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‘What is Done Easily is Done Frequently’

Category Articles
Date March 13, 2007

Easy access to abortion was supposed to improve lives. It failed in that purpose and is now just another form of contraception, argued Mary Kenny in The Daily Telegraph, February 16, 2007. It is a sober and painful article.

When 10th Baroness Howard de Walden – described as ‘a devout Roman Catholic’, which is media-speak for ‘dotty extremist’ – let it be known this week that clinics in Harley Street are no longer to be allowed to perform abortions, the abortion rights lobby denounced her as a sinister opponent of ‘choice’. But the lady is merely exercising her own choice – to do what she pleases with her own private property.

The event is not without irony. Harley Street, part of the large swathe of Marylebone run by Howard de Walden Estate, which owns the freehold, has been the site for ‘society’ terminations since the time of Lillie Langtry.

In the 1960s, when the Abortion Law Reform Association – the lobby that made David Steel’s Abortion Act possible in 1967 – was at its most energetic, some of its adherents regarded Harley Street as a deplorable example of hypocrisy and class bias.

The rich went to Harley Street while the poor went to the back streets. I remember hearing the MP Lena Jeger make that point in an impassioned plea for abortion rights in 1966. Harley Street, she said, should be closed down because it provided abortions for the rich. Now it has been, thanks to Lady de Walden.

Abortion law and practice is full of such paradoxes. The original campaigners for abortion law reform emphasised the scandal of back-street abortions: they also claimed that legal abortion and better access to contraception would mean (a) no more unwanted children; (b) no more children in care; (c) no more cruelty to children; (d) a reduction in ‘teenage mothers’ – the figures had reached a shocking 4,000 in 1966; (e) a reduction in all ‘illegitimacy’; (f) a reduction in ‘subnormal’ – that is, low IQ, mothers – giving birth; (g) the disappearance of ‘subnormal’ children; (h) a reduction in child murders and attacks on children.

In the mid-1960s there were some 5,000 children abandoned to local authority care. Access to abortion would solve all that, campaigners believed.

Forty years on, there are now some 50,000 children in care, and 40 years after the Abortion Act was supposed to decrease ‘illegitimacy’, Britain has the highest rate of single teenage mothers in Europe, and a third of all births are now out of wedlock. As for improving conditions for children, a report from Unicef this week put the UK bottom of the developed nations’ league for child wellbeing.

Meanwhile, Britain’s official abortion figures increase by more than two per cent, year on year, with a special surge after Christmas, which this year even surprised one of the major providers, Marie Stopes. It carried out 5,992 terminations in January – a 13 per cent rise year on year and the highest figure in the organisation’s 32-year history – and blamed the rise on an excess of binge drinking and partying.

In all social change, nothing ever turns out quite as predicted. Campaigners tend to believe, Pollyanna-like, that human nature is endlessly perfectable, and all will be solved when new laws are put in place. In truth, human nature is rather better described by Dr Johnson, who observed that: ‘Whatever is done easily will be done frequently.’

And that, I suggest, is the short answer to those who wring their hands asking why Britain’s abortion rate climbs annually, despite the wide menu of contraceptive choice. Abortion is relatively inexpensive today: it is easily accessed and the acceptable social attitude is that it is simply a personal choice, with no moral or ethical dimensions. This is not quite how it always works out, but that is broadly the way it is seen.

Easy, cheap and accessible – why wouldn’t it increase each year? More than one in 10 women in their late twenties to early thirties has had an abortion, according to a survey earlier this week. Moreover, some women actually prefer abortion to contraception as a means of controlling their fertility. An experienced abortion practitioner once told me: ‘Some women do not know whether they want to be pregnant until they are. They want to exercise that choice after the pregnancy has occurred, not before.They are then in a better position to judge their own mood, choice, circumstances, and to test the reactions of a boyfriend or partner. They are also satisfied that they are able to get pregnant. A lot of ‘accidental’ pregnancy is fertility-testing. Women who have been on the Pill for years want to find out if they can get pregnant. So a pregnancy, though unwanted, confirms their fertility.’

This is not what some of the abortion reformers had in mind. Their purpose, they said, was to halt illegal abortion, help overburdened mothers of large families, and reduce teenage pregnancy. David Steel made it clear at the time that he did not favour ‘abortion on demand’. He believed in a strictly limited Act, which would rescue women in difficult situations, be it poverty, health problems or rape. The suggestion that party-loving hedonists might use abortion as a convenience was dismissed as ‘moral panic’ by ‘Roman Catholic bigots and a few elderly Anglicans’.

Neither did the birth control campaigners of the 1920s and 1930s – Marie Stopes and her American counterpart, Margaret Sanger – ever envisage that abortion would be a routine part of ‘family planning’. Stopes was a eugenicist of almost Third Reich perspectives, desiring to sterilise not only the inadequate, but anyone who wore glasses. However, she did believe in contraception – that is, fertility control in advance of sex. In her own lifetime she steered clear of abortion, preaching that ‘birth control’ actually meant taking proper precautions.

Who would contest that Stopes won a battle for women (and men) in establishing entitlement to fertility control and rescuing it from the stigma of the squalid? Yet she, too, was a kind of Pollyanna in imagining that once contraception was widely available, abortion would fade way and all would practice responsible birth control. Many do practise responsible birth control. Many women time their pregnancies and control their fertility with irreproachable integrity. Yet an increasing number, it seems, just regard abortion as part of the ‘contraceptive menu’. Abortion providers will say that women choose abortion for a vast number of individual reasons: and if that also includes the post-Christmas party-binge, so be it. It’s a personal choice.

And a cultural one: we have lived through a major cultural change, from ‘family planning’ and ‘birth control’ – words emphasising old bourgeois virtues of planning, deferred gratification, and self-control – to the era of fast data, instant feedback, and the ‘delete’ button on the computer. The post-hoc decision of whether to continue the pregnancy, or press that ‘delete’ button, reflects the spirit of our age.

So will the abortion figures – now standing at 186,000 a year – simply climb inexorably? Certainly, legal efforts to curtail abortion have repeatedly failed. In addition, the procedure is likely to get even cheaper and easier, and an abortion pill could soon be available over the internet, offered like Viagra.

Yet there remains a dislike of casual abortion among the general populace, and few really believe that abortion is a good way for a woman to control her fertility. Pro-choice campaigners and doctors who routinely carry out the procedures deplore the fact that in Russia, for example, 55 per cent of pregnancies are terminated. Social historians view a high rate of abortion in any society as a sign of social failure.

And on the other side of the coin is the frantic pursuit of fertility: it is anecdotally reported that perhaps a third of women seeking IVF have previously terminated pregnancies. This is not necessarily because abortion has made them infertile – more likely the passage of time. But for women entering repeated cycles of IVF, it can still be a rueful reflection that ‘the right to choose’ is not always available.

Sheer demographics may eventually bring about a sea change. The pro-natalistic societies are now in the majority Islamic, and the countries that are falling short of replacement level are mainly ‘post-Christian’: even in France, where mighty efforts are made to maintain the birthrate, the popularity of Muhammed as a boy’s name indicates that it is Muslim women who are providing the future generations. Eventually, this lack of young people will hit us where it really hurts – the economy.

In railing against Lady de Walden’s personal decision about her private property, the abortion rights campaigners are displaying a wrong analysis of the situation – and not for the first time.

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