Sep 25, 2012

Sarah Catt, the expectation that all women want to be mothers, and the complicated reasons why they don't

I had a conversation recently with a representative from an organisation that helps women obtain access to contraception and abortion. We were talking because I volunteered to be a contact for the media, in case they were looking for women to tell their stories of abortion and unwanted pregnancy. Having women prepared to go onthe record about their abortion will hopefully help break the conspiracy of silence around the subject and dispel the mistaken idea that abortion is something secret, shameful and wrong.

We went through some stock questions, and it was a pleasant chat, but one question gave me pause. It was, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, along the lines of: "why did you feel that you wanted to have an abortion at that time? Was it for financial reasons, because you were young or in college etc.?". I was kind of dumbfounded to be honest. I had my abortion getting on for 20 years ago in a different country; at the time, I had never seen a poster of a dismembered foetus or heard the term "pro life lobby". Having an abortion when you were faced with an unplanned pregnancy was just what you did.

It would have been the opposite choice - not terminating the pregnancy - that would have caused questions. Are you old enough to be a mother? Can you support the child financially? How will you finish college with a baby? What about the man, what if he doesn't want to have a child right now - will your child grow up not knowing its father? And anyway, is it right to bring a person into the world based on nothing but a preventable and unwelcome accident?

It seems to me now that, somehow, over the years we've lost this common sense attitude to having children. These days, women are presumed to always be, by default, in the state of actively wanting to be mothers. So when they are faced with the possibility of motherhood unexpectedly, we want to know what reason they can give for not acting on this presumed readiness. And we limit what we want to think of as legitimate reasons: I was poor, I was young, I was at university, I had no support. "I didn't wake up that morning wanting to be a mother" is not on the list.

Nobody ever asks a man why he didn't make a particular important life decision at a given time. Men are presumed to have true agency, in the sense that when their personal lives bifurcate, either choice they make is deemed legitimate. I've never heard anyone ask a man "so why didn't you propose to her at that time" or "how come you didn't chose to take care of your children when they were small". Got married? Fine. Didn't? Also fine. Changed nappies? Wonderful. Refused to? Oh well, you were the working parent. Either way, men are generally trusted by popular discourse to have had good reasons for their life choices, whereas women's choices are either constantly questioned (as in the "mommy wars" debate) or actively circumscribed (as in th case of reproductive freedom).

It is part of the condition of an oppressed class that what the dominant group takes for granted the oppressed group has to beg for & make arguments for. So in and of itself this insight that women are seen as always being in the "on" position when it comes to becoming mothers is not surprising as such. But it is extremely disturbing, because it a) treats women as no better than cattle in terms of how much moral agency they can exercise over the decision to reproduce and b) utterly elides the dangers, complexities and implications of pregnancy and motherhood.

Which bring me to Sarah Catt. Last Monday Catt was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for "attempting to procure an abortion". She admitted to taking drugs she bought online in the 39th week of pregnancy and giving birth to a stillborn baby shortly afterwards. The body has not yet been recovered. Catt already has three children: two with her current partner and one who she'd given up for adoption when young. She has also had one abortion that we know of. This latest pregnancy she kept a secret from her partner throughout (how is another matter). She had also sought to abort this pregnancy but approached the service after the 24 week cut-off point and was refused the procedure.

If anything emerges from this quick reproductive biography is that this is a woman who is ambivalent about pregnancy and birth. Clearly, to undertake such a desperate measure - essentially giving birth to a dead foetus alone and in secret - she must have been in some psychological distress. It was also submitted to the court that in the case of the child she ended up giving for adoption, she had originally wanted an abortion but was "persuaded" to go through to term. Another complicating factor was that the pregnancy she was convicted of terminating unlawfully was the product of an affair that she was keeping hidden from her partner. Such a level of secrecy in a relationship is a red flag for abuse, but this was not in any way mentioned in the judge's sentencing note.

There's been a lot written over the last few days about Sarah Catt and abortion provision, or the pro-choice position in general; but I think the most insightful commenters were those who saw that in fact there is no relationship between the two. Catt sought an abortion and was turned away as per the law. End of. 

What came next though gets right to the heart of this implicit, silent-but-deadly social presumption that motherhood is the default state for all women. Here was a woman who really, really didn’t want to be pregnant - but there was no recourse for her, no service that she knew to approach that would help her to deal with the inevitability of labour. It's just not something we think about; if a woman is so unnatural as to want to abort a pregnancy, well then she can do so (provided she repeats the right cant and gives a legitimate excuse) up until 24 weeks in. After that, unless there's something physically wrong? Tough cookies.

It's worth remembering that Catt was not convicted under any clause of the 1967 Abortion Act, but under a 1861 (!) statute that is still on the law books and which specifically criminalises women attempting to procure an abortion themselves, without the help & approval of a doctor. That law has no time limit, so even though the judge explicitly handed down a harsher sentence because of how close to term Catt was when she committed the offence, in fact it's not really got anything to do with it - she'd have been breaking the law by inducing her own abortion after 3 weeks as much as after 39.

The '67 Act did not decriminalise women seeking abortion; it decriminalised doctors performing them (under certain limiting conditions and of course not including Northern Ireland). There is in fact no law in Britain that explicitly grants a woman autonomy over her own reproductive capacity. It can be startling to be faced with the tenuous nature of the so called "legalisation" of abortion, and to realise just how fragile and limited our freedom as women is to control our own bodies.

Now, British law is a bit notorious for being a spaghetti bowl of precedents, fudges, obsolete legislation and obscure clauses. For example, did you know that there is another law - from 1929 this time - that Catt could have been charged under? But in the case of abortion, we need a brave legislative initiative to consolidate and modernise the existing legislation, strike off irrelevant and ambiguous laws, and provide British women with a clear and firm basis for legally protecting and upholding our rights over our own bodies and reproductive organs. The unfortunate case of Sarah Catt case is a stark and tragic reminder of that fact - not a cheap pretext to demonise abortion.

There is a demonstration outside Parliament on September 29th to demand reform to the abortion law, organised by Abortion Rights, the national pro-choice campaign for the UK



  1. Excellent piece! I'd never thought of the 1967 act in the way that you describe it, even though it's actually pretty clear. I doubt many other people really appreciate it either.

  2. The irony of it all is that if Ms Catt had been found guilty of infanticide, she would very likely not be in prison,as it is commonly accepted to be the action only of a desperate woman.
    Which she was.
    The ONLY way to prevent such tragedies (if at all possible)is to make early (pre 16 week)abortion on demand, immediate, and free..
    That way, no woman would be panicked into making a hasty decision, or numb inaction.