Michaela Aston used to be a teacher, and – in a good way – it shows. She knows the art of grabbing the listener’s attention and keeping it, and she is a natural storyteller. At her talk on Wednesday night, Aston told a little of her own story. “I managed to avoid the issue of abortion for a long time,” she said. “I just didn’t think about it.” Coming to political consciousness in the 70s, Aston saw around her a toxic culture which took for granted that women were inferior. Objecting to sexual harassment got you accused of being humourless. Employers were patronising and unsympathetic. Aston knew already that she wanted to resist that culture; and she assumed that, if you were on women’s side, you could hardly oppose abortion.
But a couple of experiences gave her pause. First, a couple of friends told her about their experiences of depression and anxiety, which they linked to their abortions. One had come close to suicide. Shaken, Aston read Susan Stanford-Rue’s semi-autobiographical study Will I Cry Tomorrow? Healing Post-Abortion Trauma. It was a turning-point. “I realised that you could be pro-life and not be judging women.” She also realised how many pregnant women lacked adequate help and information. Aston trained in counselling, which she still offers with the charity LIFE. “As a counsellor,” she explains, I would never lead or try to persuade; and I would never judge.” But what she has heard and seen convinces her that “women deserve better than abortion”.
One questioner put a challenge: how do we know that abortion creates post-abortion mental health problems? Might it not just as well be the rhetoric of the pro-life movement? Aston was sceptical: “You can’t manufacture the symptoms I’ve seen.” Of course, not all women feel bad after abortions. But some of the research – notably the Fergusson study, carried out by a pro-choice psychologist – suggests a connection between abortion and mental illness. It tallies with Aston’s long experience. “One woman said to me down the phone, ‘Why didn’t anybody tell me I would feel like this?’ That was all she said, over and over.”
For Aston, being pro-life ought necessarily to mean being pro-woman. Feminists have traditionally defended the unborn – as we noted earlier in the week – partly because the two causes are bound together by their respect for the human. “Pro-life means: to value every single individual human being, whether you’re male or female, born or unborn, able-bodied or disabled.” As misogyny still blights our society, so does a prejudice against the unborn. Moreover, the law upholds discrimination on grounds of disability. “Abortion law allows abortion up to birth – if you’re not perfect.”
As for being pro-choice, Aston doubts that it’s the right term. “Most women,” she claims, “don’t want abortions. The phrase I’ve heard over and over again is ‘I have no choice’. ‘My mum will kill me…’ ‘My dad will throw me out…’ ‘My partner will leave me… I have no choice.’” For all Aston’s engaging style, this was a challenging talk, which reminded the audience of how often society fails women in seemingly impossible situations.
But Aston made a more hopeful observation. Sophisticated imaging techniques can now tell us so much about the life of the unborn: and finally, “it’s the truth that convinces.” Society is slowly waking up to the human beings among us who deserve our respect. As Aston points out, doctors do everything they can to care for pregnant women. And when they do, they see two patients in front of them.