"Being a pro-choice evangelical is a bit niche, isn't it?" I said to someone in the midst of the latest blowup over abortion rights. First it was Maria Miller and 20 weeks. Now Jeremy Hunt and his support for a 12 week upper limit, which has had all my fellow pitchfork-wielding leftie Twittermobbers raging for the past couple of days.
Hunt stated in an interview that his view on the 12 week limit is down to his personal belief "about the moment we should deem life to start", not, he added, "for religious reasons". David Cameron has responded by saying that the government "has no plans to bring forward any legislation in this area". Still, it's unsettling, isn't it? Both the minister for women and the health secretary. Whether Cameron's got plans to that effect or not, it's got people worried yet again, that little by little we're going to see that limit chipped away.
Being pro-choice means that people ask me things like why, as a Christian, I'm not "valuing life above all else". If babies born before 24 weeks have survived, why shouldn't the cut-off point be 20 weeks? Meanwhile, people talk about those who want a 20 week limit as "hating women". Both sides of the debate, at their extremes fuelled by comments like Hunt's, are completely unhelpful.
My issue is this: on the side of the debate that values life above all else, there is plenty of commitment to slashing the legal limit for women to have abortions (based on the survival of a handful of babies), but precious little noise made about addressing many of the issues surrounding why women are having abortions in the first place. Take, for example, these case studies from BPAS showing the reasons for requests for abortion over 22 weeks gestation in 2008. Poverty, abuse, homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, stalling on the part of the NHS meaning women had had to wait weeks to access services. And several women who had no reason to believe they were pregnant in the first place.
It's my belief that a commitment to lowering the number of abortions should go hand in hand with a commitment to lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies and supporting women at all stages of their lives. Unfortunately you don't often hear those who are anti-abortion talking about better sex and relationships education for young people, easier access to contraception, addressing issues such as domestic violence, poverty, rape, and support for women who are unsure about what choice to make that doesn't just involve telling them how much they'll regret having an abortion. More talk like that might mean more people would believe Maria Miller when she calls herself a "very modern feminist". We haven't quite reached the same state of affairs as the USA yet, but who knows what could happen - as Tanya Gold said in a piece for The Guardian on Friday:
"The abortion wars in America, funded by Republicans who want miracle babies but not a functioning welfare state..."
There are two further issues with 20 weeks - one being the anomaly scan carried out around this point in a pregnancy, and the other being the fact that some women end up waiting weeks to access the services they need when considering whether or not to have an abortion. It goes without saying that even when the procedure is restricted or made illegal, women will still find ways to do it. We don't demonstrate holding banners with pictures of coathangers for nothing.
To my mind, when I'm supporting a pro-choice point of view, I am "valuing life". Access to abortion should be combined with action on all the issues mentioned above - the sex education and the domestic abuse and the waiting times. It's not enough to talk about abstinence education yet send more families into poverty and cut funding to women's shelters. As @DillyTante said in an excellent post yesterday:
"Lowering the legal limits for abortion will not reduce the number of abortions. It will reduce the number of legal and safe abortions. Someone desperate enough to terminate a baby in the middle of pregnancy is likely to go to any lengths to do so. Reducing the legal limit for abortion will not result in more happy smiley chubby babies; it will increase the number of desperately unhappy women and children brought into this world in devastating circumstances. With a government reducing welfare and community support for families and people with disabilities this can only be a path to unhappiness for many."
As a Christian I'd like to see more of a "pro-life" commitment to this side of the story. Maybe then I'd be convinced that there is a real concern for women and their welfare. The desire to "value life" when "life" refers to a foetus is all well and good, but what of the lives and wellbeing of women? What of the life of the child once it's actually exited the womb? I don't see any of that in the demonstrations outside clinics, or in the desire to lower the legal limit on dubious medical grounds. And that's why I occupy my "niche" position: because I hope for something different. People are entitled to an anti-abortion view, but all too often they let themselves down.
Image via howardlake's Flickr