Knowledge is power, so let’s talk honestly about abortion

preggo test.jpgYOU’VE only read the headline, but your hackles might already be up. What knowledge, exactly? What power? And how many paragraphs before the big reveal? For or against, “foetus” or “baby”, right or wrong. I don’t blame you. When people start talking about the reality of abortion, I get suspicious too.

It took a show at last month’s Edinburgh Fringe to make me realise how little I actually knew about this subject. Sure, like any good feminist I knew the basics of the Abortion Act 1967, passed 50 years ago next month. I knew about the pickets, the posters, the religious extremists lobbying to retain laws branded cruel and degrading by the UN. But I remained largely ignorant when it came to the messy, bloody, psychological and emotional reality of this procedure.

I remained largely ignorant when it came to the messy, bloody, psychological and emotional reality of this procedure

Obviously, a large number of women do not have the luxury of such ignorance because they’ve experienced it for themselves. But if they’re not keen to talk about it, that’s understandable.

Therese Ramstedt does want to talk about her experience, and get others talking too. Her one-woman show Mission Abort is not your typical abortion drama. It is not a tragedy about one woman’s agonising choice, or heart-shattering decision, or enduring regret. It’s a bright, breezy, entertaining and ultimately very moving play that refuses to gloss over the difficulties of Ramstedt’s own experience while being loudly and proudly pro-choice.

After watching it, I felt significantly better informed and also embarrassed. How had I reached this age without learning pretty basic details about what 12,000 women go through in Scotland every year? The answer, of course, is that women learn to be wary of anyone who wants to talk to them about abortion. On the whole, such people do not seek to empower with knowledge. They instead seek to frighten and manipulate.

The law in Scotland has remained unchanged since it was devolved last summer

To coincide with yesterday’s International Day of Safe Abortion, Engender has published a paper showing how the law in Scotland compares to other jurisdictions including Canada, where abortion was decriminalised in 1988 and is now treated the same as any other medical procedure. No comparison was necessary with England and Wales, since the law in Scotland has remained unchanged since it was devolved last summer.

Politically, this is a policy area the SNP will be reluctant to touch. Morally, it is an area they must not ignore. Practically, it might not be as difficult to make progress as many assume. If the starting point for any debate is to be “How do you feel about abortion?”, the discussion will get ugly, quickly. If the starting point is “How can we improve services for women?”, it will have to get specific. Engender’s wish-list of reforms will not be achieved overnight, but incremental change is possible if individual MSPs opt to educate themselves about the obstacles to safe, timely and dignified abortion care.

It was reported last week that women from England, Scotland and Wales are seeking to buy abortion pills online due to barriers to accessing them via the NHS. Women on Web helps women procure medical abortions in parts of the word where access is restricted. An analysis of anonymised emails to the service from British women found help was sought for a diverse range of reasons. Yes, the drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol can be legally prescribed here, but that doesn’t mean obtaining and using them is a walk in the park.

Drugs can be legally prescribed here, but that doesn’t mean obtaining and using them is a walk in the park

Women spoke of long waiting times, work and childcare commitments, long distances to travel. So far, so abstract for the frothing anti-choice reader who believes that accessing abortion should be difficult, inconvenient, expensive – all the better to force the woman to reflect on what she’s doing.

Further barriers included privacy concerns, negative experiences of abortion care, and stigma. Again, those with no regard for women’s dignity are likely be unmoved. Remove the stigma and shame around abortions and they’ll all be wanting them, the logic goes (despite the fact that rates in Canada have been steadily declining since the procedure was fully decriminalised).

Lastly, almost one in five women cited controlling circumstances involving a partner or other family member. Perhaps this is the point at which a glimmer of sympathy creeps in. Perhaps the woman has been raped. Perhaps there are special circumstances that make her abortion justifiable.

If services are to be improved for women, this notion of a hierarchy of abortion narratives must be rejected outright. Access to safe abortion must be recognised as human right with no ifs or buts, no requirement for exceptional circumstances.

Since I started educating myself about the reality of abortion in modern Scotland, one image has stayed with me. It’s of a woman who has accessed a medical abortion via the NHS and chosen to pass the pregnancy at home. She’s doesn’t have a car so she’s heading back there on a bus. It’s not a short journey. She’s still sitting on the bus when the cramps start. And then the bleeding.

Currently, Misoprostol must be administered within a clinic even if the woman administers it herself, and even if she has no quick way to get home after doing so. If you have any compassion for that woman bleeding heavily on a bus, you should support a careful review of the law. If you opt to ignore her distress, and that bloody mess, that’s your choice. Call yourself “pro-life” if you wish. Others will call you anti-women.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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