The Abortion Act: Fundamentally Anti-Feminist?

Abortion has long been a contentious subject that has divided opinions – in both Parliament and the general public – into two conflicting camps, with each placing greater emphasis on one of two interrelated issues: the foetus’s moral status and a pregnant woman’s autonomy. Whilst the UK is deemed to be reasonably progressive in its attitudes towards abortion, the Abortion Act 1967 does not in fact grant women the right to terminate a pregnancy – it is technically at the discretion of registered medical professionals alone. Although this is largely a better set-up than that recently demonstrated in Paraguay – where a ten-year-old was denied the right to end a pregnancy forced upon her by her sexually abusive stepfather – it is fast-becoming obsolete in a society, which has shunned paternalism from the doctor-patient relationship.

In R v Bourne (the bedrock of modern abortion legislation), a surgeon was acquitted of the criminal offence of ‘intending to procure a miscarriage’. He was justified in assisting a fourteen-year-old victim of rape, as the judge observed that the young girl would be spared of ‘great mental anguish’ by terminating the pregnancy. This unprecedented ruling provided a defence, under which abortions could be carried out lawfully: for the greater good of preserving a woman’s mental health.

It would be incorrect however to assume that the founding spirit of the Abortion Act 1967 was to empower women in asserting their reproductive rights. Following R v Bourne from 1939, doctors were given a loophole in common law that partially decriminalised abortion, however the extent to which a doctor perceived an unwanted pregnancy to threaten a woman’s mental health varied greatly. The fees for ‘legal’ abortions were consequently unaffordable to most, as there was still a perceptible risk that doctors may face criminal charges, and thus access to safe abortions was restricted.

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The lack of accessibility to abortions resulted in a dangerous rise in the number of ‘backstreet abortions’. David Steel, who first introduced the Abortion Act 1967 as a Private Members’ Bill, has since admitted that the introduction of the legislation was motivated by ‘revulsion at the damage caused by criminal and self-induced abortion and the hypocrisy of available subterfuge abortion on payment’. This was confirmed by the Lord Chief Justice in R v Scrimaglia, where he stated that the purpose of the Abortion Act 1967 was to ‘get rid of the back-street insanitary operations’ and reduce the associated mortality rates, which placed a heavy burden on the young NHS.

The 1967 Act was further based on two assumptions, that doctors: (1) will act in the best interests of their patients and (2) are most able to determine a woman’s best interests. Harold Shipman infamously succeeded in disproving the former assumption, whilst the latter has been criticised by ‘pro-choice’ advocates for its intrinsic paternalism and indeed, patronisation. In 1967, both Parliament and the medical profession were dominated by the male species, and thus the Abortion Act was conceived on archaic social constructs of women and doctors. Women were depicted as irrational, selfish or desperate; whereas doctors were responsible figureheads of society – i.e. everything a woman was not.

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Thus the purpose of the 1967 Act is arguably to provide ‘registered medical professionals’ with lawful grounds to perform abortions, if they are shown to form an opinion ‘in good faith’ that an abortion meets the set requirements. Interestingly, it is difficult to prove instances in which a doctor has not acted ‘in good faith’, as there has only been one successful prosecution under these charges since the Act’s introduction. There are however dubiously vague grounds on which an abortion may be carried out, as more specific definitions were rejected by medical professional bodies in the 1960s. The wording of the statute would also suggest that even if the grounds for abortion do not exist in reality, the abortion remains legal if the doctors honestly believed that the grounds had been satisfied. This leaves the legality decidedly at the doctors’ discretion – creating ‘medical control of abortion’.

Female autonomy has thus been trivialised to a strong degree in both statutory and common law. Although there are concerns that misinterpretations of autonomy have created a healthcare system in which ‘the doctor must deliver what the consumer-patient demands’; it has long been accepted that the negative freedom to refuse treatment, as entitled by the principle of autonomy, cannot be translated into a positive freedom to demand certain interventions (despite the wishes of the patient). This was echoed in the case of R v Sarah Louise Catt, in which a judge stated that it was wrong to assume that the provisions of the 1967 Act made abortion ‘available essentially on demand prior to twenty-four weeks with the approval of a registered medical practitioner’.

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I have failed rather spectacularly in hiding my distaste towards the Abortion Act’s ethos. Not only does current legislation neglect the changing role of a doctor in medical practice but it fails to acknowledge the medical advances, and subsequent changes to fetal viability, that have occurred since the Abortion Act 1967 and Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 were each introduced. Reform is long overdue; whilst there is no harm in continuing to preserve the integrity of doctors, a woman’s right to self-determination is now equally deserving of legal validation.

This post was based on a law reform proposal I wrote this summer. If you’re interested in reading about the changes I would implement, my justifications for these changes and/or have time to read a 5000 word essay, feel free to get in touch!

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The Quarter-Life Crisis

If you’re 20-something years old and consider yourself to be on the verge of an existential crisis, I can assure you you’re not alone. In the last few months, I have had identical conversations with entirely different people and, having ruled out recurrent déjà vu, I have reached the conclusion that the season of self-neglect is well underway. This blog is an amalgamation of advice I seem to be recycling, inspired by a scenario recounted by the fictional and brilliant Leo McGarry:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

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This time last year I was in the thick of my exam-induced meltdown. Those that have read my previous blogs or were unfortunate enough to be in my presence during May/June of last year, will know that I’m referring to the self-inflicted torture that was Intermediates revision (Intermediates, by the way, are very scary exams). My appetite was non-existent, sleep was a fond but distant memory and my studying habits became obsessive. I was overwhelmed by an irrational yet unwavering fear of failure that had become so engrained that I was functioning as merely a fragment of my former self. This perhaps sounds exaggerated but I was, in essence, a miserable robot – incapable of self-belief and entirely dependent on the confidence of others that I would get through these exams. This was anxiety in its purest form but even though I had textbook symptoms and a certain degree of insight, I did absolutely nothing to help myself.

I am now far from the person I was a year ago. Having been through January and summer modules with only a few minor blips, the obvious importance of perspective has finally become clear to me. I started thinking about this blog over a month ago, when everything seemed to be going well and I was, for the most part, achieving goals that I had set myself. Since then, my blissful existence has wavered and my confidence in both friends and family has been tested for several reasons beyond my control. The former Harleen may have allowed this to affect her own self-confidence but I haven’t imploded (yet), for which I can only thank this recent revelation.

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When we are in the midst of a stressful or unfortunate event, it is difficult to remove yourself from the situation or consider it with hindsight. Realistically however, what troubles you now, in a year’s time may be something you feel embarrassed to have given so much consideration. And here lies my first piece of practical advice: take the advice you would give a friend in similar circumstances. If that fails you, take comfort in the fact that life has proven repeatedly that everything truly does happen for a reason. Without negative experiences we would never learn to appreciate the happiness that we too easily take for granted and indeed, there is nothing to learn from a perfect life.

This leads onto my second concern, which is that far too many young people expect to have everything worked out by their early twenties. We are, at this point, only a quarter of the way through our life expectancy and will have spent a sizeable proportion of this time playing in mud or with fairies.

As a university graduate, you are – for the first time in your life – responsible for yourself. Your days are no longer determined by government-approved curriculums, assigned holidays or commitments of any sort. Yet limitless freedom can be overwhelming and comfort is often found in structure, so many graduates begin forming a life based on what they think is expected of them. They pursue further education because they are told that it’s what’s best, or they look for a graduate job because they are told that they should.

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I see the merits of both but I have also seen my friends struggle to meet the standards they set for themselves and consequently suffer. Without grades and exam results to provide markers of progress, people become their own harshest critics – with a frequent tendency to compare themselves to others – to their own detriment. Ambition is healthy and I firmly believe that we should always aspire to be better versions of ourselves, but not if failure to acquire these ideals results in self-punishment.

Yes, you are accountable for yourself and yes, it is terrifying. In a few years however, you’ll also be responsible to a partner and with time, perhaps even to tiny humans who will rely on you for everything. We spend the rest of our lives meeting obligations to other people and making sacrifices and compromises to keep others carefree. You have time for yourself now, so why not be self-indulgent? The only responsibility you should have is for your own well-being, as that is one thing you should never have to find in others. If your “pursuit of happiness” involves working for six months at £7/hour to fund a trip around South America where you “find yourself”, so be it – you might even avoid another crisis twenty years down the line.

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Mean Girls (& Guys)

Hollywood’s portrayal of high school convinces us to push through the drama, bitch fights and angst that afflict teenagers because matriculation promises us sunshine, rainbows and maturity. We are led to believe that with the end of our secondary education, we will be liberated from the less glamorous aspects of adolescence we’ve all had to endure. As I’ve grown older however, I’m slowly beginning to realise that we never really graduate from bitchiness. This world is plagued by pests and parasites who feed off the happiness of others and jealousy is a beast that can consume even the kindliest of people.

On several occasions this week, I’ve listened to friends and family discuss events where pettiness and immaturity have caused more hurt than the perpetrator could have possibly envisaged. Insecurity is burden that everyone deals with; whether it relates to physical appearance, confidence in relationships or belief in one’s own ability. Part of growing up is confronting the issues that breed insecurity and in overcoming them, you develop an intrinsic confidence that paves the way for maturity. I was often reassured as a teenager that many of the difficulties I faced, which often arose from cliquey behaviour, were perfectly normal. These problems would fade with time and eventually the Regina Georges of the world would disperse.

Film Title: Mean Girls.

To an extent, this was correct. I was blissfully content in my final year of school. Having spent seven years with the same year group, we collectively exhausted all means of drama and with the knowledge that we would soon be replacing our perfect little Buckinghamshire bubbles with the big wide world, we made the most of each other’s company and even now, I look back on those times with nothing but nostalgia and fondness. It has occurred to me since however, that it was only truly when we realised how lucky we were and how quickly this would pass, that we put juvenile theatrics aside in favour of wishing well for each other. It seems as though an absence of this time pressure stops people from embodying positivity and instead, they digress into the same trivialities that we would rather leave behind. The darkest characteristics of human nature (jealousy, unhealthy competition, spite…) become woefully apparent and as opposed to focusing energy on their own well-being, people drift into the affairs of others and create trouble unnecessarily.

This holds true throughout our lives. The most fearsome of personalities seem to subside with age, as the greatest form of time pressure presents itself. Although the eldest generation cannot deny an interest in the latest gossip, they seem to have a wider appreciation of what is worth discussion and what is insignificant, whilst younger generations may be engrossed by it all. Eleanor Roosevelt quite rightly said, “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Many young minds are, in this sense, small minds. We will often take simple situations, blow them out of proportion and then assign blame to those involved rather than taking a step back and looking on with even an ounce of perspective. We are also drawn to other people with similar interests and dislikes and bitching is often used as a conversation starter. I know I am guilty of discussing individuals when I shouldn’t have but I now wonder how mortified I would be if I knew that a mutual dislike of me was bringing two people closer together.

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I realise I’m being rather vague. Details may identify individuals, which isn’t what I want, and whilst my blogs are usually commentaries on things I’ve observed, I realise this is turning into a bit of a rant. Of everyone I know, there are only two individuals who have made me this cynical – but the past few years have shown me that the actions or words of just one person can destroy the trust, security and confidence of another with far too much ease. What you think you say in confidence can quickly spread (as many of us have learnt the hard way) but I find a lot of comfort in the concept of karma and a staunch belief that what goes around, comes around.

This blog hasn’t amounted to anything really and there isn’t a particular conclusion to be drawn, so instead I’ll leave you with (1) a plea to inject more thought into any words and actions that relate to others and (2) the cleverness of someone infinitely wiser than any of us:

“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” – Roald Dahl, The Twits.

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Great Expectations

It’s hardly a secret that some Asian parents have a notorious reputation for expecting a great deal of their children; it is a feature of Eastern parenting been parodied, persecuted and sometimes even praised. A catalogue of acceptable careers as devised by generations of Asian parents who ‘definitely know better than you’ includes:

  • Medicine / Dentistry / Pharmacy
  • Law
  • Engineering
  • Economics / Business / Maths / Accounting

The list for many Asian parents ends here. Telling your father that you wish to study music or the arts is often simply not an option and many children are indoctrinated with the idea that pursuing science or vocational degrees is the only guarantee of success. Languages are particularly controversial; I imagine that expressing a desire to study French or Spanish at university would have quickly been rejected with the reasoning that I could learn Punjabi free. Although many parents have adopted a more liberal approach and instead encourage their children to define their career paths by what they enjoy, in my personal experience only a rare and lucky minority can claim to have parents that fall into the latter category.

As parents pray that their children will forge careers in high-paying and highly-competitive fields, it leaves the younger generation under a great deal of pressure. As a child I never dreamt of being a ballerina or an astronaut (albeit for a while I was utterly resolute that I would one day be a dolphin); they were far-fetched careers without tangible benefits. Instead I focused on my literacy, numeracy and colouring in homework (always endeavouring to stay strictly within the lines) because I had been advised time and time again by everyone older than me that doing well in school was the only thing that would get me far in life.

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There’s no point denying there’s a certain credibility to this fact but I wonder how beneficial it is to give young children constant reminders of their need to excel in their education, particularly as many parents forget that straight A*s aren’t achievable by everyone, despite their best efforts. A well known joke of the child that rushes home to tell their parents that they got 97% in an exam, only to be asked what happened to the other 3% rings too true.  I, like many others, genuinely dreaded marks less than 90% and I almost pity the teachers that had to mark my work, as the high expectations I had of myself were clearly evident.

We all know how vulnerable, impressionable and susceptible to environmental stress children are but when it comes to education, this all seems to be disregarded. Government assessments now start from the delicate of age of seven and a wonderful letter penned by a primary school headteacher outlines just how little these tests tell us. Nevertheless the stage at which children discover stress seems to decrease with each generation. The highest priorities still lie with studies of course, hence the thousands of pounds many parents now invest into their three-year-old’s schooling but if acing exams isn’t enough, children are now expected to take up a musical instrument, play a county-level sport and have a burgeoning group of friends. Many of my youngest cousins seem to have busier schedules than me and while there are very real concerns of how much time some groups of children spend in front of the television, I worry more about the children who don’t even have time for television in between their extracurricular activities and supplementary tuition.

The pressure originates from our families and the competitive culture that made the four-thousand mile journey from sub-continental Asia with our ancestors. Cars, big houses and jewellery count for a lot but the absolute measure of success lies with how well you raise your children. Eventually parental pressure evolves into a pressure we place on ourselves. No one told me to revise for sixteen hours a day in the month before my last set of exams and indeed, my parents actively discouraged it as it became clearer that my health was suffering as consequence. Yet the need to do well has become so ingrained that I was willing to sacrifice basic requirements such as sleep and food and I found myself in a self-imposed exile from fun.

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These pressures are by no means confined to members of Asian minorities and without providing spoilers, Dead Poets Society explores these issues and demonstrates that there is much more to life beyond a classroom. It also depicts Neil – the film’s alternate protagonist – who is unable to bear his father’s hopes for his prospective career in medicine, when his enjoyment and talents lie in theatre. Society expects to hear and frowns upon stories of failed actors and musicians but we turn a blind eye and even offer sympathy to the numbers of medical school dropouts and failed investment bankers because it seems as though attempting to succeed in a the latter professions is worth more than in the former – a concept which confounds me. If your talents lie in the arts and not in a laboratory, who is anyone to compare the value of two entirely different sets of skills?

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I love my degree and I am pleased to say that I chose to study medicine despite my parents better efforts to discourage me from it but in truth, I only ever really considered vocations from the ‘Unofficial Asian Career Guide’. I expect that if there was a recipe for success, it would plainly state that equal measures of passion and ability are required. There is no assurance of success in anything but if your heart doesn’t lie in whatever you choose to pursue, then there is a great deal of potential for failure. Perhaps it would be prudent therefore to stop limiting the potential of the younger generations by ushering them along predetermined paths and instead encouraging them to forge a path for themselves in whatever their imagination conceives.

A Suitable Boy

“Husband-hunting” (or “partner-pursuing”, to be more PC) is something 99.5% of girls will be guilty of at some point during their lives, whether it be a conscious action or not. While (almost) everyone enters higher education to get a degree and secure a future of professional prosperity; stories of how friends, relatives and pets met their significant others at university will also linger in the back of many minds. Today’s culture dictates that in the average degree-length of three years, you should aim to: bash out a first, scoop up an elusive graduate-job, establish yourself as a BNOC and meet the love of your life. Expectations of the ideal student are as unlikely as they are absurd but that doesn’t stop anyone from pulling all-nighters or meeting that guy your friend says is “made for you”.

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As I’ll spend a grand total of six (yes, six) years plodding through my degree, I theoretically have twice as long to attain all of the above. Many of my friends have come to accept that three years are simply not enough and have wisely chosen to extend their education and thus avoid facing reality until further notice. For many of those coming to the end of their stints as students however, only two or three of the above boxes have been ticked.

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At the tender age of 22, for the majority of people this shouldn’t pose a problem. So what if you haven’t found a job, now is the time to find yourself. So what if you’re still single, now is the time to mingle. Reason, however, seems to evade some Asian parents in these circumstances. I am always wary of over-generalisation and I don’t want to offend anyone so please take everything I say with a pinch of salt. However with the end of their degrees in sight, a few of my friends feel they have “failed” in some way as they don’t have good, respectable boyfriends to introduce to their parents on graduation day.

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Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty. The title of this blog is inspired by Vikram Seth’s novel, which tells the story of a mother’s attempt to find “a suitable boy” for her nineteen-year-old daughter to marry. I think it is fair to say that arranged marriages are no longer the norm and while introductions are still commonplace, parents have come to accept that with their children “living out”, there’s a chance they’ll bring home a potential partner themselves. This is where things get a little confusing however and different categories of parents present themselves:

  • The Unrealistic Expectations these parents will only accept a son-in-law with royal blood… or this might as well be their only pre-requisite because chances are he won’t tick all the other boxes anyway. It’s not just caste that matters, it’s the side of the river. It’s not just a degree from Oxbridge that matters, it has to be a first. Superwoman’s video exemplifies these parents perfectly.
  • The Wedding Plans– these parents have a Hilton Hotel on hold and constantly badger their daughters about whether they’ve found a boy to fit into the proceedings. They want their daughters engaged the summer after they graduate, married a year later and will probably expect grandchildren nine months after that.
  • The Downright Denial– these parents are still stuck somewhere in the early-20th century and cannot accept that “love marriages” occur and for them, “dating” doesn’t exist. You could bring home Dr. Lawyer who models on the weekends and they wouldn’t look twice.

It’s not just parents who can be difficult. Some girls are so frantic in their attempts to find a husband-in-waiting that they forget to enjoy their time at university and spiral into a state of loneliness and self-pity. Their parents aren’t “wedding planners”, but they burden themselves with obscene pressure and fail to make the most of the time they have as free and single ladies.

If you have identified yourself or your parents as husband-hunters, then my advice would be to calm down. The average age of couples increases every wedding season and as you’re unlikely to find a guy who also wants to be married by 22, there’s no real rush. The best relationships and marriages I’ve witnessed began by chance – whether it was a well-timed introduction or a random encounter in a shopping centre. Communicate with your parents so you know what they expect and make sure you vocalise your concerns if you disagree. I am by no means an expert but wiser people than me have said the most important thing is to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Little things count for a lot and when the right man comes along, you’ll be glad you waited.