Photo by Chanintorn Vanichsawangphan / EyeEm
Artillery Row

The poverty of “choice”

We should all be concerned that women are avoiding motherhood

The number of abortions in the UK increased by 47 per cent in the first two weeks of 2023, compared with the same time in 2022. This follows after 2021 saw the highest number of abortions ever recorded in England and Wales: there were over 214,000 abortions and around 625,000 live births. Excluding miscarriages, this means that around one quarter of pregnancies ended in abortion. Naturally, pro-lifers will lament such statistics — but pro-choicers, pro-lifers, and pro-whateverers alike have cause for concern. 

Of course, many factors play a part in women deciding against having children. In an age of widespread contraceptive use, baby making is no longer the default position for most couples. At a time when women are putting off having children — in many cases so as to pursue the myth of “having it all” or to “girl-boss” their way through life — the goal of becoming a mother is an increasingly foreign concept to my generation. The cost of living crisis doesn’t help matters. Neither do unstable housing, even more unstable relationships, climate change fears, career stress and a generation of people who have grown up accustomed to divorce and family breakdown. Add into the mix reduced religiosity among the British public, and the ingredients for rejecting motherhood are in abundance. 

Promoting motherhood is a natural feminist cause

It’s one thing to delay having children and quite another to have an abortion to limit family size. Given mainstream feminism’s obsession with the pro-choice stance, and the typical politician’s fears of voicing opinions contrary to such a lobby, we find a dearth of public concern when it comes to the staggeringly high abortion rates.

The ability to bear children is distinctly feminine, but here we have a phenomenon that seeks to end that most natural of things. Thousands of women either do not want the child they are carrying, or believe they aren’t in a state to bring another human into the world. What makes this even more depressing is that we’ve known for a while that women aren’t having as many children as they’d like. 

One would assume that promoting motherhood is a natural feminist cause. Yet the liberal feminist movement’s obsession with abortion renders the noble goal of motherhood anathema to its increasingly out of touch agenda. Large numbers of feminists decry pro-life allies as an oxymoron and shut down discussion of abortion if it strays from the “my body, my choice” dogma. Women’s rights are a shorthand for abortion on demand — long gone are the days of safe, legal and rare. As such, the importance of motherhood gets little attention, and politicians opt to advocate for the deceptively named “reproductive health care” rather than help those who have actually reproduced. 

Some pro-choicers might acknowledge the tragedy of women feeling as though abortion is their only option. For the most part, they will not criticise the abortion movement and refuse to concede that access to abortion is not an indicator of women’s empowerment. You can’t have it both ways — you can’t regret the fact women think they only have one option, and at the same time refrain from criticising your own pro-choice movement that promotes that only option. Similarly, for those who think abortion only should be legal so as to serve as a last resort in cases of rape, then surely every abortion is a tragedy. 

An all too common response to increased demand for abortion does not focus on making motherhood easier, but suggests contraception promises the solution. A news article featured on the British Medical Journal website attributes the increased demand for abortion in part to limited access to contraception. It reports that between 2015 and 2019, “spending on contraception by councils in England had been cut by 18 per cent”. The site claims that easier access to birth control is the way forward. This is an intellectually dishonest response that fails women in a few key ways. 

Blaming the surge in abortions on contraception shortages is a red herring

For a start, contraception does not always lead to diminished demand for abortion. By perpetuating the idea that you can divorce sex from its consequences, contraception drives up the demand for abortion as women are aghast when it fails them and reluctant to let nature take its course. In her book The Genesis of Gender, Abigail Favale elaborates on this phenomenon, terming it the “contraception paradox”. She explains that “when a society normalizes contraception, the number of abortions will drastically increase. However, in an already-contraceptive society, the use of contraception can keep the abortion rate steady or even lower it slightly”. Still, Favale concludes, “the normalization of contraception — the default expectation of female sterilization — vastly increases abortion.” It is laughable for more reasons than one, therefore, that a “morning after pill” vending machine was installed at George Washington University in the US after the reversal of Roe v Wade. One type of “emergency contraception”, Levonelle, is only 58 per cent effective at preventing a pregnancy if taken three days after intercourse. 

Even if pushing contraception were to decrease the number of abortions, such a system would still fail women. A continual pushing of the pill as the solution to preventing unplanned pregnancies ignores the many complications women on the pill experience. The New York Post recently ran an article on why more women have chosen to boycott the pill due to health concerns. Some women shared that they weren’t even taking contraception with the goal of avoiding pregnancy but were on it for conditions such as acne. Women will go to the doctors with frequent headaches, acne or even hair loss, and doctors will suggest hormonal contraceptives, even if the patient in question is not sexually active. When it comes to women’s healthcare, doctors repeatedly get away with masking a symptom rather than treating the root cause of the matter. Men endure no such injustice. Doctors already over-prescribe contraception to women and girls. I hardly think a few more dispensers of contraception will radically change women’s demand for abortion. 

At the end of the day, even copious amounts of contraception will not eradicate the desire for abortion. As already acknowledged, the reasons that lead to women resorting to abortion are numerous and regrettable. No amount of taking artificial hormones or handing out free condoms will stop women choosing against bringing life into the world. Blaming the surge in abortions on contraception shortages is a red herring that distracts from a more pervasive problem.

How many abortions are needed before people realise that something is awry? A 50 per cent increase in the number of abortions should not signal a triumph for women’s rights but reveal a broken culture and a system that fails women. More needs to be done to cultivate conditions conducive to raising a family in the UK. More needs to be done to help women realise that a baby is not a burden too great to carry.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover