What it means to be pro-choice

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 2 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of

Women's Union

What it means to be pro-choice

Penny Robinson, Cambridge University Pro-Choice Society (CUPCS)

Are you pro-choice? Do you respond immediately to this statement or are you one of many
people who ask: ‘What are you asking me to choose?’

Being ‘pro-choice’ refers to a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an
abortion. Fundamentally, a pro-choice perspective does not prescribe how a woman should feel
about her pregnancy; rather, it allows a woman to make up her own mind. A pro-choice
position supports the idea that a woman has the right to choose an abortion should she decide
she wants one. It is perfectly feasible to hold that perspective and still maintain that you
would not want to make that choice for yourself.

It is very easy to turn away from this issue as both men and women find it uncomfortable
to talk about. Our wish that ‘it won’t happen to me’ can lead us to pretend that this is a
remote issue that doesn’t concern us or, is one with which we cannot identify. However, it is
real and relates to all of us. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service estimate that about four
in ten women will have an abortion during their lives. Simply put, that’s four in ten women –
including possibly yourself, your partner, a member of your family or one of your friends. We
cannot ignore this issue just because we find it hard to talk about. There is no 100% safe or
reliable method of contraception and the potential for unplanned pregnancy is a very real
feature of all heterosexually active women’s lives. A recent survey by fpa (formerly the
family planning association) indicated that 70% of women accessing abortion services were
using contraception at the time of conception.

It would clearly be difficult for an individual who disagrees with the concept of abortion
to agree with the idea that another person has the right to choose one. It is however,
incomprehensible that a woman who finds herself pregnant should be forced to acquiesce to
another person’s ideological perspective concerning the ontological status of the foetus and
be forced to continue her pregnancy against her will. Many women do not think about these
issues until they find themselves pregnant and are vulnerable. Debates about the ontological
status of the foetus are not helpful to women under these circumstances. There is no
definitive answer and every woman feels differently about her pregnancy.


Did you know?

  • CUSU Women’s Union has a pro-choice policy because they are concerned with women’s welfare
    and the promotion of self-determination in all areas of women’s lives. 
  • Cambridge University Pro-choice Society exists to raise awareness, campaign on aboriot
    reform law and would also like to campaign on childcare and student parent accommodation
    issues within the university. If you are interested in getting involved, contact Penny
    Robinson (pr255).

Worried you might be pregnant?

  • Your college women’s or welfare officer can provide you with a free pregnancy test if you
    put an anonymous note in their pigeon hole asking for one to be left there 
  • If you are, or think you are, pregnant the University
    Counselling Service
    will arrange an appointment quickly for you for non-judgemental
    counselling. To make an appointment, telephone (01223 332865) or email (reception@counselling.cam.ac.uk) and explain
    that you need a urgent appointment.
  • You can get confidential, non-judgemental support and information from Beeline (01223
    333179 or beeline@cusu.cam.ac.uk


Current UK abortion law (the 1967 Abortion Act) legalises abortion under certain
circumstances but does not make it a woman’s choice. A pregnant woman must then gain
permission of two doctors to have an abortion even if her pregnancy is a result of rape or she
is under sixteen. Doctors retain infinite discretion when ‘permitting’ abortion because the
legal grounds are badly defined and women may suffer humiliation or be denied
services. Pro-Life doctors, while allowed to be ‘conscientious objectors’ on this issue, are
not obliged to declare their objections and may deny women services. Also, a massive
discrepancy exists regarding access to abortion. In 1996, an ALRA survey of health
authorities showed that some district health authorities fund more than 90% of abortions for
local women but others fewer than half, forcing women to pay for abortions for
themselves. Putting barriers in the way of women who want abortions will not make them change
their minds; it will only make the whole experience more distressing for them.

It is a common misconception that abortion is available upon request in the UK. My
experiences talking to Cambridge students at the freshers fair indicate that pro-choice
perspectives are frequently misinterpreted as promoting abortion. Cambridge University
Pro-Choice Society (in conjunction with the National Abortion Campaign, the Abortion Law
Reform Association and the Voice for Choice campaign) are campaigning for a change in abortion
law that allows women to choose to have an abortion for themselves without needing to gain the
permission of two doctors. This means promoting the right to choose, and not making that
choice for individuals concerned. It should also be said that liberalising current legislation
will never make it ‘easy’ to have an abortion.

Are you pro-choice? I hope you can answer that question after reading this article. There
are many actively pro-life groups within Cambridge such as LIFE who describe themselves as a
‘non-judgemental’ pregnancy counselling service. Standing up and speaking out for choice on
this issue is essential. Laissez faire philosophical individualism does not protect
choice. Recently, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children launched a legal
challenge in the High Court aimed at outlawing even emergency contraception. We cannot take
even current legislation for granted.

In her introduction to a National Abortion Campaign publication ‘Voices for Choice’ a
documentation of women’s experiences of abortion both before, and after it was legalised in
England Scotland and Wales, Clare Rainer recalls how as a young nurse in the 1950’s the first
body she had to lay out was that of a young woman close to her own age, who had died of a
back-street abortion. The images she conjures up of desperate young women suffering either
from ‘enforced motherhood’ or from the dirty instruments, un-sterile techniques and the total
lack of care which characterised women’s experiences of illegal abortion are deeply
disturbing. We cannot go backwards on this issue.

Here in Cambridge, we need to address this issue sensitively in our JCR’s and MCR’s to
de-stigmatise it. Abortion can be experienced as a loss yet it is stigmatised as one that is
chosen and therefore not to be talked about. I have yet to meet a woman who ‘wanted’ an
abortion, yet I have talked to many who’ve had one because they felt they needed it. A
multitude of emotional, economic moral, religious and even physiological reasons may spring to
our minds in relation to why someone might choose whether or not to continue with a pregnancy,
but only a pregnant woman knows whether or not she is ready to become a parent. We need to
acknowledge that unplanned pregnancy could affect all of us who are heterosexually active and
that being pro-choice does not mean ‘promoting’ abortion. We cannot stay quiet on this issue
when there are voices amongst us who would like to make it more difficult for women to access
abortion services or take us back to a time when abortion was illegal.


Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) – http://www.alra.org.uk/

British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) – http://www.bpas.org/

National Abortion Campaign (NAC) – http://nac.gn.apc.org/



Email us at gender-agenda@cusu.cam.ac.uk