August 2011 Archives

Guest Post on Liberal Conspiracy

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I have a guest post up on Liberal Conspiracy about Nadine Dorries, the attack on women's bodily autonomy and the Lib Dems' alleged "moderating influence" in this government.

On the choice to be an incubator

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In debates about abortion, anti-choice activists often advocate the option of putting a child up for adoption as and alternative to abortion for women who do not wish to, or have no means to raise a child. In the United States in particular, a dangerous rhetoric has developed to counter the Planned Parenthood slogan "Every child a wanted child".

Pregnant Pause is a good example of this. They argue that every child is a wanted child, as up to two million American couples are currently waiting to adopt a child, and 1.3 million abortions are carried out in the US every year. If only every woman who found herself unwantedly pregnant chose to carry the pregnancy to term, all of these babies would find happy, loving homes with one of the two million couples waiting to adopt them!

The US-based anti-choice lobbying organisation National Right to Life makes this bold claim: "Adoption is a thoroughly responsible, helpful-to-all alternative to abortion that is, unfortunately, not well understood." The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and abortionfacts.com go a step further, to paraphrase the Planned Parenthood slogan as "every unwanted child a dead child" and "Every Child a Wanted Child, and if not wanted, kill!", respectively. Ultimately, what we are being told here is that women who choose to abort an unwanted pregnancy are murdering children, and that instead they should simply act as incubators for those who want to adopt children instead.

A similar discourse can be observed among anti-choice organisations in the UK, though it is more subtle. Care Confidential gives information about the different options available to pregnant women. Just a quick glance at the paragraph heading on their abortion and adoption pages gives you an insight into which way Care Confidential leans. After some more-or-less factual information on medical and surgical abortions we get "What are the health risks of medical abortions?" and "What are the health risks [of surgical abortion]?" The list of "risks" is rather more extensive than those given by the NHS, with in some cases drastically inflated numbers and in-depth discussion of "post-abortion stress". When it comes to adoption, the paragraph headings are "What's good about adoption?", "What is the adoption procedure?", "What support is there for adoption?" The page makes no mention, for instance, of mental health impacts of carrying a pregnancy to term to then give the child up for adoption, nor of the risks posed to a woman's physical health by pregnancy and childbirth.

Alternatives Pregnancy Choices Newham has a similar approach. The organisation states that women are entitled to have "all the information about all three options" (keeping the baby, adoption and abortion). Yet a good two thirds of the information page on abortion is dedicated to risks and particularly potential mental health issues. There is a certain implication here that women should feel guilty and traumatised after an abortion. The adoption page, on the other hand, concentrates on describing the improvements in approaches to adoption, how the woman would be involved throughout the process, for instance through being able to choose the adoptive parents, and how she can change her mind for up to six weeks after the birth.

Particularly worrying is the fact that these organisations offer information and counseling to women in unplanned pregnancy situations, who may often be in a vulnerable position and in need of factual, impartial advice rather than the
railroading, judgmental "information" offered by anti-choice organisations.

The leaflet Baby Adoption Today [PDF] published by the Adoption Support Society and linked to from the Care Confidential website makes at least a token effort to address some of the emotional issues around adoption, with questions like "I couldn't go through 9 months of pregnancy and then give my baby away", and "What would I say to family and friends afterwards - pregnant one week and without a baby the next?" The answers it gives, however, are far from unbiased.

It's still hard to decide. Isn't an abortion more straightforward in the long run? It may seem to be in the short term, but in the long run you could be coping with the emotional problems and depression that can follow and abortion and which may be ongoing. If you choose adoption, you may also experience similar emotions but your baby will have the chance of life in a loving home.

I am particularly concerned by the answer to the "What would I say to family and friends" question:

You may feel awkward or embarrassed. Tell people you decided on adoption because, although it was a very painful choice, you believe it was the right and loving decision for you and your baby.

There are other problematic passages in the leaflet, characterised by the assumption that the default state of a woman is to want a child, and that only external circumstances prevent her from being able to keep and raise that child herself. Advocates of adoption as the alternative to abortion often fail to deal with a number of basic issues: that there may be more than one reason for not wanting a child beyond simple inability to support them economically at a particular point in a woman's life; the emotional and physical effects on a woman of carrying a pregnancy to term and giving the baby up for adoption; and the social, economic, and educational impacts of this process.

The disruption that even a "normal", complication-free pregnancy, where the woman fits all the social norms of being happily married and financially stable, causes to a woman's life is significant. I have watched friends and colleagues go through this: doctor's appointments, loss of energy, physical side effects, being off work sick. Imagine now someone who fits the stereotype of the Baby Adoption Today leaflet: relatively young, not in a financially stable position, possibly not in a long-term relationship, either still in education or possibly in an unstable, low-paid job. Some of the issues this woman might face if she chose to carry the pregnancy to term to give up the child for adoption include:

  • Workplace discrimination: Although this is illegal in the UK, it still happens [PDF] What's more, the government is currently not collecting or publishing statistics on distrimination due to pregnancy so we have no meaningful ways of addressing this.
  • Missing out on school/university: This can be simply to attend doctor's appointments, but also due to physical side effects of the pregnancy - loss of energy, morning sickness, etc. Over the course of the nine months, this can be incredibly disruptive and damaging to a young woman's education, and significantly impact her future educational and career choices and path.
  • Having to take time off work: Never popular, often seen as a justification for employment discrimination; in a job paid by the hour or with few or no benefits, this will also have a significant financial impact on the woman throughout her pregnancy.
  • Social stigma: To be fair, there is a lot of this going round, regardless of whether a woman chooses abortion, adoption or to keep the baby. Adoption, however, seems to offer the worst of both worlds in this area: unlike an abortion it's not something you can keep secret, and after months of visible pregnancy having to explain to friends, family, colleagues and the nosy lady next door that you aren't keeping the baby can be extremely challenging.
  • Lack of benefits/legal protection: A woman keeping her baby would be entitled to maternity leave - both to help her recover physically from pregnancy and childbirth, and to give her time to bond with and look after her child. A woman giving her baby up for adoption, while she doesn't have a child to look after, has still gone through the same physically traumatic experience of pregnancy and child birth and is additionally going through what may be a very stressful adoption procedure. Yet as best I can tell, she would be expected back at work the day after giving birth. At best, this is a legally grey area.

To be honest, even in my stable relationship and middle-class, salaried job with exceptionally good benefits I wouldn't want to put myself through any of the above unless I genuinely wanted a child. To ask a woman to put her life on hold for the better part of a year, to expose herself to risks of short- and long-term health problems, discrimination, of not being able to fulfill her life ambitions as she misses out on educational, social and employment opportunities, so that her "baby will have the chance of life in a loving home" is beyond reasonable. There may be women out there who are selfless enough to do this. Ultimately, though, denying women the choice, presenting adoption as the only option for a woman in an unwanted pregnancy situation, asking them to make such sacrifices for a bundle of cells they never wanted is not a viable alternative. The message proponents of adoption send to me is that I am only valued as an incubator; that the baby that may come out of my uterus to be adopted by others is of more value than anything else I can offer society through who I am, what I can do or what I personally aspire to.

In the words of the Kaiser Chiefs - some musings on the riots

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"Mindless violence", "thugs", "criminality of the worst kind" - these are the words used over and over again by police, politicians and the majority of the media to describe the riots we have seen in London and some of Britain's biggest cities over the last few days. To a certain extent, there is no denying this logic. This is no peaceful read-in at a Vodafone store, nor a carefully organised, meticulously planned and highly creative action like the UK Uncut action in Fortnum & Mason. It isn't even a largely peaceful political protest parts of which got out of hand. These riots are markedly different: there are no political demands, no slogans or chants - just destruction, theft and violence. So is it right to dismiss them as nothing more than the actions of violent thugs?

The first thing to note here is that at this stage, we know very little about the people involved. We have seen images of mostly young men, some of them from black or minority ethnic backgrounds but also many white faces, we have been told that in many cases it's even very young kids - 10, 11, 12 years old - getting involved, and young women. Making generalisations is difficult - and so it should be.

The government obviously has a vested interest in representing the riots as mindless, criminal violence, rather than politically motivated action. Anything else would mean that at least some of the blame for what is happening would fall on the shoulders of our overlords - and that's not something they can afford. Sometimes, however, there is not a clear line between criminality and political acts, and I believe what we are witnessing right now falls into that area of shades of grey in between.

Some of the soundbites journalists have managed to get from rioters and looters are particularly telling. In this one, young girls drunk on looted wine talk about what they're doing and why. There's a vague attempt to blame the government there, somewhat undermined by one of them saying "Yeah... Conservatives... I don't know who it is!" When questioned why they are attacking businesses in their local community, the girls answer, "It's the rich people, the people that have got businesses, and that's why all of this has happened. So we're just showing the rich people we can do what we want."

Another item on the Today Programme this morning featured a young male rioter talking about his perception of the consequences of his actions. His expectation was that he would never get caught as police were overstretched, and even if he did, the consequences would be minor - prisons are already overcrowded so the worst he would get, he thought, was an ASBO - not something he considered a big deal.

On the surface, it is easy to interpret these remarks as willful criminality and mindless thuggery. Yet they betray a staggering level of alienation from society. What these young people are saying is essentially "Your system, your social structures, your reward and punishment mechanisms don't apply to us." The people some of our leaders call Alarm Clock Britain - small business owners who are struggling in the current economic climate - are viewed by the rioters as "rich people", with no distinction between them and, say, investment bankers.

It is a commonly used tactic of the privileged to dismiss the arguments of the oppressed unless they are phrased and presented on their terms. You've probably heard such dismissals: just think "You're just being over-emotional". What I think is happening in the discourse on the riots is much the same thing: the privileged political classes refusing to recognise as political expression anything other than the kind of well-organised, targeted protest that predominantly white trade unionists and middle classes tend to engage in. Yet just because these young people's feelings and experiences aren't expressed in a sanctioned way, just because they feel they have no constructive way (or for that matter reason or incentive) to engage with the rest of society, doesn't make their alienation any less valid, their acts any less political.

Do I support rioting and looting as a means of political expression? No. Do we live in a world where "society" is only for the privileged, and we quite literally have no common language with the truly alienated and oppressed? Probably. The biggest challenge once the riots are over will be to find a common language, to give these kids a reason to believe that there is a place for them in our society and that it is worth their time and effort to take that place.

[Elsewhere] Web blocking rears its ugly head

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Reading the headlines Wednesday morning, you could be forgiven for thinking that one of the long hard battles the Open Rights Group has been fighting for the last couple of years - the one on the web blocking provisions in Sections 17 and 18 of the of the Digital Economy Act 2010 - had been won. "Government scraps plans to block illegal filesharing websites", proclaimed the Guardian, with similar headlines on BBC News and other outlets. The reports referred to comments made by Business Secretary Vince Cable in the wider context of his response to the Hargreaves Review.

Read more at ORGZine.

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