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Book review: Abortion: A Personal Story, A Political Choice

Sunday, 25 June 2023  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

Abortion: A Personal Story, A Political Choice

By Pauline Harmange, translated by Caitlin O’Neil

(Melbourne and London: Scribe, 2022)


This is a short book on the very large and complex topic of abortion. It is the author’s personal story of her own abortion together with her reflections on the social and political conditions that influence attitudes to abortion.

The catalyst for writing this account, which she began a few months after her abortion, was her unexpected reaction to it of ‘overwhelming sadness’. Further, she was ‘furious that I was so unhappy and also alone’ (p. 1). She simply could not understand her feelings, given that she had ‘fully thought through her decision’ (p. 7) and never doubted the rightness of it. She wondered if she was subconsciously regretting her decision, but eventually, ‘came to understand that I had to get to a place where this strange grief could coexist alongside the certainty, which has never left me, of having made the best decision possible’ (p. 7).

As Harmange explores her reaction and the way she came to understand it, what is entirely missing is any discussion of the moral arguments for and against abortion. The reason for this omission is clear from the very beginning of the book. Harmange writes with two unquestioned, and to her unquestionable, assumptions. The first is that free access to abortion is an absolute right. The second is that this view must follow from feminism.

As a committed feminist, Harmange initially felt she needed to deny the pain from the ‘raw wound’ (p. 7) of her abortion: ‘You don’t say - in a world where so many women can’t freely access abortion, in a world where at any given moment we know that this right can be taken from us – that you’ve had an abortion and frankly, it wasn’t great’ (p. 2). She maintained that she was ‘fine’ because ‘I didn’t want to give those awful people even one more drop of fuel to add to their fire. I wanted to be worthy of this right that was so hard won’ (p. 3). Those ‘awful people’ are presumably anyone who questions abortion or advances the moral claims of the unborn, from a philosophical or religious perspective. Despite decrying the lack of complexity in discussions of abortion, Harmange is unequivocally committed to the ideology of abortion rights. There is no room for moral complexity in her view.

Harmange wrote her book with the stated goal of opening up conversations about abortion. She says we need to create ‘spaces where feelings of ambiguity, negativity, sadness and insecurity can be shared and received, in company, out in the open (p. 70). Such spaces, she says, should be ‘non-polarised’ (p. 71). But the conversations she envisages do not include any discussion of the morality of abortion. Rather, they are conversations where women who have had abortions are encouraged to discuss them and their reactions to them without shame: ‘Maybe it’s in talking about our experiences, every personal, private detail, that the subject will be neutralised (p. 75).

As to Harmange’s assumption that feminists must support unrestricted access to abortion, it is strange that she seems unaware of that strand of feminism that regards abortion as both a consequence and a tool of patriarchy. Indeed, early feminists saw abortion as a consequence of patriarchy and defended the rights of both women and unborn children. Both feminism and the ‘pro-life’ position arise from a claim to equality based on common humanity. The personhood of women was once as contested as the personhood of foetuses, as ‘In all patriarchal unjust systems, lesser orders of human life are granted rights only when wanted, chosen, or invested with value by the powerful’ (S. Callahan, ‘Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism’ in On Moral Medicine, eds Stephen Lammers and Allen Verhey, 1998, 626).

Contra Harmange, the secular Feminists for Life’s claim is that ‘Women can never achieve the fulfilment of feminist goals in a society permissive toward abortion’ (Callahan, ‘Pro-Life Feminism’, 623). Pro-Life feminists recognise that abortion can be a tool of patriarchy in that abortions often serve the interests of men rather than women. If a woman claims the sole right to decide on abortion, why should anyone else share parental or social responsibility? Harmange recognises this, albeit hesitantly, for fear of her arguments being ‘appropriated by the bad faith camp’ (p. 50): ‘When we exclude men from the abortion conversation, isn’t that also continuing to protect them and free them from all responsibility?’ (p. 51). Abortion also often serves as a ‘quick fix’ alternative to addressing the real needs of pregnant women, something Harmange also recognises when she advocates for ‘a society where everyone would have the means to make these life decisions without worrying first about their bank account’ (p. 76).


Denise Cooper-Clarke is a medical ethicist and voluntary researcher with Ethos.

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