If you’re reading this you’ve probably seen them, the pious, tweed-clad huddles – mostly male, embarrassingly white – standing outside the BPAS clinic in Bedford Square ostentatiously praying for the souls of Murdered Babies and Fallen Women. It’s easy to feel sorry for them – after all, they don’t look like the types to have fun, apart from whatever low-key righteous ecstasy comes from whiling away the hours hexing sotto voce on street corners or, perhaps, in Oedipal contemplation of other people’s wombs. Occasionally, one or two of their number get carried away – whether out of zeal or boredom – and start filming women going into the clinic. The spectre of the American anti-abortion movement – the torched clinics and murdered doctors, the women imprisoned for ‘suspect’ miscarriages – suddenly feels just a little bit closer. But most of the time they’re not exactly raucous. They just hand out their literature and pray.
It goes without saying that their literature is pure ideology: an emotive pot-pourri of moral blackmail, cloying paternalism, and medical misinformation, threatening women with cancer, infertility, and at least a lifetime of torment if they depart from God’s Plan. And let us be under no illusions about what they suppose that Plan to be. A quick snoop on the internet will reveal that ’40 Days for Life’ is a political organisation with its roots (as well as its – substantial – funding sources) firmly in the ascendant American Right, that virulent blend of hyper-capitalist economics and social reaction which is rapidly gaining ground in Austerity Britain. It is also clear that the primary aim of ‘40 Days’– and its numerous sister organisations – is not to reduce the number of abortions. If it were, one might expect, at the very least, that its literature would not push a barely concealed anti-contraception agenda (apparently, condoms don’t work, and the pill is a form of abortion), and that its founder (the name’s David Bereit, in case you’re interested) might be slightly more equivocal in his personal adjudication of the US Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision which ruled bans on contraception unconstitutional, thereby precipitating what he calls a ‘tragic moral breakdown in our culture’. One might similarly doubt the abortion-rate-reducing potential of other attitudes seemingly prevalent among ’40 Days’ supporters, for instance, their views on same-sex relationships (burn the fa – a.k.a. marriage is a sacred union…), sex ed (is like forcing kids to fuck in the school canteen), single mothers (are responsible for the riots – and not in a good way), and the ‘undeserving poor’ more generally (let the benefits scroungers eat cake all the way to the Workhouse). It doesn’t take a genius to realise that there’s more at stake here than philosophical niceties about the definition of Personhood. (And consequently, that there is little point arguing about those.)
The real question, though, is how we – that is, we who take women to be more than divinely mandated breeding-machines – are to respond. We need to oppose the ’40 Days’ phenomenon, of course; but what are our arguments, our politics? This question might appear redundant, since a language of opposition so immediately suggests itself. We are, surely, ‘pro-choice’. We oppose ‘40 Days’ because it is ‘anti-choice’. And we resist it in the name of a woman’s ‘right to choose’. Choice, though, is a concept whose political valence demands scrutiny. Whether prefaced with the term ‘consumer’, or pretender to scientific status in the guise of ‘rational choice theory’, it is – like ‘women’s empowerment’ and ‘sexual liberation’ – territory into which the liberal has firmly thrust his flag. That is to say, out of the tangled strands of opportunistic self-vindication, reflected alienation, and stirring rhetoric which the bourgeois class has manufactured in its struggle for power, and which together can be termed ‘liberalism’, at least one theme emerges: government must not abridge a person’s self-evident and unalienable right to choose. But what is choice? Quoth the liberal tradition: it is the kind of thing that an individual has by default unless they are ‘interfered with’ by the state, or the victim of direct physical coercion (the former indignity being, at the final knocking, just a special instance of the latter). ‘Interference’, though, is another piece of liberal jargon. It doesn’t count as ‘interference’ when the state strains its every sinew to protect private property in its existing distribution – but it does when it enforces a minimum wage, subsidises an art gallery, or opens a hospital. This is no accident. ‘Choice’ is – paradigmatically – what we have when we sell our labour rather than starve, the essence of liberal ideology being that this is freedom enough.
Secreted in our conceptual inheritance – which is, after all, an inheritance of struggle, of victories and backlashes, revelations and sell-outs, an inheritance as vital as it is ambiguous – this proposition awaits the opportunity to sabotage our more radical aspirations. The ’40 Days’phenomenon exposes this tension. As we wheel out the trusty slogans, we confront the uncomfortable fact that, in standing outside clinics handing out propaganda, the ’40 Days’ campaigners are quite simply not preventing anyone from choosing anything. Women can choose to listen to them, or can choose to ignore them. (They cannot, of course, choose whether to hear them, but that is par for the course in the liberal ‘market-place of ideas’.) Now, it is true that many supporters of the ’40 Days’campaign advocate the criminalisation of all abortion (not just some abortion, as is currently the case), and that a chief objective of their ‘prayer vigils’ is to spread their stigmatising ideology, to steer it firmly into the ‘mainstream’ so as to smooth the way for further legal restrictions. It’s also true that such legislation is a not too distant prospect, to judge by the increasing regularity with which the House is asked to consider whether pregnant women should be forced by the state to stare at ultrasounds of Nadine Dorries for as long as it takes to push them over the abortion time limit. Nevertheless, the tweed-clad huddle itself amounts to neither a legal restriction nor a physical assault.
What, then, is so particularly odious about it?
The argument most commonly put forward – and one which at least moves beyond the mere incantation of the word ‘Choice’ – is this. The problem with ’40 Days’ is that their presence has the real and immediate effect of harassing and intimidating the women whose sins they pray for, not to mention clinic staff and other members of the public. There is certainly a lot of truth in this accusation. The sight of their shame-mongering po-faces is indeed creepy, and enough to put you off your Pret, if not your abortion. (On a more serious note, let’s not forget the filming.) But it is equally certain that there is a danger in relying on arguments which consist simply in pointing this out. Sure, harassment and intimidation sound like Bad Things. Indeed, they sound like grounds for an indignant petition by law-abiding citizens followed by a swift intervention by our good friends, the Met Police – which might seem like a solution, until we start to wonder why labelling someone’s actions ‘harassment’ or ‘intimidation’ should, in this particular political moment, have come to seem such an uncontroversial way of condemning them. The very way that this language slips off the tongue should make us suspicious. It sounds reasonable. It doesn’t sound political – and this is precisely why we must inquire just whose interests it is serving. Who benefits when authoritarian diatribes against ‘causing disruption’ and ‘preventing the public from going about their normal business’ can pass for platitudes, and the condition for any protest being permissible is that it makes no difference to anything at all? We should be suspicious as soon as there is talk of bringing in the police – with or without their white horses – to avert Public Nuisance and protect Vulnerable Women. These are, after all, the very same police who goose-step into Bloomsbury every time our protests are deemed too ‘disruptive’ or our picket-lines too ‘intimidating’. Arguably, this authoritarianism in the name of ‘business as usual’ is simply the flip side of the liberal expulsion of the economy from the sphere of political contestation.
In any case, the situation is too urgent for us to be relying on double-edged slogans and Faustian pacts, whether out of intellectual cowardice or a fantasy of populism. We need to be honest. The problem with the ‘40 Days’ lot is not that they are harassing and intimidating people. It is that they are harassing and intimidating the wrong people, in the interests of the wrong people, and they are doing so in a material context which lends their actions a particularly alarming significance. Once we give up the dogma that choice is the measure of liberty, it becomes obvious that women’s small but hard-won freedoms – including, but not limited to, sexual and reproductive freedoms – are already being systematically demolished, and not only by the sometimes farcical decrees of moral-compass waving ‘Church and King’ Tories, with their tax-breaks for patriarchal households. They are being demolished every day by the suppression of wages and the rise of hyper-exploitative, precarious contracts; by sky-rocketing rents and slashed benefits; by the cuts to EFL provision, the criminalisation of squatting, the closure of domestic violence and Rape Crisis centres at rates surpassed only by those at which prisons and detention centres are being expanded… This is all to say, these so-called ‘abortion wars’ are – and have always been – class wars, and it is no accident that the question of who pays for abortions has so often been their bloodiest battleground (if you think that’s just America, imagine what will happen here once the ritual disembowelling of the NHS is complete). Unsurprising, too, is the fact that it is here that the ‘pro-choice’ rhetoric has tended to founder on its own immanent libertarianism, or, to put it less charitably, that a certain class of women have bought their modest measure of freedom with coat-hangers smeared in the blood of their poorer, browner sisters.
The liberal arguments are worse than useless because they overtly or surreptitiously justify these forms of brutely material coercion as ‘natural’ consequences of ‘choice’. But there is something inadequate, too, about the identity parade of ‘material conditions’ with which it is always tempting to end a left-wing intervention – for what it appears to side-step is the problem of ideology itself. Power does not – could not – operate by coercion alone. Yes, I am unfree if the Law prohibits abortion, or indeed if it forces me to have an abortion. Yes, I am unfree if I cannot afford to have an abortion, or if I have one because I cannot afford to feed a(nother) child. But I am also unfree if I choose not to have an abortion because I believe the ideological garbage that ’40 Days’ are pushing.
This is about more than Choice. It is, in fact, about Life. It is about the possibility of life being something more than mere existence, and about the negation of this possibility by the imperatives of what, in our more declamatory moments, we might call patriarchal capitalism. The tweed-clad huddles are (no more, but certainly) no less than the mumbling, manipulative arm of a political tendency currently gaining ground in Britain whose aim is the utter subjection of women to these imperatives; it is on these grounds that we must defeat them.
’40 Days for Life’ will be back outside BPAS Bedford Square from September 26th.