What US abortion laws mean to the UK

woman holding positive pregnancy test


The opinions in this article are that of the author.

As the terrifying string of anti-abortion actions takes place in states across the U.S., two things strike me about both my home country and how it affects us here in the UK:

The first is how the American media is failing in its job to analyze what such action means to country, its families and its children. For a long time the media has allowed anti-abortion activists to set the tone with talk of fetuses and their ‘rights’, not widening the lens on these policies and laws. The media is not showing the political disregard for these fetuses once they are babies and then children in need of homes, parents, love and support, not to mention money in the form of food, housing, education and healthcare. Where are their rights after the first 9 months?

Abortion as a pro-family choice

The media is not challenging the idea that abortion is anti-family, or discussing that with abortion legal and accessible, women can still stay home and be full-time mothers to 1 or many children. Without it, they will not have a choice about the children they give birth to or raise.

The American media is not shining a light on leaders like Eric Johnston of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, where lawmakers have effectively outlawed almost all abortions. Johnston believes that even in cases of rape and incest the fetus must always be the primary concern. He reportedly considers himself an abortion ‘purist’– can you hear their self-hagiography in that phrase? Even the NYTimes lets it stand in a piece published 19 May 2019 (‘This Is a Wave’: Inside the Network of Anti-Abortion Activities Winning Across the Country) without accurately relabelling it zealoutry, highlighting how it perverts and mocks religion and should be viewed alongside actions in other countries such as the enforcement of the burkha.

But the second issue is more far-reaching. It is that we are not talking about the central point of the anti-abortion debate: These moves are at heart misogynist. They are not ‘for’ fetuses, they are against women.

The real effect of anti-abortion laws

Restricting abortion does not simply attack a woman’s right to control her own body. Of course it does attack that. But the most dangerous aspect of it is that it keeps women from being full-fledged citizens.

Being able to control when you have children is at the heart of a woman’s ability to move through her life and society with agency. Because of the time, mental effort, money and care needed to bring up a child, we know the decision of whether to have and raise a child is a central one for people’s lives. Now imagine that could happen at a key moment when you are trying to get educated, start a career, care for an ill relative, look after your own health. Parenthood affects career, earnings, relationships. And as any parent will tell you, being a parent is a lifelong commitment.

Then take into account that girls in year 7 can become pregnant (the average age of the first period is 12.5 years) and menopause happens typically in a woman’s 50s. That’s almost 40 years of risk of not being able to decide your own future because of a single instance of unprotected sex, birth control failure, or sexual assault.

The myth of the Christian basis for anti-abortion measures

If we are requiring babies to come to term that are accidentally conceived through not only consensual adult relationships but also violence or to impoverished families or to vulnerable women or to girls still in braces, the Christian thing to do would be to remove all shame associated with accidental pregnancy. We should have a suite of fully funded services for pregnant female and the baby. We should shore up a pipeline of families ready to quickly adopt a baby, including ones that might have life-changing birth defects or be addicted to drugs.

If we are going to be asked to buy into these ideas as part of a truly Christian doctrine that requires females to take on a personal responsibility for these fetuses, then surely we ought to be strengthening laws that require the father to take on his fatherly responsibilities at the same time — attending prenatal meetings, contributing to the cost, attending the birth and if the mother keeps the baby, providing money and support throughout that baby’s life?

We see neither of those things, because anti-abortion policies for the most part — for politicians at least — don’t grow out of a well-considered religious stance that is about caring for people but out of a political need to seem pious, out of a feeling that women who experience unwanted pregnancy should be punished for their carelessness, loose morals and so on. 

One might say that these activities and legislators are ignorant of the realities of becoming pregnant, with laws that ban abortion 6 weeks after conception – before many women realise they are pregnant. But of course these politicians do realise it and are simply looking for a hook to hang their hat on – the fluttering that will become the fetal heartbeat. Their goal has nothing to do with looking out for women and their health. The goal is not to strike a balance between rights of the fetus and the rights of the pregnant woman. In the relationship between fetus and woman carrying it, this group have determined who is the important one.

That should scare us.

Why the Alabama anti-abortion law matters in the UK

That should scare us not just in the U.S., where anti-abortion measures are happening at the same time lawmakers are trying to disenfranchise people of colour — states making voting more difficult for select groups of people, overwhelmingly black and poor, with onerous rules, chipping away at rights under the guise of thoughtful governance and concern. Sound familiar?

In Northern Ireland women can still get life in prison for aborting a pregnancy. Currently a mother is in court for buying her 15-year-old daughter abortion pills. These policies were heavily protested but they still stand. 

While elsewhere in the UK we have legal abortions, those are not without their complexities. As Ann Furedi writes in her book The Moral Case for Abortion, the insistence here that two doctors certify that an abortion is needed, this takes the woman’s personal decision and “insists that the moral rationale for her request must be coded and recorded as a quasi-medical reason.”

We are not so far away from the attitudes about abortion that strike at the heart of women being full-fledged members of society. We should pay attention to what’s happening across the Atlantic and use it to guide us in the how we think about abortion policies here.  Because it’s not just about the oft-invoked ability of women to control their bodies. It’s about our ability to control our very lives.

What are you thoughts about the US abortion laws and those here?

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About Jennifer Howze

Jennifer Howze is the Creative Director and co-founder of BritMums. She blogs about family travel at Jenography.net, tweets at @JHowze and Instagrams at @JHowze. Previously, she wrote the Alpha Mummy blog at The Times and as a journalist has contributed to The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, Budget Travel, CNN.com, Allure, SELF and Premiere, among others. She won The Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for a health article in Seventeen magazine.

1 Comment

  1. 23 May 2019 / 12:30

    A friend in the US shared this on Facebook the other day, which sehds further light on the lack of rights of women in this issue –

    ”Reasonable people can disagree about when a zygote becomes a “human life” – that’s a philosophical question. However, regardless of whether or not one believes a fetus is ethically equivalent to an adult, it doesn’t obligate a mother to sacrifice her body autonomy for another, innocent or not.

    Body autonomy is a critical component of the right to privacy protected by the Constitution, as decided in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), McFall v. Shimp (1978), and of course Roe v. Wade (1973). Consider a scenario where you are a perfect bone marrow match for a child with severe aplastic anemia; no other person on earth is a close enough match to save the child’s life, and the child will certainly die without a bone marrow transplant from you. If you decided that you did not want to donate your marrow to save the child, for whatever reason, the state cannot demand the use of any part of your body for something to which you do not consent. It doesn’t matter if the procedure required to complete the donation is trivial, or if the rationale for refusing is flimsy and arbitrary, or if the procedure is the only hope the child has to survive, or if the child is a genius or a saint or anything else – the decision to donate must be voluntary to be constitutional. This right is even extended to a person’s body after they die; if they did not voluntarily commit to donate their organs while alive, their organs cannot be harvested after death, regardless of how useless those organs are to the deceased or many lives they would save. That’s the law.

    Use of a woman’s uterus to save a life is no different from use of her bone marrow to save a life – it must be offered voluntarily. By all means, profess your belief that providing one’s uterus to save the child is morally just, and refusing is morally wrong. That is a defensible philosophical position, regardless of who agrees and who disagrees. But legally, it must be the woman’s choice to carry out the pregnancy. She may choose to carry the baby to term. She may choose not to. Either decision could be made for all the right reasons, all the wrong reasons, or anything in between. But it must be her choice, and protecting the right of body autonomy means the law is on her side. Supporting that precedent is what being pro-choice means.”