Belfast Telegraph

Fionala Meredith: Men are entitled to have their say on abortion, but the final choice must rest with women alone

Far from valuing human life, many male critics of terminations are driven by base misogyny, says Fionola Meredith

Pro-choice protesters outside Belfast High Court, where Sarah Ewart’s case is being heard
Pro-choice protesters outside Belfast High Court, where Sarah Ewart’s case is being heard

Every time abortion enters the headlines, they come crawling out from under their stones. On social media, on radio phone-in programmes - but rarely anywhere in which they have to reveal their identity - we encounter their hateful rants.

Yes, it's them again: the men who want to attack women for "murdering the little babies".

Earlier this week, I heard a male caller to the BBC Nolan show talking about the appalling - and far from isolated - case of a girl from Northern Ireland who had to travel to England for an abortion, under police escort, after she was sexually assaulted. The caller glibly described this trip as "a wee bit inconvenient" for the girl. She was 12 years old.

Now that Sarah Ewart's case has come before the High Court in Belfast, in an attempt to challenge the grave injustice of our abortion laws, which cruelly deny women their reproductive rights - even in the unimaginably distressing case of fatal foetal abnormality, as Ewart endured - no doubt we'll be hearing more from the self-appointed male arbiters of moral purity.

Some of these angry, heartless men call themselves Christians. That's a sick joke. If you're such a champion of the unborn foetus that you can't spare an ounce of compassion for a raped child, then what does your faith count for?

And if you're such an absolute defender of motherhood, then why do you want to force mothers of fatally disabled infants to go to England, and bring the remains of their baby home in a picnic cooler bag - if they are able to bring the remains home at all?

I don't believe these men, who dismiss the legitimate need for safe, legal abortion services as 'a lifestyle choice', are speaking out of genuine concern for the "murdered little babies".

I think they are motivated by something far more base, ugly and deplorable. I believe they are driven by contempt for women, a desire to control them and to have dominion over their bodies.

Listen to the vitriol in the words they use. What you're hearing, echoing down the millennia from the dawn of time, is misogyny: an ancient fear, suspicion and resentment of women and their extraordinary power to give birth.

It's true that we frequently hear female voices who are implacably opposed to abortion in all circumstances, although I've never yet heard one of them give a satisfactory answer as to why any girl or woman should be forced to give birth to a child she does not want.

But to me, it's even worse to hear men espouse this view.

Men can never know what it is like to experience a crisis pregnancy. They will never grapple with the horror and fear. They will never have to take out a bank loan to fund their personal travel expenses to England, or to make the lonely, disorienting journey there and back.

Most of all, men can have no idea what it is like to live in a country which denies you the right to decide what happens inside your own body.

"If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." That was the phrase made famous by the veteran American feminist Gloria Steinem (she claimed she heard it from an elderly Irish female taxi-driver in Boston) and emblazoned on millions of pro-choice t-shirts.

Whether you agree or disagree, you can see where Steinem is coming from - it's all about who controls the forces of reproduction.

No womb, no say: that's another feminist take on the issue. Perhaps it's not quite so simple. Men are entitled to their beliefs, and they are equally entitled to express them - just as people like me are free to energetically challenge them.

Please note, I'm not saying that all men who oppose abortion are rabidly misogynist: I know kindly, well-intentioned men who struggle with the idea of its necessity. I disagree with them profoundly, and say so, but holding such views is their undeniable prerogative.

And of course, there are numerous instances where it's perfectly reasonable for men to speak up: husbands and partners will want to have their say about what happens in the event of a crisis pregnancy.

But ultimately it won't be the man's decision, nor should it be. Their views count for less, and rightly have no legal weight, because it is the woman who carries the child. She deals with the immediate physical reality of the pregnancy, as well as the lifelong impact of giving birth to another human being.

And that is why the right to choose is hers and hers alone.

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