I reread “Praxis” by Fay Weldon recently. I didn’t realise I was rereading until I got to nearly the end and it came flooding back. I read a lot of Fay Weldon in my 20s and was inspired by the injustices she identified. But this time I found it dated. I feel that the battles have moved on. No one in the Western world would seriously suggest to a college student that she would be better off dropping out of college and getting married. Plenty of people, however, would suggest to a college educated woman that she would be better off dropping out of the workforce and staying home minding her children. I suppose that this is progress.
Then the latest Mavis Cheek is also about 70s feminists and consciousness raising and I’m tired of having my consciousness raised in this particular way. Maybe I need some new books.
If you haven’t read Praxis, let me ruin it for you. Praxis is jailed for suffocating a new baby with Down’s syndrome. Her (let us say, so that I can spare you the tortuous details of the plot) daughter refuses to have the relevant tests and this child is born very badly handicapped and with, Praxis believes, every prospect of blighting the daughter’s life, so Praxis takes matters into her own hands and suffocates the new born baby. Is this worse than having an abortion at four months? The geepeemama has this to say about abortion and down’s syndrome:
“It brings back what is probably my most poignant memory to date – the time when, as a junior obstetrician, I had to take away the 22-week-old baby with Down’s after a medical termination. After I’d fished him out of the bedpan (parents refusing to look) I held him in the sluice and cried and cried and told him “I would have had you”.
Does aborting foetuses with disabilities say something about our attitude to people with disabilities?
I see that the British are approaching the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act with 200,000 terminations a year, 6,000 of them from Ireland. I am from a country that has no legislation on abortion. Following much tortuous discussion and angry debate, no political party has had the nerve to produce anything like legislation. There is a constitutional protection to the right to life. The pro-life groups who were many and vociferous insisted that this was not sufficient to prevent abortion in Ireland. In retrospect this was foolish of them. In 1983 the Constitution was amended to acknowledge the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother. And there the matter rested to the chagrin of the, then smallish, pro-choice lobby and to the delight of the pro-lifers. Then, there was a particularly unpleasant case. A young girl was raped by a family friend and she became pregnant. Her parents notified the police. Because of the constitutional right to life of the unborn child, there was a doubt as to whether this girl could travel to England for an abortion (a very common Irish solution to an Irish problem). There followed a court case which convulsed the nation and, in due course, in 1992, the constitution was amended to provide that the right to life of the unborn would not limit freedom to travel between Ireland and another state and nor would it limit freedom to obtain or make available information relating to services lawfully available in another state. That is our entire legislative provision. It would appear that the 1983 amendment gives the right to an abortion when the life of the mother is at risk, including, where she threatens suicide. Even, in these extreme conditions, our politicians have been reluctant to put a toe in these particularly stormy waters (if I may mix my metaphors): abortion is not available in Ireland and we continue to export this problem abroad, largely to godless England. The problem has resurfaced recently in the Miss D case. As one commentator pointed out, we have a whole alphabet to cover the abortion issue.
I live in a country which allows abortion. I know this because the then, very catholic, king abdicated for a day for the law to go through. They have a very robust attitude to abortion in Belgium – if something is wrong, have an abortion and try again. Who am I to condemn other people’s choices in heartbreaking situations? But yet, the older I get, the more I worry about abortion.
Would I want to force anyone to stay pregnant? No, I don’t think so. When I see a 24 week old baby surviving, clinging on to life, do I believe that terminations at 24 weeks are a problem? I think I’m beginning to. Where do you draw the line? Is every sperm sacred? Is the morning after pill alright? Is eight weeks fine? Oh to enjoy the certainty of the pro-life movement. No matter how extreme the case, whatever the crime, whatever the health of the foetus, whatever the age of the mother, even the morning after pill is absolutely forbidden. Or indeed the certainty of the pro-choice movement. I just don’t know what’s right. Trumping the rights of a bunch of cells over those of a vulnerable abused teenager must be wrong. Musn’t it? When do cells become a baby? Is viability a valid cut off point? They say hard cases make bad law, do they make bad morals also?
Hmph! I’m the person who made Belgianwaffle re-read Praxis for a book club we both belong to. It’s was her turn to choose the book this time and I can only say I think she’s taking her revenge.
Interesting post, Waffle. I was raised a catholic in godless England, and am now godless myself, but I have the same equivocal attitude to abortion as you. The last vestige of my upbringing? Thought you’d be interested in this article from today: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7057026.stm
I am with you on the idea of changing attitude towards abortion with age (having two children of my own now). However, I worked for many years in a company close in vicinity to a workplace of people with mental disabilities. The way these people were treated by able minded adults, (including the owner of my company) was horrifying and heartbreaking. I am sure the parents of these individuals thought they were in a safe place, and for the most part they were, the people who worked with them were magnificent. It was during break times, and arrival and departure of work that they were treated badly by others, in the elevator etc. I have also seen the mentally challenged treated terribly by co workers in such places (Whole Foods market) that may employ them with supposedly “normal” people. All this to say, it may not be the idea of having a mentally disabled child that may lead someone to terminate a pregnancy, but the notion of what will happen to these children when their parents are no longer around.
i can’t even begin to corral my thoughts on this issue enough to make a comment.
there are no easy answers to this one, that’s for sure.
As someone who has lost four pregnancies through miscarriage, I am very surprised to find myself more in favour of termination for foetal abnormality or maternal health than before. I think this is because I’ve had to face the “what if” myself – because of the increased likelihood that some of my pregnancies, or some future pregnancy, may have a genetic abnormality, and because I know more about pregnancy in general.
But I regard the British legal limit at the moment as a safeguard which I wouldn’t like to see changed, not as a good thing. Currently many areas in the UK don’t offer routine 20 week scans, and for those that do, some women come in late. To discover at that stage that your baby has a zero probability of living past birth, but with no possibility of a termination, would be beyond devastating. I don’t think anyone should be asked to carry on with nearly half their pregnancy under those conditions.
Likewise if women develop life-threatening conditions during pregnancy (a friend died of cancer which she probably started developing during pregnancy, and I gather that it’s actually more common to develop cancer during this time) then I would want her possibility of choosing her life over the foetus to be as great as possible.
I don’t think that society’s attitude to people with learning disabilities is going to get any better if 90% of foetuses with Down Syndrome are terminated.
At risk of sounding smug or overly simplistic, I can actually say that I’ve been able to develop a firm position on this issue. Very simply: abortion is against my religion, and I wouldn’t have one. The only exception would be if my health were compromised to the point of being a life-or-death situation (my religion makes that exception as well, so I feel comfortable in that).
That’s for me personally. As for the legislative aspect: I also have a very strong religious belief in the moral agency of every individual. Meaning, I would never hope for anyone to choose abortion, but I strongly advocate their right to do so. I think that nations have an obligation to attempt to outline or shape a moral (not religious, moral) framework for their citizens, but I also believe in the old adage that you can’t legislate morals. You can pass legislation to give the world an idea of where your ideals are, but you can’t force citizens to follow those ideals. And as long as there are people who hold beliefs contrary to the ideals, I think it’s laughable to try to force the issue with laws. So for me it comes back to agency. Have abortion be legal, and leave it to each individual’s conscience to decide.
Okay, that turned out to be a lot longer than my initial promise of “very simply” implied. But this is a position that allows me to be firmly pro-life without feeling a need to force other people to come to my side of the fence.