“Legal safe and rare” – what does it mean?

(Cross posted at The Hand Mirror)

I have read a couple of pieces recently, written by women who have made the abortion decision, one in the Adelaide Mail, with a follow-up blog post, and one by Stef, the Ex-expat , cross-posted at The Hand Mirror. Neither of the women had the abortion light-heartedly, both of them took responsible decisions, and both of them say something very interesting about shame.

Audrey and the Bad Apples says:

It makes me incredibly sad that the point of my article has been proven – that women won’t speak out without guilt or remorse over something like abortion because the reactions she can expect to get are ones of hate, ignorance, judgmental assumptions and sanctimonious bullshit. I’m especially offended by the suggestions of some that I am ‘bragging’ in the column; that I’m boasting about what I’ve done, that I’m flippant, that I’m ‘wearing the abortions like a badge of honour’ – when what I’m ultimately doing is refusing to wear them as a badge of shame.

And Stef says:

I feel the need to write about abortion from a slightly different perspective, someone who has had one. I do so not because I am proud of having one nor because I want to encourage others to follow my decision but because I refuse to be ashamed when I admit that I have had one

Don’t read the comments thread on Audrey’s Adelaide Mail piece – it’s pretty vile, but there is some amazing support for her decision. There are no negative comments on Stef’s thread, possibly because some of us leapt in straight away with support, possibly because what she wrote was just so damn sensible.

So perhaps the determination of these women not to feel pressured into feeling ashamed, not to buy into some self-disapproval reflecting what they took to be society’s disapproval, was not really necessary, given all the support they got.

That would be the positive way to look at it, to think that society really doesn’t condemn abortion any more, but I think it’s not just positive, it could even be seen as positively pollyanna-ish. Aside from the anti-abortion crowd, even people who say that they support a woman’s right to choose often tag it with saying that abortion should be “legal, safe and rare”, a tag that I think is inherently contradictory. And that exposes those who use the phrase as not really accepting abortion, as being deeply ambivalent about it. Sure, women should be able to access abortion, but really, they shouldn’t use it at all. The unspoken justification is that abortion is wrong, that it shouldn’t happen, but they will accept it as an evil necessity.

I also suspect that people who use the phrase haven’t given thought to what making something legal, safe and rare actually entails. When it comes to minimising abortion, then we need easy access to effective contraceptives, and good education about contraceptives. Abstinence won’t work; the genie of sexual freedom is long out of the bottle, and it won’t be going back. In any case, who really wants to return to the repressed and repressive world on the 1950s?

Even then, contraceptives do fail. So we need easy, reliable access to the emergency contraceptive pill. But that’s not failsafe – I have friends who ended up pregnant despite using both condoms and the ECP. They had twins.

My friends were lucky – they were in a position to continue the pregnancy. But many women aren’t. If the “legal safe and rare” crowd really want to make abortion rare, then they need to ensure that women are not penalised for continuing the pregnancy. And that will entail ensuring that mothers have adequate financial support, that young children can be well fed, clothed, housed and educated. A woman faced with an unexpected pregnancy should not need to engage in feverish calculation about whether or not she can actually support a child, if people really want abortion to be rare. Alternatively, mothers need access to high quality child care, and flexible work, so that they can continue to work, and support their children themselves. Even then, they would need to have social supports available too, so that they can get a break from the demands of parenting and working, and juggling, juggling, juggling all the time.

“Legal safe and rare” entails a huge cost, and a significant re-organisation of the way society works. I suspect that many of the “legal safe and rare” crowd don’t want to pay that cost. Instead, the tag is, I think, a quiet dogwhistle. Those who oppose abortion can at least feel that the utterer really does oppose abortion too, but accepts it as an evil necessity, while those who support abortion can feel that at least they will not be on the barricades again, defending a woman’s right to choose. And those who are ambivalent can hear their ambivalence reflected right back at them.

None of what I have written deals with the morality of abortion. It’s just about the way that we regard abortion. The morality of abortion is a different matter, and it’s an issue that has been well rehearsed, over and over again. I don’t propose to go there now. Maybe another day, maybe not, depending on what is happening in the countries where I live, maybe nothing until next year’s blog for choice day. If you do want to argue the toss on it, have the decency to read some of the considerable philosophical literature on it first – start with Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, and then try Rosalind Hursthouse’s Beginning Lives.

10 responses to ““Legal safe and rare” – what does it mean?

  1. This is a very, very good post.

    I agree with almost every word here and thank you for the links to the other amazing articles on this.

    I agree, the laws need to be changed to a more progressive line. However, I’m not sure now is the time to do it. As you note, I also fear the muck that will be dredged should this issue come up for debate and with the political climate looking as it is at the moment with it’s apparent swing to the right, I don’t think that the debate will get the show it needs.

    Thanks again for the post :)

  2. To agree with Chris, this was a great post.

    “Legal safe and rare” should mean free access to contraceptives, and destigmatisation/encouragement. I’m very much pro-abortion, in the sense that a woman should have every right to end her pregnancy, but would still rather that she didn’t have to make that choice. An unwanted pregnancy is a pain, whether you abort it or not!

    Unfortunately, the phrase makes uneasy bedfellows of a range of perspectives. Thanks for highlighting this.

  3. I haven’t really thought about what the other side of my pro-choice stand would be, as in the choice to actually have the child, so this was a good reminder. I know that I support ways to make parenting easier, but have never articulated it quite as well as you just did. So cheers. I’m glad that I’ve started to add a lot more feminist sites to my blogroll.

  4. Great post, so pleased to see mothers talking about abortion.. and thanks for letting us all know about The Hand Mirror – sounds terrific.

  5. Great post Deborah!

    There’s a phrase I’ve seen on some of the US feminist websites which I think sums up very well the hypocrisy of being pro-life but anti-supporting parents:

    “If you’re pre-born you’re fine, if you’re pre-school you’re f*cked.”

    While it’s bad that the law in NZ doesn’t reflect the reality, it’s good that we don’t have the highly politicised debate that they do in the USA.

  6. Hear hear! At the moment in Australia we have a situation where people with a decent job and/or family support have real choice, and other women don’t. There’s having a baby and ‘choosing’ a life of poverty, or there’s abortion.

    So we need paid maternity leave, for all women, and good quality accessible childcare, and family-friendly workplaces. Most of all, we need to ditch the stigma of single-motherhood, because things are better but they’re not good enough.

  7. “…effective contraceptives, and good education about contraceptives. Abstinence won’t work; the genie of sexual freedom is long out of the bottle, and it won’t be going back”

    Like any other contraceptive, abstinence can be extremely effective when used regularly.

    If people would sit down and actually think about the possible consequences of sexual activity, they would realize that having the freedom to do something does not mean you always should. And then that genie would stay in the lamp for a later date.

    It is merely another symptom of the selfish generation (starting with mine). We have to have what we want when we want it (now). Sex, money, toys, etc. The lack of self restraint is a goodly percentage of the problems faced in America, credit card debt, teenage pregnancy, unwanted pregnancy, STDs, obesity, drugs. I’m sure the same is true to varying extents around the world.

  8. i’ve been thinking about this one for a few days, and while i can definitely say i agree with stef’s decision, some of your reasoning is beyond me.

    the economic argument simply doesn’t hold water. meaning, the decision to terminate based on the fear “i might become poor” is… not a strong one.

  9. But Che it isn’t just the mother who would be poor, it is also the child. I know couples who are actively avoiding conceiving because they can’t afford to have a child now, and wouldn’t want to bring one up in poverty. How different is that choice from having an abortion for the same reason?

    Forgive me if I’m missing your point here, a bit more explanation would be great.

  10. julie, hi (long time no see :) )

    sure, but contraception (*actively avoiding*), and termination are two entirely different things.

    one is good foresight, the second is making a choice about another person’s life, with the prime determinant being *lifestyle*.

    the argument overlooks that it is *normal* for new families struggle financially, and second forces a decision based on the assumption that one’s current financial position is permanent.

    i know a few women who had children very early, and are now in a better financial position than me…