Friday 17 October 2008

Abortion, rape and hypocrisy

On October the 22nd, pro-choice amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill will hit the table again. Dr Evan Harris MP, who has been instrumental in forcing these amendments onto the bill, said on Monday that this is 'a once in a generation opportunity to modernise the law.' With it, it's time to modernise our attitudes.

A significant proportion of the UK believes that abortion is far more permissible if the pregnancy is the result of rape. In October 2007 a CBS News poll showed that 34% of the residents of the United states - the highest proportion of the sample- believed that abortion should only be permitted 'to save a woman's life, or in cases of rape or incest.' And in a survey of British students, over two-thirds of those who identified as 'pro-life' believed that abortion should be permitted in cases of rape. This single fact tears a savage hole in 'pro-life' reasoning.

Believe it or not, there's one area where the twisted logic of Governor Sarah Palin actually makes some sense: either abortion is murder, or it isn't. I happen to believe that it isn't, but let's suspend disbelief for a second and suppose, as some people do, that a foetus is an entire and sentient person from the moment of conception. Murder’s still murder, even if you do it with virgin, unsullied hands. The prominence of the viewpoint that abortion is okay as long as the woman has been raped tells us what the real issue is here.

The real issue is women daring to have sex at all. What people really mind isn’t women evacuating the poor little embryos, it’s women daring to exercise sexual self-determination and getting away with it. In other words – in fact, in the words of several pro-choice websites – women deserve to ‘suffer the consequences of sin’. Of course, if a woman’s been raped then it wasn’t her fault she had sexual intercourse, so she's excused.

It's easy to see why the pro-choice movement takes such pains to parrot this wildly hypocrytical piece of rhetoric, appealing, like at the parliamentary rally this week, on behalf of women who might be 'forced to have their rapist's baby.' But unless you subscribe to the misandrist Dworkinite premise that all penetrative sex is rape, there has to be more to it than that. A woman shouldn’t have to justify her decision to have an abortion in terms of her sexual purity.
If you truly believe that it’s alright for a woman to terminate a pregnancy when she has a good excuse for being pregnant -one that doesn’t involve the crime of consenting to sex - then you concede that it’s okay for some pregnancies to be terminated. In the pro-choice movement, we are convinced that nobody else should get to decide whether or not a woman ‘deserves’ an abortion. We believe that it should be her decision alone, not someone else’s blind sentimental call, and certainly not a question of sexual virtue. Let’s put aside this archaic reasoning and modernise abortion law to reflect 21st-century values.


Use Abortion Rights' online lobbying tool to lobby your MP ahead of the crucial vote on Tuesday, or come to the protest on Monday the 21st at 5.30pm outside parliament, Westminster tube.


  1. "the misandrist Dworkinite premise that all penetrative sex is rape"

    Andrea Dworkin wasn't a misandrist. Please don't use those terms to describe her. The feminist movement owes a lot to her.

  2. I'm aware of how much is owed to Dworkin. However, the idea that all penetrative sex is rape *is* misandrist, however you look at it. You may believe that Dworkin herself did not hate men (I, myself, believe otherwise) but some of the notions she proposed were simply hateful. One could argue, of course, that the movement needed that sort of thinking in the 1970s, but we don't need it any more.

  3. This is slightly off-topic, I'll admit, but its a thought that's been troubling me for a while. Firstly I'd like to state that I'm fully in support of the pro-choice movement, however there's an aspect that hasn't been considered. Given that yours is a feminist blog you may decide that this comment is incorrectly placed, but I was interested in your perspective on this particular dilemma.

    As I've said I fully support the pro-choice movement, it should be a woman's right to choose whether or not she wants a child. What I want to know is where the views of a man fit into this? If a man produces a child with a woman, but does not want it to be born, he has little to no say in the matter. In fact if the child is born he is then often legally forced to pay for its upkeep. If women are free to choose whether or not they want a particular child, shouldn't there be some consideration for men as well?

    In fact the whole thing seems somewhat unbalanced. Men have only one option for contraception, which is fallible for various reasons (I know that others are indevelopment, in fact I took part in a medical trial for one of them, but as far as I am aware they have been deemed not profitable enough and so will not be released in the near future).

    If this method fails then the man, despite his best efforts, may have fathered a child. He then loses all say and all control in the matter. If he has fathered a child he will be legally forced to provide for it, no matter how much against its birth he may have been.

    How exactly is this equal?

    The real problem I am facing is that I can't see any way around this issue. Women should certainly never be forced into abortions because someone else disagrees with them having a child, and I find it hard to defend the viewpoint that once a child is born its father should not in some way provide at least some portion of its upkeep. I'm interested to see what your opinion of this dilemma is, and whether you can see any way out of it?

  4. It is actually incredibly hard to force men to pay for the upkeep of children they may have fathered, however Trisha might make it appear.

    J, you might be surprised to find that I actually agree with you. I am convinced that if a man has not been consensually involved in the production of a child - if a man does not want to be a father but a woman wants to keep 'his' child - then that man should be able to walk away. It's only fair. I believe that until a child leaves a woman's body, what happens to that child is up to her - and it cuts both ways. Full legal rights should mean full legal responsibilities, at least up to the point of birth. I think that a massive difference should be drawn between irresponsible fathers who walk away from their born children, and men who decide not to act as a father to an unborn child. Up to the point of birth, it's her choice, her decision and entirely her responsibility. That has to be the flipside of full reproductive rights, always.

    But we'll see when and if that happens in the perfect world where abortion is available on request, won't we?

  5. In this you are absolutely right. For the Pro Life movement it is not about the sanctity of life, but the ability to control. If you can legitimize an action in any way clearly you don't believe that the action in and of itself is wrong.

  6. Andrea Dworkin never said that all penetrative sex is rape. She has even addressed this pervasive rumour. You might like to check out the Lie Detector page at her official website, nostatusquo.

  7. Rights and responsibilities? Given that the physical responsibility for carrying and giving birth to a conceived child is entirely the woman's, the rights and decisions over that must also be the entirely the woman's. So far, so non-contraversial.

    But I don't understand why so many otherwise feminist-type people seem to think that women and children must mitigate for male biology, and champion male control (as if that isn't the whole problem in the first place).

    If men don't want their sperm to be beyond their sphere of control, they could be rather more responsible (note my choice of word there) than they currently are or ever have been (as a group) about where they put it. You can't hope for gender equality until you're prepared to address this issue.

    Whether men want the responsibility of a child or not, their ethical responsibilities towards any child they father cannot simply be waived out of feminist magnanimity! The benefits of having an involved father don't just suddenly go away!Or maybe you think that children don't benefit from fathers at all, and that men are redundant post-sperm-donation. Which I personally don't.

    It's funny how men and women alike seem to want the responsibilities of sex to be carried only by women. I hate to say it, but that's not what I call fair.

    Think about it. If men were to actually say out loud "I'd like to have sex with you, but if you get pregnant you're on your own, love", how many women would think that was a very pleasant chap? And if that's what you're defending men for doing, then maybe you want to ask yourself why you would defend such a thing...

    oh, and penny red, whether dworkin actually said it or not, the all sex/rape thing is not misandrist. Quite the contrary. Whether you personally agree with it or not, that idea is no more misandrist than criticising the Bush administration is anti-american. It breaks my heart to see you say such a thing. It's not that we don't need Dworkin's thinking, just that we don't need a misogynist, status-quo-preserving interpretation of it.

  8. 'It's funny how men and women alike seem to want the responsibilities of sex to be carried only by women. I hate to say it, but that's not what I call fair.'

    I don't call it fair, either. But what can we do about it? As far as I can see, there's no sane or fair way to force men to be more responsible, or to take up the duties of fatherhood. And in that instance, the best we can do is go begging to the patriarchy for our rights, at least, to decide whether and how and when we conceive.

    Funnily enough, despite all the F4J stunts, the Western world isn't plagued by a slew of fathers kicking down the doors demanding their rights to take care of their children (and note the phrasing: campaigners for 'fathers' rights' usually focus on the men's desire to *see* or to *have access* to the child, which isn't the same as duty/responsibility).

    I don't know how we solve this one. Your comments have reminded me just how 'feminist magnanimity' is perhaps missing the point. Yes, I do believe that fathers are, usually, helpful when a child is growing up. No, I don't think men buggering off and leaving women alone with unplanned pregnancies is sporting. But I'm sick of waiting around for men to be more responsible, trusting that they will, and leaving women to pick up the slack when they don't. Women need full reproductive and sexual empowerment *now*, without waiting around another fifty years for the menz to get their act together.

  9. 'whether dworkin actually said it or not, the all sex/rape thing is not misandrist. Quite the contrary. Whether you personally agree with it or not, that idea is no more misandrist than criticising the Bush administration is anti-american. It breaks my heart to see you say such a thing.'

    Again, whether Dworkin said it or not (and I've now been enlightened as to the fact that she probably didn't, thanks guys) I don't see how the idea that all penetrative sex is effectively rape is anything other than misandrist. That is, effectively, calling all men rapists - saying that, unless their genitals are hardly involved or uninvolved in any sex they choose to have, they are rapists whether they want to be or not. I don't believe that male people are inherently sexually violent. I think that hetero/homosexual penetrative sex can, sometimes, be a meeting of equals.

    And look. I am a fan of Dworkin's work. I believe that she hated most men, but I don't believe that her work should be dismissed on that basis. She had good reason to be misandrist. In the 1960s and 1970s and, indeed, in the 2000s, a lot of women did and do. Her ideas *were* useful - some of them - in the same way that the civil rights movement needed its Malcolm X.

    But I don't think our politics should be predicated on hate, however justified that hate may be. I think our politics should be based on believing and wanting the best from men and women alike. I think our politics should, in fact, move beyond the socio-psychic confines of gender, and should be based on the notion that people are essentially good, and gender typing can make them otherwise.

  10. Can I try to explain what I mean?

    I made the analogy of criticising the Bush administration. Wanting things to be better than they are, and pointing out where they are lacking is not necessarily an act of hate, or anti-americanism, as such criticsim is often called. On the contrary, it can also be an act of patriotism.

    Pointing out the effects on personal relationships (including that most intimate one) of gender inequality does not constitute hatred (though anger and impatience at being on the receiving end of it might be understandable, if unproductive).

    I could be happy to tone it down a bit and replace the "all" with "most", but I'm not convinced about that at all.

    The issue (I think) is how meaningful a woman's consent can really be, within the cultural context in which it necessarily (at present, and more clearly hitherto) takes place. cf your recent post about the barbie dolls (you know the one I mean).

    You may find it incredible, but raising this issue does not entail hating men, either as individuals, or as a group. I haven't read here long enough to know your experience in the rape domain, but rape (from the woman's point of view, ie non-consensual sex) can happen in a variety of contexts, not all of them motivated (consciously at least) by violence or sadism. Often, simple selfishness can lead to the crossing of that particular boundary. So "calling all men rapists" does not entail calling all men our-stereotype-of-a-rapist. That would plainly be untrue and grossly unfair. But that is not what she meant. It's a straw man.

    Where there is societal or cultural (including economic) coercion for women to be sexual, however subtle, however indirect that coercion may be, men who engage in sex within that context are necessarily accepting a consent that is not entirely free. Obviously, they don't have much choice, short of abstaining, but that doesn't make the cultural context any different.

    "Believing and wanting the best from men and women alike" - that's just where Dworkin's politics were coming from, not from hate. It's a shame you think otherwise, because I think you're missing a few rather crucial points, without which equality is but a pipe-dream.

    I think it's very sad and annoying how much effort one has to put in defending against erroneous cries of misandry. It's simply a fact that equality does mean that men will have to give up some of their privileges, even ones they unquestioningly and often inadvertently see as rights rather than privileges (and especially in the sex and economic departments). But that doesn't mean that anyone hates them. That's putting two and two together and making five.

    While we're on the subject, do you think it's possible to hate a situation, or to hate someone's actions, without actually hating them? And what's your ethical position on that?

  11. Sorry to go on, but on the subject of fathering children, I'll tell you what we can do about it.

    We can stop excusing men from their responsibilities towards their children, even those whom they didn't want (but were perfectly happy to do the deed).

    I'm not saying we can enforce this, but attitudes such as you suggest (if the man would prefer the woman has an abortion, then it's ok for him to walk away) really don't help women or children. Culturally, men should be reminded that from the point of sex onwards, should a child result (which may be the woman's choice), they will bear half the responsibility. This is one area where men have taken excessive privileges, and caused untold suffering to women and children alike (half of whom grow up to be men...) I really don't see how anyone could argue for perpetuating this. Men who shirk their responsibilities are shits, pure and simple. One may not think it's fair that the woman gets to choose (in some countries) whether to abort or not, but hey, that's life, and it's not the child's fault, is it?

  12. Penny, I agree that the *fairest* solution might be for a parent who does not want a child to take no financial responsibility for a child. However, the rights of the child (as distinct from the rights of the fetus) are more important than the rights of the parents. The man chose to have poorly-protected sex, at least - indeed, to have sex at all, given that we know that penetrative sex is never 100% without the possibility of conception. He exercised a measure of choice that the child didn't have. And, even if his sperm was somehow... I don't know, stolen, to me it wouldn't be fair, but it would still be *right* that he support the child. He's the father.

    If a man doesn't want to become a father, he should have a vasectomy, avoid penetrative sex, use all the contraception going and be prepared to take the consequences of his actions. The man may have fewer rights in determining whether or not his child is born, but realistically, his minimum level of responsibility for the child will *always* be lower in the eyes of society.

    I am quite strident about this, I know. Abortion must be available to all who want it, & I am fine with that. The social sin, as far as I'm concerned, is leaving open the possibility of unwanted children being brought into the world & not being prepared to take responsibility for doing so.


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