relationships didn’t last once the pregnancy became known. Nor is it easy to get mothers who didn’t or couldn’t go through with abortions to go on camera and admit that they wished they hadn’t had their children (or at least that they had been able to delay having children until a time of their choosing). The same goes for children who were nearly aborted and whose unprepared parents weren’t able to look after them; how can they be asked to say that they wished they hadn’t been born? Yet, nevertheless, these are good arguments about preventing these sorts of situations. Just because they can’t be summed up in a neat image doesn’t make them less valid.
I also wish Black had had time to challenge the anti-abortionists about whether they have any policies about preventing unwanted pregnancy, or if their arguments stop at the “Abortion should be outlawed, and we don’t care about the bad situations this creates for other people – they’ll just have to cope with it” line of thought. I found that I was provoked into thinking about this, which was a good side-effect of the programme. I certainly found that I was wondering about why our society doesn’t make better use of forms of ‘unforgettable’ contraception such as the Depo-Provera injection, the mini-coil which can be used by women who have not had children, the Mirena implant which provides up to five years of contraception. I used to use the injection, and provided you can remember to have it every three months (not that hard if you have a diary), it is about as foolproof as contraception gets. Why don’t we prepare young men and women – but especially young women – better for the situation of unwanted pregnancy, and how to avoid it? Make it clear that every time you have sex, you must be prepared to ask yourself “Do I want to be a parent right now?” and do something about it? Tell them exactly how to get the morning-after pill, and not to be afraid of using it? Teach them that a baby needs you to love it, not the other way around? Teach them to be confident and in sufficient control to say “If you don’t put that condom on, we’re not doing it”? Teach them, perhaps, that abortion isn’t morally wrong, instead of creeping around the subject, afraid of offending people? Perhaps if we did this, fewer women would have to go through the agony of deciding whether to have abortions. Feminism, we need you now.