If a woman has the right to have an abortion, is of sound mind, and is an adult, is there any reason to oppose her decision to have an abortion? This question was prompted by a recent event that seems popular when outrage meets retweets and Internet comments: digital public shaming and shunning.
Josie Cunningham is a British woman who captured media attention for her attempts at fame. Her Facebook page describes her as “an aspiring model looking to break into the world of glamour modelling.” (This makes her no different or worse than many people.) Recently, she publicly announced that she would be getting an abortion to help further her goals. “I’m finally on the verge of becoming famous and I’m not going to ruin it now,” she said. “An abortion will further my career.”
Announcing the intention to obtain an abortion is often sufficient reason to upset many people. But for some, it was her casualness and the intended lifestyle of “famous for being famous” (think Paris Hilton) that really grated.
Indeed, her reasoning and decision so offended some—including a celebrity doctor with a large social media presence—that they reacted by conveying their hatred loudly, at her, for others to see (the tweet has since been deleted). From insulting tweets to apparent death threats via Facebook posts, all the usual dredge of hatred washed up on the shores of digital outrage.
The Guardian’s Martin Robbins summarizes some reactions on Twitter, for example:
To read Cunningham’s mentions on Twitter is to explore a world of medieval morality I didn’t think still existed… The “murdering cow” needs “locking up,” you see. “It’s a mental institute you need,” explains one man. One woman tells her to throw herself off a cliff, while a man named Warren patiently explains that, “someone needs to throw acid on you.” “I sincerely hope this woman is flattened by a lorry,” prays another. Women who've never met her call her an “ugly no good cunt,” a “rank slut,” who “doesn’t deserve the ability to conceive” and needs “a good hard kick in your piss flaps.”
Another British woman, Nicola McLean, who the Mirror describes as a celebrity mother of two, said: “Totally outraged reading about that stupid sl*g that wants an abortion so she can go on big brother!!! She doesn’t deserve children.” A woman named Laura Tweeted: “Not many people in the world make me want to give them a swift kick to the face but I can safely say @JosieCOnline IS one of them #tramp.” Another man said this was a “new low for humanity.” And on it goes. The price of a woman exercising the right to her own body still, it seems, comes with a price—even from those who are supposedly “pro-choice.”
Cunningham, however, has changed her mind about going through with the procedure. But, this isn’t solely about Cunningham. It’s about the ethical consistency aimed at other people’s bodily autonomy, and how that consistency can fragment. Importantly, Cunningham’s decision is—or rather was—legal. Of course, legal status doesn’t always align with moral status. Yet, evidence has consistently shown (PDF) that society is better when it provides safe, legal access to abortion—and worse when it denies such access, due to health hazards and death from unmonitored abortion providers.
There is no evidence to suggest, for example, that legalized abortion encourages more abortions. As The New York Times reported: “A comprehensive global study [in 2007] of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.” Today, there’s evidence that the rate is even dropping in places like America due to fewer women getting pregnant.
Of course, for some—most notably religious folks—abortion is the murder of innocent life. But this piece isn’t about the ethics of abortion in that sense. What matters is the apparent hypocrisy of those who support legalized abortion, but convey disapproval when a woman chooses to use it. Polls consistently show support for legalized abortion but, as UKPollingReport indicates: “[in Britain] public opinion is more divided on what restrictions there should be on abortion and what rules should govern its availability.” This reflects what Gallup found in America, too. Thus, there need be nothing inconsistent or hypocritical in broadly supporting a woman’s right to abortion, but wanting restrictions on that access. In France, for example, abortion is available in the first trimester but heavily restricted after.
But of those who condemned Cunningham, and are pro-choice, how many would target a university student in the same way?
Here, however, evidence can be provided to indicate why such a restriction should be in place. For example, the British Telegraph reports that apparently: “The limit [of 24 weeks] broadly represents the point at which a foetus is said to become “viable”. However, babies born this early do have some chance of survival, and some born even earlier have survived.” Other aspects, like the ability to feel pain, are also considered sufficient reason to deny an abortion.
These complicated areas are worth discussing, though it is heavily based on the idea that human life must always be saved where it can. That itself is worth interrogating, since if the view is to save all human life where possible, it means opposing suicide, the death penalty, and euthanasia (many patients are merely in perpetual pain and/or immobility, not necessarily terminal). A case-by-case judgement seems more functional than a general principle of “save all human life,” due to the complications of real-world scenarios.
However, these proper discussions were not what prompted people’s hatred of Cunningham and her decision.
The scenario is familiar: A woman just starts at university, where life is freer and sex tends to occur more frequently. This increases her chances of getting pregnant, despite her intentions not to. Here, many would understand a college student who said: “I would consider getting [an abortion] because there is a lot more I want to do with my life.” She is still studying, still young, perhaps still has student loans, and has no career or support framework.
No doubt many would still raise their pitchforks for such a declaration. But of those who condemned Cunningham, and are pro-choice, how many would target a university student in the same way? Would that celebrity doctor have shamed a student who mentioned such a decision due to her concerns for her future? Would newspapers be finding ways to condemn her?
Presumably not. Yet, what separates Cunningham, herself young and inexperienced, from a woman studying? Many—including the Twitter doctor—indicated it really was Cunningham’s casualness and her career choice that irked them. No matter your opinion about people like Cunningham, their choice isn’t catered to suit your arbitrary acceptance. “Aspiring model” might not meet your approval, but so what?
It says much that the only kind of response Cunningham’s critics could muster ranged from digital finger wagging to bizarre petitions. She wasn’t doing anything illegal, though critics could have attempted to claim her reasoning didn’t meet particular NHS guidelines in the U.K. And, indeed, this would have made a stronger case than simply shaming her because her career choice seemed gross to them.
What exactly did her critics want? They’ve conveyed they think she’s a terrible person, isn’t “worthy” or “deserving” of a child and so forth—now, they want her to have a child? I’d think her critics would consider her perceived frivolity as a reason for her not to be a parent. If I was someone who hated Cunningham, I’d be thankful that a child would no longer be a factor in the life of someone I consider a terrible person.
Assuming a woman really does not want to give birth, what kind of intervention do critics actually want to see? As we know from looking at countries where abortion is illegal, if people really want an abortion, they will find a way to acquire one. And this adds in unnecessary medical risks. At best, critics can try persuading—but judging from the death threats and insults, persuasion doesn’t seem the point here. Condemnation of others because they don’t meet “superior” standards, however, does.
This isn’t a defense particularly of Cunningham, but the ability of all people to make decisions about their bodies without incurring the wrath of strangers. Things are complicated, of course, and all of us need to consider what grounds our moral perspectives and how consistent we are. For example: It’s important for those condemning Cunningham to reflect on why, if they support a woman’s right to choose, they condemn Cunningham. What that means in terms of desired outcomes: Force her to carry to term? Do you want a person you consider terrible to be a parent?
What should also be of concern is how this adds to stigma surrounding abortion. Stigma, of course, isn’t meaningless and has far-ranging consequences. As ThinkProgress’ health editor Tara Culp-Ressler writes:
“Abortion stigma impacts the way that society talks about the procedure, and ultimately the way that politicians legislate it. A greater number of women sharing their personal experiences with abortion could help slowly reverse this dynamic, in a similar way that conservative lawmakers’ personal connections with LGBT individuals have helped encourage a shift toward more pro-equality policies.”
Yet, how many now would speak about their abortion, when Cunningham’s mere intention to have one receives this kind of reaction (from people who otherwise say they’re pro-choice)? Yes, abortion is legal in the U.K. and elsewhere. But stigma does nothing to make abortion better managed. Culp-Ressler continues: “When women do report feeling negative emotions after an abortion, those feelings are often exacerbated by the societal stigma that surrounds the procedure.”
Thus access may be legal, but the decision to use it is still difficult. Such a decision is not made lightly. Legality then fades due to a perceived stigma and condemnation of women who opt for abortion—they’re “selfish,” “sluts,” and all manner of colorful terms. But this needs to end, and Cunningham’s case highlights it’s not over.
What we want is for people to make the best decisions for themselves, without the burden of having those decisions judged for no other reason than not meeting loud, threatening strangers’ approval. Cunningham’s case is a test many otherwise progressive people—those who support abortion—failed.
At least Cunningham has marketing savvy (though I’d argue her public declaration for an abortion was a poor decision) and publicists to help her. What about women who do not? People need to think hard about what motivates their condemnation of abortion if they support its legalization, what a proper response should be to women already operating within a harsh, judgemental society, and what they ultimately would like to occur.
Something’s wrong when a legal, widely supported medical procedure can prompt a pro-choice doctor to use his authority, his presence, and his widely read social media platform to only condemn an innocent woman; when news sites target their wrath at this same person; and when people motivated by defending “babies” (i.e. fetuses) can wish death and acid-throwing at a stranger. This doesn’t look like a civilized society—it looks like a nightmare where free choice has shrunk into immobility, due to a thousand voices screaming.
That is not the world we should want to live in.