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Is there a middle ground in being pro-choice?

For a long time, Ann Furedi (chief executive of bpas) has been advocating women’s right to choose regarding their pregnancies. She is quite radical with regard to this pro-choice principle. For example, she questioned the 24-week limit of abortion, saying that every limit is arbitrary, and women have good reasons when they request an abortion after the 24-week limit. She defends gender selection. She argues that abortion is justified when the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to cause injury to the mental or physical health of the woman and having a child with an undesired gender could cause such suffering. According to her, you are either pro-choice or you are not. You can’t reject women’s right to choose when you don’t like her choice and still be pro-choice. There is no middle ground. What is at stake is the principle of moral autonomy with respect to reproductive decisions. If we set limits to this principle, then we violate the principle all-together. We should trust women to make their own decisions, as only they best know their own circumstances.

Left to make their own moral judgements, some women will inevitably make decisions that we would not; perhaps even those we think are ‘wrong’. And we must live with that: tolerance is the price we pay for our freedom of conscience in a world where women can exercise their human capacity through their moral expression. We either support women’s moral agency or we do not. (…) We can make the judgement that their choice is wrong – but we must tolerate their right to decide. There is no middle ground to straddle.

This passage brought to mind a story from my university days. I was studying to be a humanistic counsellor. A case study discussed in my course was about a man who was very sick and requested euthanasia. Most in the class were pro-choice, so we immediately shifted to the practical details about supporting this man in his request. No one dared to question his choice. However, the teacher giving the course stopped us and remarked that she spoke extensively with the man without condemning or supporting his wish. It turned out he was afraid he had become too much of a burden to his family, although his family didn’t feel this way at all. In the end, after speaking with his family, he decided not to request euthanasia.
I don’t want to say that most abortion requests can be solved like the above case. I just think that Ann Furedi’s radical plea for being pro-choice focuses too much on negative freedom, and not enough on positive freedom. Negative freedom is about non-interference from external sources regarding one’s decisions. Positive freedom is about being free to make choices that reflect who you are. Similar to the students rushed response to the euthanasia case, Furedi directly attempts to solve the practical details around someone’s request for abortion without exploring the reasons behind their choices. She should instead consider whether their choice truly reflects what they want. Furedi assumes that women automatically know what is best for them, but as with any choice, the first decision might not be the right one for you. Pregnancy is a period with a lot of hormonal changes, an emotional period which is physically and mentally draining. It is a hard time to make a decision.
Furedi presents it like either women get to decide for themselves, or someone else decides for them, implying that there is no middle ground. The middle ground is positive freedom. I think people would have more positive freedom if they spoke openly about the hard decisions they have to make regarding life and death. Positive freedom is a dialogue between counsellor and patient. Between people involved with abortion and the general public and policy makers. It is an exploration into the reasons for and against abortion, our hopes for the future and hopes one has for their child. It is about vulnerability.
For positive freedom to flourish, the stigma around abortion need to dissolve so that women and their loved one’s can speak openly about the dilemmas they are faced with. This is the destigmatisation of abortion for which Furedi has been working hard for many years.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. You can be 100% pro-choice and still believe in positive freedoms, and I don’t think that Furedi is arguing against that. Since no decision is made in a vacuum, it is possible to discuss the choice and all the details that surround the making of that choice with the realization that if the woman still requests an abortion (or the man euthanasia, in your example) then it is their right to go through with the procedure.

  2. Thanks Airin, for your reply. I agree with you, I don’t think Furedi argues against positive freedom, but she presents it mainly as a problem of negative freedom.

  3. Furedi’s sounds silly and overly emotional:

    1) If Furedi was right, then her reasons in favour of an unrestricted pro-choice would justify cases of infanticide; after all, if all that matters is protecting a mother’s mental or physical health from any negative effects caused by the child, given that born children can have such negative effects, it would be OK to kill a born child causing such negative effects.

    2) Even if Furedi was taking into account positive freedom in her defense of “unrestricted” pro-choice, it would still not follow that abortion is always morally permissible. One major reason why a particular abortion might not be morally permissible is because it might involve the killing of a conscious being identical with an individual that will be a person, viz. if the abortion is performed after a certain stage in the development of the foetus. Such a reason might be argued to be what the idea of a time limit as a precondition for a permissible abortion is after: before the limit, the foetus is not identical to an individual that will be a person, since it is essential for a person to have (a special type of) consciousness, which a foetus necessarily lacks; after the limit, a (special type of) consciousness *emerges* from the foetus, bringing about an individual that is numerically distinct from the foetus.

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