What the Cambridge Union debate got wrong about abortion

Nora Redmond 11 June 2021
Image credit: Cambridge Union

On Thursday 27th May, the Cambridge Union held its first in-person debate of the year. The motion was ‘this House believes nothing should impede a woman’s right to choose’, with a focus  on abortion. The result was that the Ayes had it at fifty one, while there were twenty one Nos and fourteen abstentions. In a university setting, it should not be  the case that as many as thirty-five students either disagree with removing barriers to getting an abortion or refrain from choosing a side.

Leni Zumas, writer of Red Clocks, a novel which envisions a dystopian United States where abortion is illegal, was first to defend the motion. Zumas rejected the idiom of conventional ‘debate’ about abortion. She questioned the legitimacy of the term “pro-life”, asking: what of the life of the woman? Zumas contended that to argue that opposing the right to an abortion is in some way supporting life is to dismiss the life of the woman.

Attempting to counter this, both Melanie McDonagh, an Irish journalist, and opposing student speaker Paul Gardner discussed the few instances of death when terminating a pregnancy. They failed to acknowledge the much higher potential for death during childbirth. A total of 566 women died up to a year after pregnancy in the UK between 2016 and 2018, while the risk of death from legally induced abortion is one per one million at eight weeks or less. Looking at these numbers, it is evident that to be “pro-life” is to be anti-women.

Student speaker Liberty Beswick expanded the debate by arguing that although nothing should impede a woman’s right to choose, there exist in practice myriad obstacles involving finance and education. A fellow student debater, Dioni Ellinikaki, proposed the much-needed improvement of access to seeking this medical treatment. Abortion is an issue of social inequalities. Throughout this debate, opposing speakers made no reference to the relationship between anti-abortion laws and race or social class. In the United States, 75% of women who terminate a pregnancy are classified as low-income earners. Almost half of these women live below the federal poverty line.

Each member of the opposition spent time focusing on the phrasing of the debate, objecting to the use of the word “nothing”. They held that there must be some obstacles to getting an abortion. But what the opposing speakers failed to recognise is that these barriers already exist.

McDonagh attempted to make a heart-wrenching case regarding responsibility of the man in the pregnancy of the woman. She held that men should be more involved in the issue of abortion, since they must deal with the loss of the “child” too. The flaw in that logic is that no man has the duty of bearing the burden of pregnancy or childbirth. Zumas asserted that if men were so fundamentally opposed to the right to abortion, then perhaps they should have to get a vasectomy instead, a procedure which can be reversed. Yet this is not and would never be the case. Why? Because men do not want the government to control their bodies.

The theme of reasoning behind getting an abortion was frequently discussed. McDonagh argued that it was deplorable for a woman to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of gender or disability. She suggested that these stances were akin to misogyny and ableism. Interestingly, after highlighting the example of aborting foetuses predicted to be affected by cleft palate, she admitted that this was only found to be the case in seventeen abortions a year. When discussing access to abortion, Liberty stated that in particular situations, we must ask ourselves: will the child have a good life? To this I would add: would the mother? A woman’s reason for getting an abortion is a personal issue, in which the state should have no bearing.

McDonagh also made the case that women who decide to terminate their pregnancies “have an abortion at the expense of the state”. While in England and Wales 99% of abortions are funded by the NHS, costs are expected to significantly drop with the introduction of the at-home abortion pill during the pandemic. Despite this option being available on a “temporary basis”, ‘pill by post’ has arguably revolutionised access to abortion and the finances involved. There is much debate over continuing this procedure into the future.

This House may believe that nothing should impede a woman’s entitlement to choose, but it is alarming that a sizeable number of students at the Cambridge Union debate did not. Ireland, Argentina and South Korea are all among countries which have recently experienced the liberalisation of abortion laws. This progress is not to be taken lightly. Access to abortion is currently under threat in the United States, Poland and Croatia. These rights have been fought for over many decades and need to be strenuously protected. In any conservative wave, the first line of attack tends to be on women’s rights. To put barriers in place to deter a woman from getting an abortion is to neglect the fact that obstacles already exist. Barricades are being constructed in countries where the issue of a woman’s freedom to choose appeared to have been resolved.

Until reproductive rights are universally respected as human rights – including by Cambridge students – the battle for abortion continues.