What We Talk About When We Talk About Abortion: A British case is wrongly roped in the reproductive rights debate
Monday, a court in England sentenced 35-year-old Sarah Catt to eight years in prison after she pleaded guilty to administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. She was 39 weeks pregnant—a point, by anyone’s measure, at which healthy fetuses are viable—when she induced labor and disposed of what she claims was a stillborn. She has yet to reveal the location of the body, which throws suspicion on her statement that the baby was born dead. Either way, the story is another example of the sad but thankfully rare occurrence of a woman giving birth in private and committing infanticide, abandoning a baby, or improperly disposing of a stillborn—though it does happen. In 1997, a New Jersey teenager gave birth at her prom and tried to cover it up by killing the baby, and in 2011 a 25-year-old woman smothered her two newborns rather than let her parents know she had given birth.
The problem is that what Catt did doesn’t have much relationship to the cluster of medical procedures that get grouped under the common term “abortion”—which is how the British press is describing Catt’s actions. Inducing labor with intent to miscarry is a much different thing than procedures designed to prevent birth in the first place. This word choice conflates Catt’s actions with ordinary abortions—and does so in a world where a woman’s right to have one is hotly contested. Indeed, anti-choice activists frequently trot out the misogynist myth that women routinely wait until well after the fetus is viable, and then, fickle creatures that we are, change our minds and get abortions. Anti-choice activists love to focus attention on late-term abortion—those performed after the 24-week cutoff established by Roe v. Wade—from posters of late-stage fetuses to Mike Huckabee claiming that Obama “believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb or even beyond the womb.”