Protestors march for Carla Foster (Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images)

June 23, 2023   5 mins

Across the world, lawmakers and activists are moving towards increasingly absolutist ethical and legal stances on pregnancy. In particular, social conservatives seem locked into draconian purity spirals. Roe v. Wade fell a year ago this week, and since then 14 US states have banned nearly all abortion from conception onward.

A newly energised distaste for artificial intervention in the human reproductive cycle seems to be emerging internationally, accompanied perhaps by enthusiasm for those halcyon days when babies would be found on doorsteps, women died giving birth in fields, and gay people couldn’t officially be parents. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s government is attempting to push through a bill that would imprison couples seeking surrogates abroad for up to two years. In February, it emerged that the Taliban was removing the contraceptive pill from Afghanistan’s pharmacies.

But extremism about reproductive matters is not just found among social conservatives. In response to the jailing of Carla Foster — the British woman who used mail-order abortion pills to terminate her viable baby at around 33 weeks — feminist barrister Charlotte Proudman argued on Good Morning Britain last week that “abortion needs to be decriminalised and treated like any other healthcare procedure”.

This familiar construction — that every abortion must automatically count only as fairly benign “healthcare” for the woman concerned, no matter what the surrounding circumstances or who else is affected — is surely a grossly over-simplified extension of the term. There is a separate discussion to be had about whether imprisonment for Foster was counterproductive (in my view, it was). But to most onlookers, there is an important distinction between abortions carried out early or in response to serious maternal or foetal illness, and those carried out very late upon healthy babies and mothers.

Equally, it seems bullishly myopic to insist that a baby has no distinct interests from those of its mother in cases like this, or that, in principle, maternal behaviour towards an unborn baby could never cross a reasonable threshold for illegality. The much-cited fact that women like Foster must be “desperate” to act as they do would not seem to help much. Desperation wouldn’t usually mitigate violent behaviour towards an infant after birth, so why should it do so immediately beforehand?

In fact, in any pregnancy there are at least three people with interests in the outcome — and more, if you count grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings. Wherever there are separate interests, those interests can clash. This produces the potential for great practical complexity. Yet in debates about reproductive ethics, some on both sides would seek to rank the core interests involved hierarchically — as if what was at stake was essentially no more complicated than a game of Top Trumps.

Among some social conservatives, the preferred decision procedure seems to go: prioritise the foetus or unborn baby, and then the interests of the father — after which you may, with grudging reluctance, get round to the interests of the mother (if she’s still alive, vaguely sane, and there’s anything left to decide). In contrast, feminists of the Proudman school would apparently put women first, with foetuses and unborn babies a firm second and fathers barely getting a look-in at all.

Each side would insist on their own ranking as the only acceptable one in any circumstance. And as a result, each tends to get mired in contradiction, since the purity of their preferred intellectual structures cannot withstand exposure to the complexity of real-life situations.

Special pleading, and the suppression of knowledge of human suffering, abounds in every direction. On the conservative side, a human life should be protected — except if it’s the life of a pregnant woman at risk of complication. Personal autonomy is an important value but not for women made pregnant through rape. Surrogacy is unacceptable because children need their biological mothers unconditionally — but equally, abortion could be avoided by having unwanted babies adopted.

But the extremists among feminists also have their own incoherencies. Some seem to assume that unwanted foetuses have no important interests of their own prior to birth (assuming they make it that far), but planned and longed-for babies possessed theirs from conception. Fathers are thought to have responsibilities and duties towards their offspring but no accompanying rights. A mother may grieve copiously over a miscarriage she didn’t want, but a woman getting a termination is considered none of the father’s business.

Wherever there is stubborn adherence to some principled ordering of values, there is usually a slippery slope argument close behind. On the conservative side, one slope allegedly descends from permissiveness about abortion towards a hardened attitude to the weak and vulnerable more generally. On the feminist side, a slope supposedly rolls down from the criminalisation of late-term abortion towards the complete outlawing of all abortion, or other unacceptable legal infringements on pregnant women’s bodily autonomy.

But social slippery slopes aren’t like slides in a children’s playground, that operate only according to the laws of physics. Social slopes depend partly on what feelings or attitudes already exist in some place. There is a difference between the merely theoretical danger of descent from X towards Y in some possible but distant scenario, and the pressing danger of it, rooted in actual specifics of the local context.

In a thoroughly patriarchal society that hardly cares about female interests or experiences — Taliban society, say — the distance between introducing one infringement on women’s behaviour and a cascade of others can be short. But that doesn’t mean it’s the same everywhere. In a relatively liberal society, putting a judicious curb on one aspect of behaviour needn’t make a cascade in the wrong direction particularly likely, or lead to more widespread infringements in the mainstream.

Some feminists won’t be persuaded by this point, because they will insist that, no matter what the geographical or historical location, all women still live in a constant emergency state at the hands of men. This is the unacknowledged emotional rocket fuel behind their pretence that nearly all the moral currency in a pregnancy is owned by women, exclusively. Women fear that if it were openly admitted that the foetus or the father had interests at stake too, then — given women’s lack of relative power — it would be next stop Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale for all of us.

Indeed, to shore this story up, feminists are likely to point to the dystopian happenings in the States. If there, why not here too? But to put it bluntly, the UK is not the US, no matter how much Yankophile progressives love to blur the differences. We have a different constitutional system and far fewer evangelical or even just plain old Catholic tendencies. We have sex-based and pregnancy-based legal protections. In practice, nearly all abortions became exempt from criminal prosecution in 1967. If residual criminalisation in the UK really were a slippery slope towards gestational servitude, surely we’d have slipped down it already.

The temptation to think in universal absolutes about the ethics of reproduction is high, and especially because the subject matter is so heated. Nearly everyone involved has an emotionally laden angle, rooted in past personal experience of an abortion or from feelings they have about pregnancy and children generally. Religious faith, too, brings the illusion of absolutes, whether that’s faith in God or a faith in universalised patriarchy that can’t tell the difference between Kabul and Kensington.

It would help to alleviate the tension, perhaps, if all sides could admit that there are no clean hands here, just as there are no clean lines. There never could be, and that’s not our fault. In some cases, it really is a zero-sum game between the interests of the mother and those of the foetus, or even between those of the mother and those of the father. But in advance of inspecting the local context, you can’t say which decision will be, if not good exactly, then perhaps the least bad.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 slogan about abortion — “Safe, legal, rare” — was a great one, partly because of its refusal to offer easy absolutes. The word “rare” is reassuringly vague, located somewhere between always and never, and tending towards an acknowledgement of the costs of abortion without ruling the practice out as illegitimate. Zealots may see this as an unsatisfactory fudge, but I think it accurately reflects the true picture. Human reproduction is sometimes a horrible mess, and it cannot be completely tidied up. We shouldn’t seek to avoid the discomfort of this fact by pretending that an easy algorithm exists to help with the moral calculus.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.