It took a long time, but the view that women have the right to choose what happens in their own bodies is finally becoming mainstream. It seems obvious to people who have been brought up with easy and safe access to abortion and have had education at school about it, but previous generations thought very differently.
Attitudes towards women have changed drastically in the last 100 years. It is only 100 years since women over 30 got the vote, 50 years since abortion became legal, and 40 years since women have been allowed to work in every sector. For reasons that seem bizarre and incomprehensible from these more enlightened times, women were considered incapable of making choices until relatively recently.
Considering women “feeble minded” or stupid, men (and even some women) fought against the rights of women tooth and nail for centuries. Owning property was banned for women for much of European history, women could not seek divorce without permission from men, and even in the 19th century in the UK a woman was considered “property” of her husband, who could rape and take her belongings her if he pleased because that was his right.
A Long Time Coming
It is difficult to comprehend how difficult the fight for the rights of women to control their bodies has been and continues to be around most of the world. Religious, misogynistic, or profoundly ignorant views about women and their bodies abound.
The religious institutions around the world, like the Anglican and Catholic churches, or the consensus of Imams in Islam, almost universally condemn the right of a woman to obtain an abortion. Their view is that if an egg has been fertilised, it will become a human and therefore has the right to life and protection like any other human. This is, on the face of it, a reasonable view. It does not, however, take into account the reality of the need for abortion services.
Regardless of the moral or religious standpoint, many millions of women and girls seek abortions every year. The difference between a country in which a woman can freely seek an abortion and those that prohibit abortion is the number of women who die from complications of badly performed or botched treatment.
The death toll is sobering. It is easily prevented. Access to abortion, counselling, proper medical care, and support from friends, family, and the government all contribute to keeping women safe.
A Woman’s Right
Abortion is considered a right because many people believe that a woman’s body is her own. The foetus growing inside a pregnant woman is nobody’s possession, and before the limit of viability (24 weeks in the UK), the foetus is not considered a human being. This is not because of a disregard for the potential life growing inside the woman, everyone would agree that whenever possible that life should be given every chance it gets.
The reason it is a right is because to prohibit abortion would be counter productive. Legislation is not meant to impose morality on a populace, though it usually reflects the common moral standpoint for that population. Legislation should (and sometimes does) reflect the need to prevent and reduce harm. It is clear (many studies have confirmed this) that the prohibition of abortion does reduce the number of (recorded) abortions significantly, but at a very high cost. Women who die from poverty because they cannot afford an effective abortion, or to travel to obtain one, are far more common in countries where the legislation is prohibitive.
The Right to Choose
Whether the reader believes that a woman has the right to choose between life and death is more or less irrelevant. Many people do not consider a foetus below the age of viability to be a life, and even if they do, they appreciate the necessity of letting women choose safely and legally.
This is because women will choose what happens to their bodies, regardless of what the law or the church says. Abortion has been used for thousands of years by women who need it. No amount of hatred or condemnation can change the reality of women making their own choices regarding their bodies. Punishment after the fact works neither as a successful punishment or as a deterrent, so legislation should be formed to reflect this.
Instead of hurting women who make an incredibly difficult choice, the modern way of thinking about women’s rights is to support them. 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetimes, the vast majority take that choice extremely seriously. It is a difficult and upsetting choice to make, and many women regret that they could not complete the pregnancy. Without the support from society, these choices are made more desperate and difficult, not to mention dangerous.
Abortion is a tough topic to consider. Nothing is as emotive as the need to protect children. A calm approach to abortion rights is the most successful: it protects women, firmly establishes their rights, respects their need for choice, and reduces and prevents harm in an effective manner.