Another weekend, another protracted and pointless discussion on Ultra Violet. My own fault for trying to scratch beneath the surface of these posts instead of just nodding along, I suppose. I don't know why I bother .
This one involves a post by one Sharanya Manivannan which is intriguing only for how little it says and how long it takes to say it. Ms. Manivannan starts by telling us that even though we are entitled to have our own opinions on whether abortion is right or not, we must recognize that illegal abortions put women at risk and therefore it's important that women be permitted to choose - an argument she dwells on for a bit before concluding that it isn't particularly relevant in a country (India) where women have the legal right to have abortions.
This little digression over, she finally gets to what she really wants to say, which is to claim that women choosing abortions still face social disapproval. She describes this disapproval by saying that she can't remember the last time she heard a conversation about abortion that didn't involve "a hushed whisper, a disapproving tone or cluck of the tongue" by which what she really means is that women who choose to have abortions are seen as 'loose women' and that "The easiest way to damage a single woman’s reputation in India is to spread a rumour about her multiple abortions", though she doesn't, of course, say this (or says it only after a protracted comment exchange), simply expects us to somehow infer it.
What we're not supposed to infer, meanwhile, is that she would like to see a world where abortion was a casual act, free of any trauma or regret for the people involved. It's not that she doesn't believe this - she does. Or might. In any case, we're not supposed to infer it.
The summary of her post (as far as I can tell) is that it would be nice if women didn't have to face social censure over their choice to have an abortion - a pretty, if somewhat trite sentiment, which comes without any discussion of how this is to be achieved, particularly if it's acceptable for people to hold the view that abortion is wrong (as she seems to accept at the start of her post).
The problem, I think, is that Ms. Manivannan is confusing acceptance with approval. It is unrealistic to expect that the large numbers of people who see abortion as wrong or unethical are going to change their mind about it anytime soon. Indeed, it is not clear to me why they should (they're entitled to their opinion, after all) and I certainly don't think it's going to happen if we simply dismiss their issues as irrelevant. We can certainly expect and demand that their disapproval not be allowed to interfere in a woman's exercise of her right to have an abortion, or that it not be allowed to take that right away from her. And we can hope, in the name of a civil society, that they not harass women who have had an abortion (not 'honor' their choices, perhaps, but keep silent about them), and that they distinguish between disapproving of the act and disapproving of the actor. Though even that may be hoping for too much.
The real issue, of course (which is mentioned in Ms. Manivannan's post, but which she never really discusses) is that in a patriarchal world where women are often not economically empowered, and are therefore dependent on social approval, they may not have the ability to make independent choices that fly in the face of social censure. This is a valid concern - to the extent that it is true (I personally have no idea how serious the social taboo against abortion really is, I'm taking other people's word for the fact that it is serious), but the solution to it is is not to expect social attitudes to magically change to approve of women's choices. That's putting the cart before the horse. The solution to the problem of lack of real choice (with abortions, and more generally) is to work towards empowering women so that they can exercise their rights without having to rely on the approval of others. That empowerment, is also, of course, the way to change social attitudes themselves, but their key role is not to reduce social disapproval but to make it irrelevant. If empowerment doesn't happen, social attitudes won't change either. If it does, then social attitudes will probably change as well, but by then they won't matter that much anyway.
Of course, creating empowerment is a long and difficult process, but it's not like there's an alternative, is there? Certainly legitimizing the dependence of women on social approval while dreamily imagining that social mores will change doesn't help. As I've said before, I believe that those who oppose abortion should have every opportunity to state their case, and to do whatever they can to influence a woman's decision to have an abortion. If we disagree with them, and want to counteract their influence, we need to do so by creating a counter-community of people who support and celebrate a woman's right to have an abortion - which, of course, is what the pro-life vs. pro-choice dynamic, that Ms. Mannivannan so airily dismisses, is all about.
Finally, on abortions as a 'casual' choice. It seems unlikely to me that we'll ever get to the point where choosing to have an abortion will be an easy choice for the majority of women to make. I think it's safe to say that for most women choosing to have an abortion is a difficult, traumatic decision, and I think it would be even without the threat of social censure or the taboo (such as it is) around abortions. We can debate whether this emotional involvement comes from some kind of physiological maternal instinct, or from socially conditioned beliefs in the sanctity of life and parenthood. It certainly goes much beyond the threat of reprisals over the fact of having had an abortion, and beyond any narrow definition of gender role. Whether we want to see abortions become less of an emotional issue is a function of how important we see some of these factors being, but it's worth noting that the social values involved are deeply embedded in our social fabric, and imagining a world where abortion would not, by and large, be an emotionally charged choice, means imagining a world with a social and ethical superstructure dramatically different from the one we have today. Can such a superstructure be imagined? Yes, I think so. But I'm unsure that it would lead to a better, more egalitarian world than the one we've got now. At any rate, the whole question strikes me as being somewhat irrelevant to the immediate issue at hand. In any reasonably foreseeable future, abortion will remain a traumatic and emotionally troubling choice for everyone concerned, and therefore one that is difficult to talk about, even for those of us who don't disapprove of it.
Recognizing that, rather than trying to deny it for the sake of some ideology, is actually critical to taking the first steps towards opposing the kind of social censure that Ms. Manivannan claims is common. Much of the trouble, I suspect, is that the only people who freely declaim their views on abortion are those who don't recognize that it is a difficult choice for the women making it - and these are almost always the people who not only disapprove of abortions but have managed to convince themselves that the women who choose to have abortions treat them casually (hence their indignation). It's not clear to me that public opinion is really so staunchly anti-abortion. I think it's possible that it simply seems that way because those of us who are sensitive to the trauma involved find it awkward to talk about, so that all the air time goes to the anti-abortion zealots, leaving women who have abortions feeling victimized. The question to ask then, as I've said before, is not what we can do to change the minds of those who are against abortion, but how we can find ways to express our support and solidarity with women who do have abortions so they don't feel so alone. I'm not sure what the answer to that question is - maybe abortion support groups, maybe new pro-abortion depictions in the arts / media, maybe clearer, more concise blog posts - but it certainly seems to me that that is the right question to be asking.
 Actually, I do know why I bother - because I think the underlying issues are important, and deserve more careful consideration than they typically get - but I think I need to be less obsessive about it, don't you? From now on I'm making what I'm going to call the Falstaff Resolution. I will write one comment critiquing what I see as wrong with a post, and unless I get an intelligent, constructive response which suggests that the person is actually interested in engaging in a real discussion, I will LET IT GO! There. And I'm asking you, the reader, to help me stick to this resolution. If you see me going on and on about something , either on this blog or elsewhere, please call me on it - just leave a comment saying: 'Vade Retro Falstaff' or something along those lines. Seriously.
 After this post, obviously.