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Why can’t we talk about abortion? If we can't resolve our differences, we can at least change the tone of the debate

Pro-life demonstrators confront pro-choice counterparts. Credit: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty

Pro-life demonstrators confront pro-choice counterparts. Credit: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty

October 4, 2019   4 mins

Earlier this week, a billboard next to Stella Creasy’s office bearing a picture of a 9-week-old foetus was taken down. Creasy, who is pro-choice, was being specifically targeted, as the board included the website link ‘stopstella.com’. She is also pregnant. The ad was pulled not by order of the Advertising Standards Agency (it met their requirements), but by the owner of the board, Clear Channel.

I felt the full force of this sad and difficult news story. Three years ago, while heavily and painfully pregnant with my second child, I emerged from Westminster tube to find an array of 10 feet high posters of dismembered foetuses. The tiny hands and feet I’d been looking at on a scan the previous day were displayed in agonising detail, post-abortion. I arrived at our nearby office soon after, white-faced and in tears. I promptly vomited. The image on the ad recently taken down was less graphic, but I can imagine Stella may still have been having similar days.

I host a podcast about dealing with difference and having difficult conversations, and this topic is excruciatingly hard to deal with. It is a deeply personal one. And for millions of women and couples, their choices either way are inescapable parts of their life stories. The issue also forms one of our deepest moral divides, and one of the hardest to find common ground on.

Two intensely serious moral goods are at stake. First is the freedom of a woman to control her own destiny in a world which is stacked against her; the freedom to choose the things she is prepared to ask her body to endure, and not be forced into the fundamentally self-sacrificial role of motherhood.

The second is the right of a vulnerable, voiceless and at least potentially tiny human to exist. Both these arguments have serious moral force, but they seem mutually exclusive. Each side picks the one they feel carries the most moral weight. If they — we — are honest, we admit that this choice is inevitably at the expense of the other. When dishonest, each seeks to erase the cost to the other and with this comes the utter erosion of trust.

This week, I’ve also been reading a new Rowan Williams lecture on political tribalism. He is typically brilliant at spearing our ludicrous tendency to see everyone as tribal except ourselves and says: “Political tribalism is above all a shrinkage of the scope of mutual recognition: I resolve not to think of the other’s view as sharing any of the moral anxieties or emotional tensions I experience.”

Mutual recognition in the abortion “debate” has broken down to such an extent that, as we’ve seen, individual pregnant woman are targeted with distressing images, and those who want to raise qualms about even late-stage, gender-specific or disability-focused abortions are written off as misogynists and bigots. Sally Phillips, the comic actor and mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome, has received torrents of abuse for suggesting that new tests and NHS procedures might be influencing women to terminate pregnancies unnecessarily. She is pro-choice herself.

The way this space is currently framed and the tactics being used are entrenching these divides, deeper and deeper, and the solution Williams offers is absurdly simple and fiendishly difficult. Listening.

“[we need to nourish] those practices…that allow space for hearing the memory of discovery and conviction that lies behind an opponent’s view and seeking to recognise comparable kinds of moral energy…   [we need to give] patient attention to stories and priorities not native to us; and this requires the construction of environments in which there is enough trust for such things to be articulated.”

I doubt we will ever resolve conflicts around abortion, because the starting points of moral reasoning and the underlying sacred values are so different. Many of those reading this will feel that to listen would be a distraction from the most important thing, which is winning – either ‘saving lives’ or ‘protecting women from ideological oppression’. The trouble is that the kind of tactics that we would use if winning were our only aim would actually do more harm than good.

I would guess, for instance, that Stella Creasy now feels more committed to her pro-choice position than she did before that billboard went up. The same goes for those who have called disability activists misogynists for wanting to think about the way legal late-stage abortions for minor disabilities frames the way we see disabled people.

Our instinctive psychological defence of our identity means that when we are presented with evidence or arguments which contest a deeply held belief, we are likely to harden our original position. Unless, of course, that evidence and those arguments are presented kindly, carefully, warmly — and by messengers we trust.

Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks, in their new book Messengers, which examines why we listen to some messengers and not others, argue there is one trait which trumps all others in efforts to persuade. Trustworthiness.

We trust someone, they suggest, when we believe “that a messenger will abide by virtuous social rules and norms, even if a temptation to violate them arises”. If it is clear you would do anything to win, you are no longer trustworthy and people are less likely to listen. There are complications here – we more often rate people we already agree with as trustworthy even if they are not being so – but if you are seeking to get people to switch sides, there is a pragmatic as well as a moral case for doing things differently. Be trustworthy and you’re more likely to change people’s minds.

So while we doubtless can’t do anything to resolve this deep rift, we can at least change the terms of the debate so that is kinder to all those concerned, not least the many women for whom this is a live issue. Personally targeted billboards are not helpful. They don’t build trust — quite the opposite. And the same goes for any attempts to close down expressions of pro-life positions more generally. For the sake of women everywhere, not only the pregnant ones, we should do better.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield


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Meg Petley
Meg Petley
3 years ago

Thanks for this balanced article Debbie, it was interesting to read the political background to where this issue has ended up today.
I think self id is a key concern here, the ability for non trans male predators to legally enter women’s and children’s spaces under a false flag is a real concern.
The argument that no one would go to all the bother of all that totally denies the historical reality, predators have become foster parents, priests etc to gain access to vulnerable children.
Predators go where the prey is.
In some surveys of male prisoners I in 50 now identify as trans women.
This must be sad and depressing for genuine trans women just trying to get on with their lives.
I’m glad you didn’t find the legal id change process difficult Debbie, certainly I support/counseling being made available to trans people going through this process, are there any groups that do this rather than seeking to abolish it?
Thanks again for this article Debbie, best wishes, Meg