AbortionPosted: March 24, 2012
A debate on abortion is in the process of flaring up. It is a debate which seems to be deliberately provoked by a few specific agents: the Conservative Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and backbench MP Nadine Dorries; the Daily Telegraph (and, inevitably, other elements of the reactionary press) and religious campaign groups such as 40 Days for Life and Abort 67. The suddenness with which the Telegraph’s investigations and the government’s raids have occurred (and the speed with which they are being formally processed), along with the coincidental appearance of anti-abortion protesters in many cities, strikes many (including us) as suspicious, and indicative of a coordinated agenda. It seems that, knowing that legislative efforts to reduce abortion rights will meet strong opposition, pragmatic attempts are being made to limit access to abortions in other ways; by creating an impression that abortion clinics are acting illegally, are putting profit ahead of patient care and are not to be trusted, and by getting doctors suspended and clinics shut down on legal grounds.
The technicalities of these charges can be elaborated elsewhere by other writers; we simply start with the understanding firstly that authorities do not investigate and prosecute all offences with equal enthusiasm, and so the choice to attack abortion providers (and to go looking for offences in places where no complaints have been received) indicates a certain political will; and secondly that in various instances in the past of people attempting to mount a full scale assault on something, they will often start by drawing attention to its most controversial aspects. Few people will object to doctors who are breaking the law being investigated, but from there the anti-abortion agenda can be more firmly established and broadened. This is why Lansley talks of doctors’ “professional and ethical responsibilities”. The emphasis is ours; he just dropped the word in casually along with the concern over professional standards.
A slew of articles are already being published in response to this debate, and further investigation into both abortion providers and their dogmatic opponents will surely follow in the coming weeks. Our concern, of course, is fascism.
When people are arbitrarily throwing around the word ‘fascist’, we must be careful how we tread. It is common for those who support abortion rights to be labelled as ‘pro-abortion’ and to be painted as eugenicists and therefore fascists. Abortion, it is claimed, is a way to engineer a more desirable society by terminating certain potentially problematic potential citizens before they are born. Likelihood of being born with a disability is one reason for termination, the Telegraph’s undercover investigation centred around sex-selective abortion and there are accusations in America (where we have imported a lot of our rhetoric from already) that abortion is a racial issue. The argument runs that abortion allows for a form of social dominance by privileged groups and represents an attempt to breed undesirables out of existence. The problem with this approach, though, is that it views pregnancy not as a personal issue but as a social one, and anti-abortion groups want termination to be a social (read: government or Church) choice, not one made by individual pregnant women. It suggests, even, that women have a duty to continue pregnancies that they don’t want in order to contribute to society. Pregnant women, far from being prospective mothers who must make (and must be allowed to make) their own choices with regards to the continuation of their pregnancy, are reduced to the means by which new citizens are created, their own bodies subordinate to a higher social authority. Though it should be of concern to us that various marginalised social groups are more likely to seek abortion than continue a pregnancy (presumably evidence of social and financial pressures which require urgent attention), to sacrifice women’s individual rights for the sake of a wider social agenda is absolutely fascist.
We see fascism on the rise in the UK, in various forms. Birkbeck students recently mobilised to force an openly fascist candidate to pull out of a student union election. He himself is a proud supporter of 40 Days for Life, the Christian pressure group which protests outside abortion clinics, and joined them in Bloomsbury. This is a trivial detail, but the compatibility of the anti-abortion agenda with other, more obviously recognisable forms of fascism is worth considering. One of the most constant elements of fascism as it has appeared in various places at various times is a focus on ‘the family’, which in practise translates to an attempt to coerce women into traditional maternal roles.
Many fascist regimes banned abortion, including Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany (at least, for “Aryan” babies, the termination of which carried the death penalty) and Franco’s Spain. Indeed, when Hungary’s arguably fascist far right government forced through a new constitution in 2011 they included a clause which critics fear could endanger abortion rights (as well as considering giving extra votes to people with more children). As with recent American legislation, this is couched in terms of extending state protection of the foetus to the within the womb, and similarly regards women as little more than incubators. As with the anti-abortion movement we face today, authoritarian attempts to control women’s access to abortions (and so control the course of their lives) have been balanced with (and facilitated by) propaganda which emphasises the family and indicates that bearing and raising children is a service to the strength of the wider society. This perhaps reached its apotheosis with the Nazis awarding the Cross of Honour of the German Mother to women who had and appropriately raised four or more children, but can be seen much more prosaically throughout modern right wing politics, especially in the religiously motivated anti-abortion movement.
If there has been a hesitancy from pro-choice community to term anti-abortion campaigners as fascist, this is nothing compared to the almost total failure of anti-fascist groups to mobilise around this issue. While ‘anti-fascist’ activism continues its narrow obsession with ultranationalist street movements and political parties, the defence of women’s reproductive rights is inevitably a feminist battle. Of course, many of the same people will be involved in either camp, but the banner under which we choose to fight back is of political significance, and defines the battleground. There is a very real need to address the current anti-abortion movement in terms of its fascism. An assault on women’s reproductive autonomy, either through legislation or more underhand tactics, is an authoritarian attempt to coerce us into certain social roles. Anti-fascism must meet this assault head on.