Jul 28, 2011

Reclaiming the medical narrative around abortion

Since the election of a Conservative led government in June 2010, we’ve seen a series of attacks on women’s rights, from the economic to the legal to the medical. The one that scares me, personally the most is the campaign against abortion and contraception, because it has the potential to increase human suffering not only for the current generation of women, but for the next generation of unwanted or severely disabled children they are forced to bring into the world.

The trend is a legitimate worry: in the US there were 80 different laws passed this year restricting access to abortion. Several states, chief among them Kansas but others as well, have become de-facto zones where abortion is illegal, in that it is impossible to obtain. And this enormous spike in legislation didn’t just come out of the blue – it is the culmination of decades of insidious and well organised work to prepare the ground through steady erosion of public support for women’s health through a campaign of polemic, misinformation and obfuscation.

We are not immune to this stream in public thought in the UK, and in fact I would argue that US-based propaganda has substantially prepared the ground for a similar move to legally restrict abortion over here; already the public, chiefly through the collusion of the right wing press, holds a mostly unrealistic conception of abortion as a traumatising, sordid experience undergone by feckless, chaotic teenagers who are too stupid or lazy to worry about contraception and who get to near end of their pregnancy before they remember to seek help “evading their responsibility”.

This is of course a wildly distorted and histrionic picure, and yet the Department of Health is actually considering changes to the way abortion support is provided today that may make it easier for anti-abortion groups to corner and abuse vulnerable women, on the strength of “common sense” objections from two MPs who have no sense at all, common or otherwise, and who seem to me to be arguably acting in bad faith on the behest of overseas Christian organisations intent on recriminalizing abortion.

One of the paths to success and public support these two MPs are taking is the path of framing the debate n language they can control the meaning of. This is a well known tactic, and we see it in operation in all kinds of areas of public discourse. After the misleading and disingenuous term “pro life”, of course, my favourite is the fascinating history of the phrase “politically correct”, so beloved of right wing columnists like Richard Littlejohn. 

This tactic is more common in the right than on the left; I say this not to disparage the ideological right, but as a simple statement of the fact that we on the left are often hampered by our own aspirations to intellectual rigour, and can therefore find ourselves unable to mount an effective response to things like outright denial of science being self-servingly labelled “scepticism”, or a refusal to accept science teaching in the science classroom presented as a “controversy”. We are getting a bit better at heading off these rhetorical traps and dealing with them when they appear; the terms “climate change denialist” has gained some currency for example.

Similarly, I would like to propose a change in how we talk about abortion. Rather than the awkward and easily distorted construction “women seeking abortion”, “women considering termination”, “women with unwanted pregnancies” etc., I suggest we consolidate all cases of medical intervention in pregnancy under the umbrella term “crisis pregnancy patients”.

To me this captures the essence of what a woman in all situations potentially resulting in a termination: that there is a human being with a problem here, and a medical procedure as part of the solution. After all, we don’t call cancer patients “people seeking chemotherapy”, do we? In all other cases of people seeking legal medical treatment, we concentrate on the problem/condition the treatment is supposed to address; it’s only when we talk about what we consider trivial concerns of silly women that we centre on the procedure, as in the case of cosmetic surgery and, well, abortion.

There are two main objections that I can anticipate to this approach:

        1. That switching to “crisis pregnancy patient” is no better than right wing propaganda in obfuscating and masking the real issue with consensus-seeking language.

This is an important objection and I want to deal with it very seriously. I don’t think what I’m doing here is putting a “spin” on abortion to make it less controversial. That is certainly not my intent. I think, rather, that we have swung too far into the rhetorical ground favoured by the opposition, of masking the realities around abortion in order to create a faux-controversy under cover of which it is easy to sell restrictive and cruel new proposals (like girls saying no to their abusers) to the public.

When we agree to talk about “women seeking abortions”, we implicitly agree that an abortion is what women in this situation want. This is obviously irrational – why would anyone want an invasive medical procedure? – and supports the wider portrayal of women who have abortions  as feckless, irresponsible, stupid and in need of protection from their own moral failings. The reality is that women undergoing abortions don’t want abortions: they’d rather not be having an abortion at all thank you very much, because they either a) don’t want to be pregnant or b) want to be a mother very badly but something has sadly happened to make that an impossible option.

Abortion is not the “goal” of women accessing the service of BPAS or Marie Stopes; the goal is to not be pregnant. The condition from which a woman wants medical deliverance is not the condition of “not having an abortion” – it is the condition of “having an unwanted or unviable pregnancy”. Abortion, like all medical procedures, is the way of getting from A (crisis pregnancy) to B (no pregnancy).

Tracey Emin I think said it best: “When you’re pregnant, you don’t make up your mind that you want an abortion – you make up your mind that you can’t have a child. Which is a very different thing”.
I hope I’ve convinced you that I am not proposing a rhetorical sleight of hand, but a serious realignment of the discourse that puts women and their medical needs at the centre. Which brings me to my next possible objection

2. That the term “crisis pregnancy patient” dehumanises women by taking them out of the narrative of abortion.

Rather what I intend is to undo the damage caused over decades by the over-concentration of anti-choice propaganda on “the baby”, and bring the woman back into the centre of the debate.

If you hang out on abortion related online discussion threads as much as I do (for general mental wellbeing, I don’t recommend it), you come across surprisingly many people whose main objection to the availability of abortion is openly and nakedly the discourse of choice and rights for women. Protected by the anonymity of the internet, they freely admit that what chiefly offends them about reproductive rights is the notion that a woman’s “right to choose” is something to take into consideration in the first place. They quickly drop, if they ever upheld, the pretence that this is about the rights of the unborn or any genuine debate about viability, when life begins and so forth.

These people are beyond the reach of mere persuasion; you have to plumb I don’t know what depths of dehumanisation before you can baldly claim that a whole class of people don’t deserve their bodily autonomy, or should be punished with a lifetime of unwanted parenthood for engaging in basic human functions like sex. The people who I am trying to reach with this proposal are those bamboozled by these fulminations into forgetting that abortion, contraception, antenatal care and so on are all in the same class of things enabled by modern medicine as root canals and chemotherapy, and that all human beings have an equal right to access these benefits.

This is not as uncontroversial an idea as you may think; many people, who in my view lack empathy, wish us to restrict medical access for those who are seen as being the architects of their own health problems, such as those suffering from obesity, or smokers. And of course we already lock up drug addicts in jail rather than treat their disease. The government policy wind is blowing very much in the direction of taking more and more entitlements to basic human dignity away from people, be it reducing mobility allowances for the disabled or cutting care and respite services at local level. I don’t want women as a class to slip under this descending portcullis of malice, and if I can help towards that just a little by reminding people that women are NHS patients too, then I think it’s worthwhile to try.

So to reiterate: I propose that henceforth, when we talk, write, tweet, blog, comment or argue about abortion provision and access, we refer to the people impacted by any change in the existing legislation as crisis pregnancy patients.

Thoughts? Comments? Will you do it, and if not, why not?

Jul 18, 2011

The DoH Responds to Our Letter

Today I received a response from the Department of Health to the letter we sent to Anne Milton MP, the junior minister in charge of public health, regarding the proposed changes to privision of counselling to abortion patients.

Here is the reply in full:

Thank you for your correspondence of 4 and 5 July to Anne Milton about abortion counselling.  I have been asked to reply. 

The Department of Health is aware of Frank Field's and Nadine Dorries' concerns and Anne Milton recently met with them to discuss this issue.

The Department is drawing up proposals to enable all women who are seeking an abortion to be offered access to independent counselling.  The Department would want the counselling to be provided by appropriately qualified individuals.  Independent counselling will focus on enabling a woman to make a decision that would benefit her overall health and wellbeing.   
Independent counselling will be for those women who choose to have it and will not be mandatory.  Full proposals are still being worked up within the Department of Health and it is therefore unable to provide detailed answers while this process takes place. 

I hope this reply is helpful. 
Yours sincerely,
[Name Redacted]
Emphasis mine. While it's reassuring to have it confirmed that there's no question of making counselling mandatory (for now), it doesn't really address the problem of explicitly anti-abortion organisations being allowed access to vulnerable women.

In terms of substantive content though, I was very concerned by two things:

1. That the Under-secretary herself has not responded to us and no comment has come from her office so far (I haven't seen any in the media).

2. That the highlighted sentence conflates advice and counselling in a dangerous and potentially damaging manner; part of the value currently being provided by the likes of MSI & BPAS is precisely that they do not mix advice about medical options with counselling for those in distress. 

This is not the first time I've seen this muddle-headed approach to counselling from the DoH - they seem to be ignorant of what these services that they plan to "reform" actually do. 

I wrote a response to this effect, but unfortunately the email came from a "do not reply" address, so in order to get this concern addressed properly it looks like I'd need to go though the whole rigmarole of writing to them from scratch, and probably getting a reply from someone completely different with no prior knowledge of the case.

It's like working with a third rate utilities call centre, but if I get anywhere I will immediately post updates!

Jul 10, 2011

Abortion rights and the tabloids (and a bit of Richard Dawkins, too)

Pro choice demo yesterday was super awesome! you can find some photos here and some videos here. The name Nadine Dorries came up a few times, in the chanting and the placards, because she has installed herself as the mouthpiece and media spokesperson of the anti-woman movement in the latter's campaign to inveigle itself into British society as it has into that of the US - with lies, with withholding medical facts from women, with exaggerating and inventing and constantly, constantly attacking non-existent straw men[1].

Nadine Dorries relies on a sympathetic media to spread her lies. And we know who the "sympathetic media" are, don't we? Tabloids. Red tops, who claim to be responding to public opinion but, because of the amount of sheer, well, lies and invention in them, can be doing nothing but leading/informing it. Pulling public opinion further and further to the right, against trade unions, against women, against progress, against fairness and justice and equality.

Well, tomorrow they will do so a little less than today - because one of them, one of the more pernicious and disgusting, is no more. And that, friends, is good news for a feminist like me, as well as for pretty much every other right thinking individual. Sure, Rupert Murdoch hates women maybe a little less than Paul Dacre has, but make no mistake - misogyny is one of the cornerstones of his empire, as it is one of the cornerstone of all patriarchy in its capitalist incarnation[2]. 

Henry Porter writes lucidly in the Observer about what this scandal means to the political system in the UK, the extent of the corruption revealed, the level of damage to public discourse and public trust. Read it, it's really good. He does say just one thing I'm not sure I can agree with though:
News of the World journalists ordered the hacking of as many as 4,000 people including grieving relatives of soldiers and of terror and murder victims because they thought their paper was untouchable. (emphasis mine)
D'you know, I don't think that's true? I can't believe that it is possible to be at the head of this kind of commercial empire and be complacent. On the contrary - you have to be paranoid, as Andy Grove of Intel would say. I think they did it because they were desperate, hungry for copy, sensationalism, scoops - at any cost. Because they were at the top and they were driven as if by the devil himself to stay at the top, or face the full consequences of the long fall.

But it's not impossible to become complacent when you're at the top, and for that complacency to lead to an occlusion of ethics. It's a well known dynamic, which is why Porter went for it of course. And it often happens to people who have been fĂȘted, admired and encouraged in an area of public life that doesn't directly impact on what they really consider their professional life. Like, you know, politics, if you happen to be a linguist. Or atheism when you're, I dunno, a biologist or something.

We have a nice saying in Hebrew: "the urine has risen to his head". I have no idea what the etymology is this is, but it's kind of evocative: where there used to be common sense, arrogance and self importance have imbued with, well, piss. And without question, Richard Dawkins is taking the piss. So the urological metaphor does seem apt after all.

It's easy, when you've had a lifetime of people asking for your opinion, to be misled into thinking that you opinions matter just because they come from you. Noam Chomsky has that little problem. Martin Amis does, too. These are men (funny that) who think we should listen to them because they're them, and they've been listened to for a long time. And, you know, they're wrong.

As is Richard Dawkins. Oh, he's had a good run, with both evolutionary biology and atheism. But he knows sweet fuck all about feminism, and the toe-curlingly embarrassing spectacle of him sniping in the comment section of a blog like some aggrieved teenager must go no further. Enough, Professor Dawkins. You have nothing to say on this subject that will enrich the general discourse. You are speaking without any prior knowledge[3] on the issues.

And we know what we think in the sceptic community of people who expound their strident views without any prior knowledge of the subject, don't we? It's kind of similar to what we think of tabloids and right wing demagogue politicians, really.

[1] As in the "teach girls to say no" example. We do this already of course, where parents don't (paradoxically) opt their children out of SRE education, because the curriculum includes discussion of when to not have sex. But hey, if you can make yourself sound righteous, and make women's lives a little worse, at the expense of the pinko commie state education system, why not, right?

[2]Misogyny is the biggest theme in advertising; 70% of all purchasing decisions are made by women, and advertisers have met the challenge of convincing women to choose their products by playing on and enhancing the feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred. From the cosmetics industry to toilet bleach to scented candles, the message is the same: women are dirty and unacceptable unless they spend money on our products. And advertisers own the media. Its only currently viable model for distributing mass media at a profit, which is exactly why a) The New of the World could not continue once advertisers began to pull out, and b) Murdoch is desperate for control of BSkyB and its lucrative pay per view revenue stream (to break free of advertisers).

[3] Before anyone jumps up to accuse me of not knowing anything about Richard Dawkins' feminist educational credentials: nobody who's read more than a couple of blog posts about feminism in their life would employ either the "you haven't got it as bad as some other women, so shut up" or the "there are much more important topics to discuss than your piddling little problems, so shut up" gambits. Because feminists don't tell women to shut up, duh. He did both in one paragraph, so: stupid.

Jul 4, 2011

Update on letter to Anne Milton MP

Owing to unforeseen technical difficulties*, the letter, which I planned to mail on Saturday, has been posted this morning instead. Forty seven of you excellent and socially responsible people added your names to the bottom of the letter, for which I am very grateful**.

I will post immediately when / if I receive a response from Anne Milton. I rather expect that she will respond, because that is very much the organisational culture in Parliament these days; but, just to be clear with everyone and avoid disappointment, I don't expect her response to be along the lines of "OMG you're so right, we will go and lock Nadine Dorries in the broom cupboard straight away".

This government is openly engaging in an attack on women's rights and well-being; we know this, we can see it, and so far we have been largely powerless to stop it. But it doesn't mean we should let them think they're getting away with it. My aim in writing this letter was to let the DoH know that we're watching them, and that we have a very good inkling as to where the wind is blowing with these "reforms" and "improvements".

If they're going to start attacking women's basic human rights as well as our economic standing and employability, then they're going to have to own that - because the voters are not buying any of this thinly veiled propaganda, with the Tip-Ex still dry on the "Made in the USA" logo. Now that we've sent our letter, and many other excellent people have emailed it too, or sent emails/letters of their own, the government official in charge of public health knows this to be unambiguously the case.

This much we achieved just by writing to her; if we achieve nothing else, I would still not consider this a failure or a waste of effort.

Thanks again to everyone for all the support! Mxx

* I couldn't get the £$%&@ printer to work
** I did change the wording from "I" to "We", given that the letter was now representing so many voices