Agonies of abortion

“A nurse called me to go through. I thought I felt my baby's heart jump. “Now,” she said, “take a seat. You have left it very late. You're well into your third month.

“A nurse called me to go through. I thought I felt my baby's heart jump. “Now,” she said, “take a seat. You have left it very late. You're well into your third month. Are you sure this is what you want to do?” The me that was not me simply said, “Yes.” But in my mind I had started screaming, “No, no, no, no, please, no.” “”

These are the words of a woman who, against all the medical odds became pregnant and then, after a week of agonising decided she could not keep her baby. They are taken from Tracey Emin's book, “Strangeland”. She is best known as the woman artist who won a prize for her “Unmade Bed”. The part of the book that describes her abortion story is full of ambivalence. She starts to suspect that she might be pregnant because she begins to feel “more alive, more awake”. She starts to take care of herself. When her pregnancy is confirmed she walks in the park and with both her hands across her stomach, she says “Hello, tiny. Welcome to this world.”

A few days later and the fears begin to crowd in. She is weighed down by the responsibility and her aloneness. She writes, “I didn't want an unasked-for child, dependent on my love.” So, still full of uncertainty, she decides she has no choice but to get an abortion. Summing it all up, she says, “Years later, it still hurts. I know I did the right thing.”

Once again, abortion was front page news last week. This time, it was provoked by concerns that an increasing number of doctors were opting out of performing abortions and that this was going to cause an abortion crisis in a few years time. I think this unlikely to happen, locally at least, as we have a nurse led practice of administering medical terminations up to about 16 weeks. But no doubt the push for this has come about because of the numbers of doctors who are opting out of being involved themselves.

Our national ambivalence surrounding the issue of abortion was clear with the choice of photo that The Independent put alongside the story. It was of a foetus that looked at about the eight week stage and one which no-one in their right mind would call a “bunch of cells.”

Libby Purves followed this with an article in the Times on Tuesday. Her point was that if a doctor agrees to perform abortions, he or she will not be able to decide which ones they carry out. They will serve the “silly, the selfish, the careless and the thoughtless”, as well as “the rape victims, the abused, the desperate.” To my mind, this confuses the whole issue. What of the women, who like the one I know of, who has an abortion because she is pregnant through rape and then afterwards says, “But it was not the child's fault.” If our judgment of the rights and wrongs of abortion is dependent on the circumstances surrounding the conception, or through fear of the future, then it must follow that our moral decisions will be taken on the basis of our emotions alone.

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We are caught between two extremes and Libby Purves swings between both. One where she has loads of compassion on the woman because of her particular circumstances and the other that says that she got herself into this and, showing scant compassion, says she should put up with the consequences of her irresponsibility.

And then there are those who call themselves either Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. Battle lines are drawn up with both camps heavily defended behind their walls of reasoning, their understanding of when life begins, their own experience and emotions. They need to listen to each other.

What of junior doctors, many of whom are currently wondering if they will even have a job to go to in June? If they are voting with their feet, their discomfort at performing abortions needs to be heeded. It would be immoral to coerce them to go against their conscience.

Where is the answer that considers both the woman and her child? We do not have 190,000 unwanted babies in this country. We have 190,000 women, many of whom, like Tracey Emin, don't feel they have the resources to follow their hearts.

Somewhere, in all of this, there must be a loving answer. As one contributor to the Times online debate put it, “Is there not a moral compass somewhere which can guide us through this ethical landscape?”

Where is the straight path through this moral maze? How capable are we to judge between the rights of the woman and the child she is carrying? We need boundaries. We need the truth. Above all, we need love.