A few weeks ago, we at Both Lives Matter, hit the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day. We went out to start some conversations, raise some awareness around the movement and rehumanise the conversation. We stopped and chatted to a range of people, male and female, young and old in and around City Hall and Queens University in Belfast. There were a lot of very interesting conversations had that day; encouraging and thought provoking. Here are just some of the things that stood out in my mind.
1. Pro-choice or pro informed choice?
As expected in the areas we chose to chat, many of the people we talked to said they identified with a pro-choice label. However, also as might be expected, as we continued to dig beneath the surface of what that meant, it became clear that even under that label everyone had different views as to how far that choice extended.
If Wombs had Windows.
Most people drew their own cut off point for abortion at the point they considered a fetus becomes a child. This ranged widely; from conception, to when the heart starts beating, from when pain is felt, to when the fetus can survive on its own, and right up to birth. However, no one was one hundred per cent sure of their thinking.
‘Would you have a cut off point for abortion and when would that be?’
‘I think when it has a heartbeat’
‘Did you know the heartbeat starts at 16 days?’
‘O.. umm.. wow that’s soon.. ok so maybe when it can feel then..I don’t know.’
What became clear from these conversations was that most people simply had no knowledge of the stages of child development in the womb. This blissful ignorance on the one hand, coupled with the unquestioned acceptance of the pro-choice soundbite and the women’s right to choose rhetoric on the other, made the pro-choice label very easy to buy into. Yet as people were confronted with the tough questions…
‘When does human life begin’
‘What makes someone worthy of legal protection’
‘Should there be any cut off point to abortion’
…and the even more revealing facts, you could visibly see the cogs turning in their minds as many were joining up the dots and beginning to understand the harsh truth of the stance they had once so easily accepted.
Myth busting and the 98%
There were a lot of misconceptions around the law on abortion and its effect. Most people knew that Northern Ireland abortion laws were more restrictive than in England. However, some thought that abortion wasn’t allowed at all in any circumstance, and we explained that abortion does happen in NI in situations where there would be a serious or long term risk to the health or life of the mother.
One women repeated the line, ‘Abortion laws don’t actually reduce the numbers of abortions they just make it harder to get and make it more dangerous.’ This is another common misconception we could correct with facts. The abortion rate in England and Wales (one abortion for every four live births) is much higher than in Northern Ireland (one abortion for every 27 live births), even when we include the best available ‘guesstimate’ of the number of women taking online abortion pills and government figures for those travelling to England and Wales for an abortion, an estimated 100,000 lives have been saved.
The more people we talked to, the easier we could see the direction the conversation was going to turn. For most people, this was to use the ‘hard cases’, those instances of life limiting diagnosis and rape, to justify abortion. We acknowledged that these cases were heart breaking and moved us all to what we believe to be a compassionate response. When we made clear what our compassionate response looked like in those situations we always asked if they could take a minute to ‘real talk’.
To instantly justify abortion in general, based on these circumstances, was for many the result of believing that these cases were the vast majority. This is simply not true.
Cue the stats.
In England and Wales these cases make up less than 2% of the overall abortions taking place every year. 98% are for other reasons – what some would call reasons of social convenience.
Cue shock and awkward pause.
‘Aye.. see keep that [law] over there .. that shouldn’t be here, definitely not.’
‘When you say social convenience though, some women just can’t afford to have a child’
‘Yeah.. I don’t want them to bring that law in over here because I understand that women want choice but at the same time it makes that slightly too easy. They need better support and education instead for women and men so they don’t need this plan B.’
‘yeah but if she doesn’t want to have the child, she shouldn’t have to have the child.’
So let’s talk about the 98%.
That’s 98% of abortions taking place because women are not experiencing the necessary support from friends or family, because the proper services for children and mothers are not in place, because her workplace or university doesn’t offer her the appropriate facilities, support or services she needs. Because childcare costs are unaffordable. Because being a mother and pursuing your dreams is made to seem near impossible and therefore many women buy into the idea that to be equal to a man they must give up the one thing that reminds them, they are so intrinsically a woman.
Pro-abortion campaigners hide behind the premise of choice, but the truth is when abortion is presented and accepted as the solution to crisis, there is no pressure to change those systemic and structural barriers faced by women in pregnancy and motherhood. So for women in England and Wales, how many feel they have any other choice but to abort?
Whoever we were talking to, whether pro-choice, pro-life or neither, we could all share this common ground that women needed more support from society. Ending on this note I left each conversation a bit more hopeful and encouraged.
2. Don’t care, Won’t care.
Truthfully we only came across a small minority of people who, once we got past all the tough questions, truly believed it was a women’s right to choose abortion, at any time and for any reason. They believed in the pro-choice/abortion ideology and whilst recognising a second life was in existence at some stage in a pregnancy, a women’s right to choose always trumped any right to life of the unborn.
Finally, there was another group, not as militant as the hardcore pro-choicer but who, almost more troublingly, just didn’t seem to care.
‘I don’t know.. whatever science says…I’m not a politician, I am glad I don’t make these decisions, sure it’s a women’s choice and I mean it may be a life but whatever…’
These responses raise more serious concerns about the direction society is heading. What kind of society are we becoming, and what kind of society do we want to become? Are we a society of self that encourages selfish ambition and the termination of our weakest and most vulnerable, those dependants who could potentially hold us back? Those vulnerable, whoever they are, preborn, the infirm, the disabled and the elderly. Or are we a society that recognises and will support our most vulnerable members, that will care for those in crisis and those in need. That will support our women and children and advocate for them to have real solutions and support, so that we can take the crisis out of a crisis pregnancy and beyond.
That’s the kind of society Both Lives Matter wants to see.
3. Hope for Rehumanisation.
I hope by reading this you have been encouraged.
Yes, the idea of bringing up such a polarising topic, casually into conversation with friends and family is a little daunting.
I won’t lie to you, we did have one women get angry and walk away – but I do believe that’s because our question, ‘When is a life worthy of protection?’ hit a nerve somewhere deep inside…
But ultimately, people are ready for a different and better conversation.
There are those who consider themselves pro-choice, less so by conviction but rather because it sounds like the more progressive and fair stance to take. Whilst the number of those who unquestionably accept and repeat the pro-choice soundbites is worrying, the reality behind the number is also hopeful. When you dig a little deeper through the soundbites, and start to ask some of the real hard hitting questions you can see the cogs turning in the minds of some who for the first, third or even sixth time, are joining the dots. Then, when you can bust some of the myths and misconceptions with facts you can begin to truly challenge and change some of those minds.
Don’t feel unprepared. I want to encourage you that the information is there! This is part of why Both Lives Matter exists. To educate, equip and empower a movement of people to stand for both women and children, to advocate for better services and support and to change the culture. The task seems big, but it can begin in a small way by simply rehumanising the conversation.
So who will you talk to next?