First published on Cliterati on 30/4/14 as ‘Josie Cunningham: The litmus test of what it means to be prochoice’
Unless you don’t pay any attention to internet culture, you’ll have heard of Josie Cunningham. The model, escort and mum of two sparked a Fifties-style outbreak of outraged pearl-clutchery when she told the Sunday Mirror she was having an abortion. Big news, huh? Woman Gets Abortion. But what people- yes, even pro-choicers- were against was the fact that she was getting an abortion to further her career (by getting a chance to appear on Big Brother). Yes, now you can apparently call yourself “pro-choice” even if you’re against abortions if you don’t agree with the reason for abortion. Gone are the days when “pro-choice” meant supporting abortions if the woman, trans man or non-binary person wants one. Nope, now it just means you’re anti-choice without being 100% anti-choice; many anti-choicers aren’t 100% anti-choice-most make an exception for the life of the mother or rape.
As you’ll have noticed, the Mirror article is littered with anti-choice rhetoric like “unborn child”, and it’s a very scathing piece which is ignorant of UK abortion law. But of course media hate isn’t surprising. Josie Cunningham was always going to be a target. Even not counting the fact that she’s most famous for her controversial boob job, the toxic combination of her career, age and gender present an irrestible media bullseye: Cinderella, you shall be turned into our bimbo! This is because Cunningham transgresses several patriarchal rules. Firstly, she’s a sex worker, and most of our media is whorephobic. By glamour modelling she trangresses patriarchal norms of the chaste maternal woman. Then she’s a young mother- making her a member of two stigmatised groups. Then, by going public, she’s being confident and assertive- something women aren’t traditionally meant to be. Her statement to the Mirror that she wants to be famous for herself, not famous for having a footballer’s baby, is a further break with the passive wife and mother (or WAG) role. The potential fathers of the foetus are high achievers. Therefore her traditional role is as their support.
And then there’s the middle class anxieties over a surgeon buying sexual services and possibly impregnating a “lower class” woman- a hooker, no less. Cue the monocle-dropping! Cunningham’s situation shoves in our faces the fact that respectable, highly educated people buy sex and have children with the people we marginalise and despise. And let’s not forget the anxiety that the determination and career-oriented scheming of a young woman stirs in the minds of older people, who look at her and see a togetherness they didn’t possess at that age. As our life spans and retirement ages go up, the young are increasingly seen as tech-savvy competitors instead of the proteges or successors they might’ve been a few decades ago. It doesn’t take a recruitment consultant to work out that a woman who can trick the NHS into giving her a boob job, fulfil her modelling dreams and achieve more fame than most of us by age 23 is probably someone you want to watch out for.
The odd thing is, it’s the reason for her choice that angers those so-called “pro-choicers”. It would’ve been fine if Cunningham had aborted because she didn’t want another kid. It would’ve been fine if she’d been guided by traditional norms into aborting simply because she wasn’t sure who the father of the foetus is (it’s either a footballer friend or a surgeon who was an escort agency client). Apparently, fame, earning a lot of money to make a better life for her children, and further lucrative deals aren’t a good enough reason to have an abortion. That’s kind of interesting as it raises the question: what is a good enough reason?Not many women stand to lose as much from having a baby as Josie Cunningham does. Apparently, these days women should only abdicate their baby-squirting maternal role for the ‘right’ reasons-being a nice middle class girl thing, like lawyer or doctor– and anything too capitalist is not a ‘right’ reason. Respectability politics, innit. As Georgia Lewis points out in this excellent blog, if you’re okay with a lawyer having an abortion because of her career, you have to be okay with Josie Cunningham’s decision. But “because I want to” should always be reason enough.
“The whole outrage on this story is riddled with slut-shaming snobbery and ignorance of NHS abortions.If you’re prochoice, you won’t object to a woman who has an unplanned pregnancy having an abortion,” says Georgia Lewis. Josie Cunningham’s story raises all sorts of questions about employment rights, motherhood, capitalism, celebrity, women’s rights and specifically how pregnant women are treated by employers. Why isn’t Cunningham allowed on TV while pregnant? That’s the big question. But these debates have been ignored. Instead, a sexist attack on Cunningham (with classist and whorephobic elements) is all that’s happening. She’s all of our hates rolled into one: the scrounger, the young mum, the sex worker, the vapid, stupid celebrity, the slut. We hate our bimbos- but even more, we love to hate them.
The abuse in comments and on Josie Cunnigham’s Facebook page by anti-choicers is no surprise. But it’s very, very worrying that the prochoicers have joined in (sometimes with arguments as ludicrous as ‘some people can’t have kids, so she should’ – never mind the fact she’s had two, plus five miscarriages.) It’s worrying because Nadine Dorries MP and Jeremy Hunt have both tried to limit abortion. And this kind of anti-choice-in-pro-choice-clothing thing can only be a good thing for anti-choicers and anti-choice politicians. This could all have very real consequences for pregnant women, trans men, intersex and non-binary people seeking abortions.
“[I]f a woman is in a desperate position enough to beg for an abortion than her mental health is already at risk,” says Nicole Walsh, mental health activist and founder of Succession, a nonprofit organisation that helps students living with mental health issues achieve their ambitions. “If pro-life groups make further restrictions to abortions then those with mental health problems or risks to their mental health will be at a huge [risk]. As they will be under the judgement of such groups. Like their abortions their mental health will come under the moral questioning of unqualified non-professionals who will choose for them whether or not they deserve the abortion and then shame them when they have problems parenting….Women with un intended pregnancy are four times more likely to suffer from postpartum depression twelve months after birth…The problem here is that it is nearby impossible to hear from women who will admit that they went through with unwanted pregnancies and are or have been struggling.”
The academic literature certainly seems to prove Walsh right, as in this article by the Transnational Family Research Institute.
But what about the trauma caused by abortions that the anti-choicers keep warning us about? “Many pro life groups advertise that abortion can cause post-traumatic stress disorder – or post abortion stress syndrome. This has absolutely no medical grounding,” says Walsh. “Whilst abortion is very difficult for many- the sense of relief many feel is very real.
Unfortunately many of the stories of PASS come from women who’s only option was a medical late term abortion and do not come from those with unwanted pregnancies. PASS has little to no real scientific backing and is still used by pro life groups to shame and scare women who want abortions.”
A 2010 study completely debunked the theory of post abortion stress syndrome and this 2009 academic paper claims the syndrome is fabricated by anti-choice (pro life) groups. But even if it existed, preventing possible trauma by causing the real trauma of forced carrying and birth would not be a justification for denying abortions, especially when harmful substances like alcohol, cigarettes and junk food are permitted. Somehow people never seem to get that upset about the Pill even though it can sometimes cause abortion.
Whether you’re pro-choice or anti-choice, and whether you personally approve or disapprove of her choice, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Josie Cunningham is the litmus test for all of us who like to think of ourselves as pro-choice.