Normally it is unwise to write on an issue of a particular form of suffering with which one has had little personal experience or even second-hand experience of. Nevertheless, one as an outside observer can be terrified enough to overcome the cautions of ‘wisdom’ to write about a suffering one is personally unacquainted with, out of love for those who are acquainted with it. It is with this then in mind that the term Abortion is here brought forward. It is so stark a term one can only be surprised that another term, perhaps with less violent connotations, has not replaced it in our public discourse. The term can be helpfully illuminated by its second denotation, which evokes the failure of a plan and the attempt to prematurely end such a plan thought of as an inevitable failure, and the like. The second denotation of this term does illuminate the attitude toward the biological sense of the term, which as will be argued here is slowly beginning to erode. The biological sense is quite different obviously but it carried the connotations of a ‘necessary evil’, that something, while tragic in every respect, is nevertheless within the rights of the mother to carry out because the birth of a child was not in the life plan or that the plan of raising such a child was thought of as an inevitable failure (e.g. “We’re too poor to raise a child”, “We wouldn’t know how to raise a child” etc…). Abortion was a process that, while, as has often been argued, is within the legal rights of the woman to carry out and/or is not an immoral act as such, is nevertheless a tragic process, a sad experience. It may be seriously doubted whether there are many women who have felt great joy after getting an abortion, no matter how necessary it may have been. Not necessarily a sense of shame, but still a sense of sadness, loss, and even possible depression accompanies abortion. What has begun to terrify this observer is that even this aspect of abortion, that of it as tragic, is beginning to be eroded, shifted, or morphed, and is being replaced with very troubling ideological comforts in our public discourse.

            Let us look at three recent phenomena, going from the least extreme to the most. The issue of gender selection has recently arisen anew when Ann Furedi, head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Britain’s largest abortion charity, had argued that, “The law is silent on the matter of gender selection, just as it is silent on rape.” Strictly speaking technically and legally she is absolutely right that the law in Britain does not specify the reasons for abortion and theoretically would even allow the possibility that if the woman wanted to abort a child because of the ethnicity of the child it is within her right to do so, though Furedi does not go so far to argue such. Naturally there has been an outcry, even from the likes of the feminist community as represented by Rahila Gupta’s piece in the Guardian, where she argues that ” It seems irrational to support a system that allows women to abort girls in order to protect themselves from the fury of patriarchs…A girl’s right to life has to be a basic tenet of any feminist position and cannot be compromised by an absolutist pro-choice narrative.” Gupta has very insightfully pointed out the central tension now concerning gender selection that, ironically, abortion could be used by patriarchy to rid societies of female children in particular, and that a ‘pro-choice-at-all-costs’ stance could sustain this abuse. Gupta argues against Furedi that, though an absolutist pro-choice narrative is installed legally, feminists in particular should be wary of such appeals which unwittingly play into the hands of patriarchy.* What is of even more interest for our purposes now is how the tragic element of abortion has shifted from the process itself for the woman and the family, to the ideological realm of battle between the need to preserve the long fought for ‘pro-choice’ legal right to abortion, and the equally long fought for ‘pro-life’ legal human right of the foetus. The tragic element has then shifted so that the question of tragedy now concerns whether one is ideologically compromising or losing the legal battle, for either side, instead of the very practice itself in our public discourse. The ideological threat and impeding sense of loss can be seen in Furedi’s insistence that to ‘give in’ on this aspect, that is gender selection, would be to compromise the long fought for right to abortion, which would be the tragedy. For Gupta to not make this exception to the right of abortion would be to betray the cause of feminism and the right of every woman to life, which would be the tragedy. Either way, the frame of tragedy in essence is the ideological battle and not the process itself.

            The second of our more recent phenomena would have to be the new conservative attention given to the coat-hanger jewelry given out to donors by such organizations such as the DC Abortion Fund.

abortion-coat-hangerWhat is so offensive about this symbol? What may first immediately come to mind, or at least the Christian mind, of a comparative example, would be the symbol of the Cross. The Christian cross was originally a symbol of a violently horrific act of state execution of criminals by the Roman empire, which only with the advent of Christianity was subsequently transformed into a symbol of redemption, of the suffering of God’s son on behalf of humanity. Recently in fact, James H. Cone has put forward in his work The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books: 2011), a comparison between the crucifixion of Christ and the lynching tree of African Americans, when he writes aptly and profoundly,

“…another type of imagination is necessary—the imagination to relate the message of the cross to one’s own social reality, to see that “They are crucifying again the Son of God” (Heb 6:6). Both Jesus and blacks were “strange fruit.” Theologically speaking, Jesus was the “first lynchee,” who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on American soil…The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.”**

Indeed, both the Cross and the lynching tree may be seen as symbols of incredible suffering, which paradoxically in the Christian faith may be transformed into symbols of God’s work of redemption, of God present most especially with those who suffer for the sins of others. Such a categorization of the symbol of the coat-hanger is made by Val Violett of the DC abortion fund when she says, “The coat hanger is a reminder of women’s suffering when abortion is placed out of reach…where women might have to resort to horrific alternatives like a coat hanger. That’s why our supporters love the pendants and wear them as a point of pride.” Can the coat hanger really be put into the same category of the cross or the lynching tree, as a symbol of horrific suffering endured on our behalf for our sins? Unfortunately for Violett and others the comparison is not apt. The coat hanger was indeed an extremely unsafe and harmful method for women to get illegal abortions, often causing harm to themselves, but it cannot be said, like it can be of the cross and the lynching tree, that the suffering has therefore been redeemed. To what end did this women suffer? Is it so now that our methods for abortion are safer? Violett argues yes, but that has hardly meant the end of suffering for women because of abortion.***

            If the comparison be made exact, the coat hanger as a symbol of redeemed suffering would be the equivalent of Christians wearing a cross so that they may celebrate how much more humanely people are executed by the state now with lethal injections, or African Americans wearing the lynching tree to celebrate how much more humanely black people are now tortured by the prison-indutrial complex. The coat hanger would only be a symbol of redeemed suffering on the actual level of the cross or the lynching tree if it were the celebration of the suffering of women and aborted fetuses so that we may now have no need for abortion because of the newly instituted child-care programs because of their suffering, but it isn’t. The coat hanger in this context is the celebration of how much more safe the procedure is now for women, and its cynical. Against the conservative critics then we may rightly say that the coat hanger is not a symbol of a ‘death cult’ or the celebration of the joyful procedure of abortion, but we may also rightly say that it is an offensive symbol, not because it is a symbol in the category of redeemed suffering such as the cross or the lynching tree, but because it is the celebration of the redemption of the process of the suffering itself. The tragic element of abortion even under modern procedural abilities is lost in the celebration of the coat hanger, and has been morphed into the tragedy of unsafe procedures in the past, to which we must never return, rather than the process itself.

            Finally, let us move to our final example of how even the tragic element of abortion is slowly being lost, shifted, and morphed in our public discourse, that of the shocking revelation of the incinerated aborted fetuses to heat UK hospitals in recent years. In the past two years alone, 15, 500 foetal remains from both aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated by 27 National Health Service trusts, either as clinical waste or as part of ‘waste-to-energy’ programs to heat various hospital locations. The hysterical conservative critics’ comparisons of abortion to ancient child sacrifice rituals is now beginning to look a lot more accurate than it appeared to at first. It is important to note that this practice, that of incinerating fetuses, does not appear to have been approved beforehand by the institutions, and that figures such as Sir Bruce Keogh, the Medical Director of the NHS, have called for the immediate end to this practice. What is the tragic element here however? Is it in the process of abortion itself? That there are 15, 500 remains to be incinerated in the first place? Well, the only tragic element that can be discerned from the public statements made so far for some is that the parents of the child were not consulted first. As if the practice were to be okay on a mass scale, to heat hospitals and keep alive other patients with energy of the incinerated remains of the lost babies, if there were consent. In addition to this shift of tragedy, from the process of abortion and the subsequent incineration to the lack of consent, is also some ideological comfort for the wider society concerning the process itself by the means of environmental reasoning. One wonders how these programs were to be implemented in the first place, how the thought process came to be justified? Below is an exemplary case of environmental reasoning, regardless whether it is an accurate assessment or not, which in no doubt took place within the minds of many within the medical institutions that carried out these practices.

What we have in our three examples then, namely, the gender-selection issue, the coat-hanger symbol, and the incineration of foetal remains, are arguably the ‘first-fruits’ of a change in public discourse concerning abortion, where the tragic element of the process itself is either lost, shifted, or morphed, and is comforted by troubling ideological stances. It is important to note that whether one ‘agrees’ with the practice and right of women to abortion or not, or even whether one agrees with all the ideological stances used to comfort the remaining tragic element of the issue or not, that what will be slowly lost is the tragic element of the process itself for the women who go through it and their families. In this respect, from the perspective of this observer anyway, abortion should only be argued for (if one wishes too argue for it that is) on the basis of it being a necessary evil, much in the same way war should only be argued for as a necessary evil in society. Like war, if abortion is going to be argued for on the basis of spreading freedom in absolutist pro-choice manner, or on the basis of the safety of the process itself, or even on the basis of the benefits of the process for the wider society, it will begin to look like an ugly joyful slaughter, which even the most staunch defenders of the right to abortion know that it is not.


* We will leave aside the issue of consistency of arguments for the right to abortion, of which Furedi is surely more so. Gupta’s argument would depend upon the foetus being a human female, which of course the argument for abortion, if it were consist, would deny. 

** An excerpt of Cone’s work may be read at :

***Astute readers will know that I am intentionally leaving out the suffering of the aborted foetus for the sake of the argument here.