Sarah Palin, the Republican party’s barn-storming pitbull with lipstick, owes a great deal of her popularity in conservative America to her attitude to abortion. She is not only against it in all circumstances; she has spectacularly proved she is.
Refusing to abort a foetus that she knew would be born with Down’s syndrome – as a result her Down’s baby Trig was born this April – and encouraging her pregnant 17-year old schoolgirl daughter Bristol to become a mother while still a minor have made Governor Palin a national heroine to the anti-abortion lobby.
She is no heroine to me. I cannot respect either decision, and prefer not to imagine the pressure that would have been put on Bristol had she wanted an abortion; it would have blasted her mother’s political ambitions.
However, I do entirely respect both mother’s and daughter’s freedom to make their own decisions about their pregnancies. What angers me is the triumphalist congratulation that surrounds the Palins among anti-abortionists – in the US and in Britain – and the smug, un-self-critical assumption that they are absolutely right; everyone who thinks otherwise is absolutely wrong, and immoral and heartless as well.
There is another view, both heartfelt and moral, that it is wrong knowingly to bring into the world a very damaged baby, or to force a woman to do so. The life-long grief and difficulty it can cause for all concerned is a terrible thing, to say nothing of the cost; that may be tolerable in a rich family but in ordinary families the reality is very different.
A damaged child very often means the parents are locked into 24-hour care, into poverty, anxiety and, in the absence of extremely generous welfare payments, this is for life.
It happens that for personal reasons I have come to know a lot of people who were born with disabilities, and their families, and I’ve seen again and again what happens not just to the child but to the whole family. In some cases it means that the parents never go out again. In others it undermines and breaks up the family; and the statistics are depressing.
Couples who have children with learning disabilities, for instance, are extremely likely to break up, with obvious effects on all the children. Not much has yet been written or said, outside the learned press, of the effects of a very disabled child on its siblings. They, too, may well be locked into life-long anxieties and responsibilities, which they didn’t knowingly take on.
A woman cannot know, when she learns her foetus is damaged, just how great that damage will be and what it will actually mean. Some women are quite prepared to impose such risks and burdens on themselves and on their men, on their existing and future children and on the wider society, and expect to be praised for it. Others, like me, take the view that this is not right, and certainly nothing to feel smug about.
In the same sort of way, a young girl’s life can be wrecked by having a baby and there is a view, both heartfelt and moral, that it is wrong to force her to give birth, or even to encourage her. No amount of family love and support can change the fact that having a baby will end a young girl’s childhood and youth, and deprive her of the normal chances of embarking on her own life.
Some mothers may pride themselves on putting pressure on their daughters to keep the baby. Again I think that is wrong and unfeeling. The so-called pro-life lobby should understand that people who accept the idea of abortion in some circumstaces may be just as tender-hearted and morally careful and even as religious as they are, and just as pro-life, in a different sense. They can’t of course. They cannot accept any disagreement. That’s what wrong with them, and what’s so threatening to freedom and moral autonomy in the United States.