Friday, March 23, 2012

The Profound Simplicity of Trusting Women: A Response to Margaret Somerville

[Trigger warning for sexual assault]

You may have heard or read my feelings about Margaret Somerville, the well-known Canadian ethicist, before. I first encountered her views in the book of her Massey lecture, The Ethical Imagination. I have been frustrated by both her views and her unquestioned platform for them ever since.

Today Somerville has an op-ed piece in the Ottawa Citizen entitled "The profound complexities of informed consent to abortion". In it she details the experiences and feelings of a young woman, Anna (not her real name), who had an abortion that she didn't want and now feels guilty about. Somerville uses her story as an example of why pre-abortion counselling needs to be independent of abortion clinics, which she characterizes as a "for-profit undertaking" as if she is ignorant of how hard Dr. Morgentaler himself is fighting to have this service covered under Medicare. It is quite clear that she is implying that abortion providers (including clinic staff and counsellors) are in it for the money, or have some kind of quota. If Somerville spent one day in an abortion clinic or hospital providing abortion in Canada, particularly in the Maritimes, she would know that there is no need to convince women to have abortions - providers are, in fact, struggling to keep up with the demand.

But there is no need for me to further rebut an argument that wasn't explicitly made, when there is so much crap just right out in the open. I would expect an ethicist to be skilled in logic to some extent, but there seems to have been no effort on Somerville's part to come to the logical conclusion that one woman's bad experience with abortion does not and will not ever justify taking the option away from everyone.

Sometimes Somerville comes close to the right answers - she believes that Anna was not able to access the support she needed to continue the pregnancy and have a baby, which is a big reason why many women choose to terminate their pregnancies. Instead of identifying the support needed as non-judgemental counselling, affordable pre-natal care, free and accessible daycare and childcare, parental leave, etc., Somerville can only suggest "[...] easy access to free counselling independent of abortion facilities." Uh-huh. Leaving aside the concern that this will just leave more room to coerce and frighten women out of having abortions, just who is going to pay for this service? The same government that is so eager to cover abortions and all the support for pregnant women mentioned earlier? I bet.

The rest of the article involves consent - Anna did not feel she was listened to at the clinic, she asked to see her ultrasound and was denied, and gave her consent to the procedure while crying, and only because she felt that she had been worn down to the point that resisting would be futile. It sounds like Anna was treated very poorly by clinic staff, and that makes me more angry than I know how to express, and it makes my heart hurt for her. It is never easy nor fun to undergo surgery, and the added terror of a lack of full consent is unimaginably scary. Women deserve better.

To shift what happened to Anna on to the issue of abortion, however, is like being sexually assaulted by a doctor performing a breast exam on you and then trying to use that as a reason to oppose breast exams. The abortion wasn't the problem here. The same thing could have happened to Anna were she having any elective surgery - the problem is the way she was treated. I do agree with Somerville that informed consent to medical procedures is something that needs work in this country, but I can say with certainty that it will continue to be an issue regardless of the legal status of abortion services.

Doctors and nurses need more time to spend with patients. Counsellors need more time to spend with patients. Sometimes it can be a struggle to get through everything you need to get to in fifteen minutes with a patient (most abortion clinic counsellors don't even get that long), especially if you have to spend half of that time dealing with their trauma from the sidewalk harassment they experienced coming in. Clinic managers need more money and time to hire and train competent staffers, and to pay them sufficiently. The whole damn medical system needs to be overhauled, in my opinion, but until then we need to be spending more government money on making things better for patients than we are on denying them the services they need through laws and regulations.

What happened to Anna has nothing to do with the legality of abortion - in fact, if abortion was not legal I'm pretty sure things would have been a lot worse for her. What happened to Anna happened because we live in a country where those in charge do not trust or care about women, and the people who are supposed to help women are too overworked and underpaid to do so sufficiently.

I hope that Anna is able to find some peace with her decision, and some counselling for her trauma. And I hope Margaret Somerville some day gets her shit together and learns what an ethicist does.


choice joyce said...

Excellent response, thanks so much Pedge!

I would not necessarily trust Somerville though. We have no way of verifying this story, or even when it happened. (She also tells tales about elective 3rd trimester abortions happening in Canada that conveniently cannot be verified.)

I also find it very difficult to believe that any abortion clinic in Canada would treat a woman that way, it goes against all protocols and is unprofessional. Anti-choice women often have a selective or faulty memory after their abortion, because they're trying to shift the blame.

I've often heard a similar kind of thing from American providers (on a private listserv) - some anti-choice woman who had an abortion will publicly tell a horror story about the clinic, but clinic staff say that nothing like that happened (and the clinic is more credible). I'm not saying that Anna's story is false, you never know, but I would take it with a huge grain of salt.

JeninCanada said...

I too had a negative abortion experience, but it wasn't because I had an abortion, but because I lacked all kinds of support before, during and after the procedure. Your analogy of breast exams and sexual assaults is right on.

I have a piece up at my blog right now on Motion 3-12 you might be interested in; personhood for fetuses in Canada? I DON'T THINK SO.