When the personal isn’t political: abortion as taboo

Access to abortion in the UK is not as good as it should be. In less than a week, MPs will be voting on whether to make the situation worse by reducing the time limit. Kit Roskelly has dissected the issues for us; Sunny Hundal has outdone himself with a great banner and piece on ‘science abuse’ as practiced by some of the anti-choice lobby; and Laura has flagged the pro-choice protest that will be mounted for those able to be in London on Tuesday. Come!

Despite the excellent work that these and other writers have been doing, there is a worrying rumble just under our feet. It’s the rumble of public opinion that is being inundated with well packaged and emotionally persuasive mythology that is tapping into something deeper: a taboo.

For example, the terms of the public debate on the HFE bill have been largely set by anti-choice campaigners. Pro-choice campaigners seem to be on the back foot a lot, arguing why a reduction on 24 weeks is problematic. Yet our abortion law is 40 years old – and deeply behind the times. Even the shadow health secretary is proposing scrapping the two doctor rule; no other medical procedure requires the permission of two doctors.

Why aren’t pro-choice campaigners leveraging the time spent on the bill to visibly take the cause forward? The debate on the abortion law should be about improving access and advancing more progressive policies: in addition to eliminating the two doctor rule, restrictions on who can conduct abortions and where they can happen really need to be reviewed. Where is the campaign on any of this? Where is the surge of energy and lobby effort aimed at easing restrictions and promoting adequate access to this most important procedure?

The taboo is at work and the anti-choice lobby is using it to its advantage: what is actually an ideological campaign is being framed as being about science and medical advances. The result? The assault on women’s rights is being masked and there is a very real danger that the reduction in the time limit will be de-politicized. While Labour has a majority, this may not prove disastrous. Not so if the tides change at the next election.

Take a look at comments on recent pro-choice articles by ‘pro-choice’ readers: how many of them say, ‘I wouldn’t personally have an abortion, but I respect the right of another woman to make that choice’? What’s going on here? People are laying down their ‘pro-life’ credentials in the same breath that they espouse being pro-choice. They are playing into the idea that there is something shameful about having an abortion, assuring others that they would not be part of that, but still trying to maintain the ‘pro-choice’ label.

Why do I need to know whether someone would personally ever have an abortion or not? How is that relevant to the debate on whether abortions should be legal and available as needed? It’s not. It’s self-absorbed – a clear signal that one is conscious of the taboo and is feeling ashamed.

Don’t be fooled. Sometimes the personal isn’t political.

Photo by Laurie Pink, shared under a Creative Commons license