Coarse sex and cheap lives
Women in the UK wait longer than anyone else to start a family, sometimes making use of abortion as a backup to contraception to control fertility on the way. Is this reflective of a culture of unadulterated self-centredness, or a society, which, far from showing disregard for human life, takes the decision to have a child very seriously indeed?
On average British women are now pushing 30 before they have their first child, making the age of first-time motherhood among the highest in the world. We are older than new Japanese mums, more mature than the French. The consequence is this: British women now spend the time when they are most fertile and most likely to be having regular sex not wanting to be pregnant. Given that contraception fails – and that sometimes we fail to use it properly – this ambition isn’t always met. What’s surprising is not that Britain’s abortion rate is particularly high – but that it is not higher.
The arguments as to why British women are delaying motherhood are well established though presented in different ways – the woman described by one journalist as cash-hungry and career-driven will be viewed by another as seeking a degree of personal fulfilment and financial security; the flighty commitment-phobe may equally be portrayed as the woman who wants to ensure she’s found a soul mate. But even simple self-centredness can be squared with responsibility if it comes to acknowledging that childbearing would be better postponed for a time in life when there is less preoccupation with oneself. However you construe it, motherhood is not something you enter into on a whim – and child-rearing has perhaps never been subject to such intense discussion.
Most people in Britain accept abortion as a back-up to failed contraception, preferably in the context of a moderately stable relationship, but there is more discomfort when unwanted pregnancy is the consequence of a Hogarthian night on the town in which contraception was neither on the mind or in the pocket. It is these circumstances which the former champions of the sexual revolution may have in mind when they lament that girls have perhaps not grown up to handle their new freedoms wisely. There is a sense that more straightforward access to abortion, and in particular the advent of the abortion pill, with which a pregnancy can be ended without any surgical intervention, has given us all a much more lax attitude towards casual relationships and unprotected sex because the consequences can be so swiftly eliminated with a handful of medication.
In reality, more than half of the women seen by bpas report using contraception when they fell pregnant. Most arrive with supportive partners. Typically, women are beside themselves to find they have an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. And whether a woman is pregnant through an episode of casual sex or in the context of an intimate and loving relationship, neither sets out to end up in an abortion clinic – however kind the staff, however swift the service, however acceptable the forms of treatment. Indeed it’s worth noting that as the abortion pill has become more widely available in recent years – now used by more than half of women ending pregnancies in the first trimester – the abortion rate has remained stable.
Abortion has long existed on two levels – the political, philosophical plane where we can debate morality and equality, and the practical needs of women who do not see themselves as making a political statement when they cross the threshold of a clinic but who come in the hope of resolving an intensely personal problem. This is as true of the early days of legal abortion as it is today. But the way abortion is used in the 21st Century should not give rise to a sense of social and moral malaise – indeed quite the opposite. It is a way that many women take responsibility for their lives, their families and their futures.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.abortion, birth, children, Contraception, fertility, motherhood, pregnancy, sex
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