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Could we choose to dialogue?

"Anti-choice", "pro-abortion" -- let's stop the name calling and talk about principles.
Megan Hodder | 17 April 2014

Shouting down the pro-life pray-ers ... Picture: Ealing Today


“Choice” is perhaps the most hotly contested term in the right-to-life debate, and as their self-description suggests, it is the pro-choice side of the argument who consider their understanding of it as the most accurate, principled, and pro-woman. Hence their increasing use of “anti-choice” as a description of pro-life advocates.

Recent events in Britain, however, would suggest that the divide is not quite as clear-cut as they might think, and that if fruitful dialogue is ever to take place between those with opposing views on the morality of abortion, a good deal more openness and goodwill is required.

Take the example of Finding Hope, a campaign run by the pro-life charity LIFE. Launched at the end of last month, Finding Hope aims to encourage awareness of the association between domestic abuse and crisis pregnancy, and to raise funds to support expectant mothers trapped in an abusive relationship.

LIFE runs counselling, care and support services to women who are undergoing crisis pregnancies or struggling following a termination, providing, in their words, “practical, positive and compassionate alternatives to abortion.”

Given that 50,000 women per year who seek abortion in the UK are in abusive relationships, and are not given adequate opportunity to disclose this or seek help during the termination process, there is clearly a pressing need to provide compassion and support to women who find themselves in these horrendous circumstances.

But anyone who thought that this campaign would be a starting-point for dialogue and collaboration between pro-life and pro-choice feminists turned out to be sorely mistaken.

LIFE were labelled as vile by one feminist organisation and distasteful by another, as well as being accused -- as they describe in this blogpost -- of dishonesty, disingenuousness, and of implying that women who seek abortion are bringing domestic violence upon themselves.

The assumption was that LIFE could not genuinely be in favour of offering women choice, because they do not consider the act of ending an unborn child's life as falling within the sphere of ethical and legitimate choice.

In the London borough of Ealing, a similar situation is unfolding with another pro-life initiative. In some ways, 40 Days For Life couldn't be more different to Finding Hope: it is a religious campaign consisting of a peaceful prayer vigil held outside the Marie Stopes termination clinic which runs throughout the Christian season of Lent.

But just like Finding Hope, it provides choices for pregnant women in crisis who would otherwise have no real choice at all. Expectant mothers who approach the vigil are referred to The Good Counsel Network, a pro-life charity who offer accommodation, resources, and legal and financial support. Good Counsel have reported that this year's vigil helped them to give 23 mothers the support they needed to keep their babies.

The pro-choice response? A protest set up opposite the vigil to combat this “intimidation” by an “anti-choice” group. It is supported by Rupa Huq, a Parliamentary candidate for Ealing, who described the vigil as “bullying and intimidation of the vulnerable”.

Anti-choice is a strange way to describe campaigns explicitly committed to giving women an alternative that is currently not available to them. In their objections to both Finding Hope and Forty Days for Life, the pro-choice side has shown itself unwilling to understand how those who believe in an intrinsic right to life define choice, preferring instead to dismiss them as entirely opposed to it.

Use of the term '”nti-choice” demonstrates a reluctance to formulate accurate counter-arguments and elevates, on no rational basis, one choice to a higher moral status than its alternatives. It shows a fundamental and all too obvious misunderstanding of what the pro-life side of the debate is truly advocating.

Because from a pro-life perspective, belief in an intrinsic right to life does not, and is not intended to, deny freedom and autonomy. Instead, it fosters it.

A society that recognises the dignity and value of human life from its very beginning is one in which we, as women, are empowered to live out our unbreakable obligations of love and commitment to our fellow human beings with no fear of danger or disadvantage.

The right to life of each human person isn’t a matter of personal preference. It’s an ethical imperative, and pro-lifers hold to it not in order to restrict, control or condemn, but instead to ensure the freedom and flourishing of all, even the most vulnerable. It’s not anti-choice to insist upon that. It’s pro-human. 

Belief in an intrinsic right to life possessed by each human individual is never going to be fully compatible with the pro-choice worldview. But nevertheless there is possibility for fruitful co-operation on issues where our shared beliefs in the dignity and value of women overlap.

Those who describe the pro-choice position as “pro-abortion” are often merely caricaturing it. But pro-choicers must realise that, even if the principle of women's freedom does include access to abortion -- and it is by no means evident that it does -- it cannot be reduced to this alone.

The reactions to Finding Hope and Forty Days for Life have not been prime examples of dialogue and co-operation in the right-to-life debate -- far from it. But that does not mean such dialogue is impossible. All it takes is for both sides to be intellectually honest, and to put beliefs and principles above buzzwords and loyalty to like-minded cliques.

Acknowledging that no one side has a monopoly over the concept of choice would be a start.

Megan Hodder writes from London. Her blog can be found at Whistling Sentinel.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | abortion, freedom
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