Joyce Fegan: Coining the term 'pro-life' was a masterstroke but it avoids the reality of abortion

Women and girls who need abortions would love the luxury of a world where it was never necessary
Joyce Fegan: Coining the term 'pro-life' was a masterstroke but it avoids the reality of abortion

In reality, the term 'pro-life' means anti-abortion, and it is totally unconnected to the reality of women — and indeed couples — who need or want abortions. Picture: Alamy/PA

As women chanted ‘abolish abortion’ on the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC last Friday, when the decision to reverse the 1973 Roe v Wade abortion ruling was confirmed, one word came to mind: Luxury.

What a world it would be if abortion were unnecessary. Let’s imagine what that might look like. Menstrual-cycle awareness — every person who menstruated, aged 10 and upwards, would know the length of their cycle, how to track it, when they ovulated, and how long that meant they would be fertile. 

We wouldn’t use words like ‘the curse’ or mock women for ‘being on the rag’. There would be global respect for menstruation, that ‘monthly’ cycle that ensures our species. Menstrual products, the ones that suit your body best, would also be universally free.

Then there’s contraception to wrap around menstrual-cycle awareness, with the acknowledgment that no contraceptive is 100% effective. 

We would be versed in all options, from condoms to the copper coil, and from the pill to the patch. All of society, not just the person who is responsibly managing the potential of their uterus, would know the percentage effectiveness of each device, which ones needs to be medically inserted, and the disadvantages, too.

And those who nonchalantly chant ‘abolish abortion’ would see their tax contributions fund both global menstrual-cycle awareness and contraception, if they are, of course, so dedicated to abolishing the medical procedure. 

The US Supreme Court’s decision to end constitutional protections for abortion has cleared the way for states to impose bans and restrictions. Picture: 
                        José Luis Magana/AP
The US Supreme Court’s decision to end constitutional protections for abortion has cleared the way for states to impose bans and restrictions. Picture:  José Luis Magana/AP

Support with practical measures all those who menstruate before placing yourself on the moral high ground.

The term ‘pro-life’ has been used since the 1970s by those opposing abortion. It was a victory in messaging, a marketing masterstroke. Those who supported the right to abortion responded with the term ‘pro-choice’. In the world of messaging, ‘pro-life’ packs a powerful punch, by assuming and asserting moral high ground.

Those who opposed abortion were better people, their tagline implied. 

But it’s easily picked apart. 'Pro-life' for whom? For all? Protecting the life of both the foetus and the person who carries it? Or just the foetus? Surely to be pro-life means to be pro-life for all?

'That's not pro-life. That's pro-brith' 

Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister, now 86, in a 2004 interview, declared herself “opposed to abortion”, but then filleted the moral superiority of many who hold the same belief as her.

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that makes you pro-life.

“In fact, I think, in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed,” the American nun said.

“And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth.  We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is,” she added.


Advocating for the protection of a foetus is easy moral high ground to climb onto. Foetuses are uncomplicated. They will not hold your views to account.

There is no disability in the workplace to navigate around. They carry no baggage: Not yet. There is no social support that they need, no invalidity allowance, widow’s pension, or childcare support: Not yet. The living are a different matter.

Abortion — right to/or the prohibition of — is about so much more than abortion. The abortion debate cuts right to the heart of social inequality. It touches off care, the value of it, the remuneration of it, and the financial support of it. 

Rearing children is a costly affair. Populating a planet is a costly affair. 

Creating the next generation of workers is a costly affair. It’s something we should all technically be in together, except we’re not. 

The cost of care falls flat on the shoulders of the individual family unit, be that a solo parent with no ‘village’ to speak of, or a family of four surrounded by a bosom of intergenerational support. 

It’s also why abortion is not a women’s issue, although it has been framed as such. If you are a heterosexual middle-class couple with three young children, barely holding down two paying jobs — the kind of people who do everything right, and you find yourselves due an unplanned fourth child — is continuing with the pregnancy the sole issue of the woman, or does it affect the father, too?

If you find yourself in an extramarital relationship and your lover becomes pregnant, your secret about to be outed, does access to abortion remain a woman’s issue?

And this is bearing in mind that activists usually get people to vote in favour of abortion rights based on compassionate grounds, such as in the case of rape, foetal anomalies, or where the life of the mother is severely at risk. 

Voters grant access based on ‘good abortions’.

If we only accept abortions on 'good' grounds, and are against abortions on ‘bad’ grounds, such as a contraceptive failure, then we are really just criminalising pleasure. The idea that humans only have sex to procreate is still doing the rounds.

How many of us believe in a woman’s right to have sex for pleasure without worrying about pregnancy?

For a couple barely scraping by with the children they already have, is abortion solely the woman's issue? Stock picture: Getty
For a couple barely scraping by with the children they already have, is abortion solely the woman's issue? Stock picture: Getty

How many of us believe in a man’s right to have sex for pleasure without worrying about pregnancy?

Is there a difference in who you permit pleasure to? And does the word ‘responsibility’ come to mind?

Responsibility brings us back to how to be really anti-abortion. The womb creates the future workforce. These wombs will create the workers that will fund your pension. Billions of hands will do the unpaid, undervalued work of nurturing those infant humans to maturity, affecting everything from reduced crime rates to resilient mental health.

How will we support those doing all of that reproductive labour on behalf of the whole?

Ali Pember, a UK-based perinatal psychotherapist, this week posted a “recipe for an unjust society” to her Instagram account

She described it as to “force someone to have a baby, then fail to help that same person and baby to thrive”. Another ingredient was the reminder of how critical the early years of human development are, while in the same breath pressuring people back to the office, in the absence of “good-quality affordable childcare”.

Being anti-abortion is an uncomplicated, utopian ideology. Supporting a child to thrive in the real world is a vastly different debate, one that comes with putting our money where our mouth is. And it’s a debate not just for the US, but for us, too.

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