Last week, 23-year-old British glamour model/call girl/tabloid queen Josie Cunningham announced that she was planning to have an abortion. Considering her circumstances, her decision shouldn’t seem all that peculiar. She works as a call girl at Leeds, doesn’t know who the father is (either a professional footballer or a surgeon she had as a client), and already has two young sons. These are all reasons, unfortunately, that a woman might choose to exercise her “reproductive rights.”
What is unusual is that back in January, Cunningham was “thrilled” to be three months pregnant, bragging that she was getting a host of free dental work done (an NHS entitlement for expectant mothers), and saying that her “baby comes first.”
Why the sudden switch? Cunningham wants to be a contestant on an upcoming season of the reality TV show Big Brother and thinks that Channel 5 snubbed her after finding out she was pregnant. “That was when I started considering an abortion. After the operation I will be going back to them and asking if they will still consider me,” she told the Sunday Mirror last week. “An abortion will further my career. This time next year I won’t have a baby. Instead, I’ll be famous, driving a bright pink Range Rover and buying a big house. Nothing will get in my way.”
Cunningham wants fame, and she made it clear last week that she’ll do whatever it takes to get it. Or so she thought.
Thursday, she traveled to London to have the procedure and, after feeling the baby kick for the first time, decided to forgo it. “I’d forgotten what the feeling was like,” she told the Mirror. “It was magical. It was like the baby was telling me not to go through with it.”
Cunningham’s admission that she was considering abortion in pursuit of fame garnered quite a bit of ire in the U.K. last week, and her second change of heart has critics wondering if the entire thing was a publicity stunt in which Cunningham got exactly what she wanted: people talking about her. Cunningham says it wasn’t but also says that she “must be doing something right because at least everyone knew my name. I had 13,000 Twitter followers overnight–I didn’t care if they hated me…People are going to hate me, so at least I was getting famous in the process.”
Admittedly, Cunningham is a woman the Brits love to hate. Last year, on the basis that she’d been bullied her whole life for being flat-chested, she had a £4,800 breast-enhancement surgery on the NHS’s dime, for which she was strongly criticized. Like Jersey Shore’s Snooki or any of the “Real Housewives,” Cunningham is the kind of person representative of what’s wrong with society.
But the outrage over Cunningham’s abortion remarks–much of it vile and uncharitable itself–went beyond a basic dislike of Cunningham. Surprisingly, much of the pushback came from people who are nominally pro-choice, people who found themselves asking: Are there reasons a woman shouldn’t be permitted to abort?
It’s a question worth considering–and a question that British law technically answers. Under the Abortion Act of 1967, a woman is permitted to abort up to 24 weeks only when two physicians agree that carrying a baby to term would be dangerous to her physical or mental health. Doctors interpret the law loosely, however, and in practice, a British woman’s right to abortion is rarely restricted.
That pro-choicers are questioning a woman’s reasons for abortion is significant. Staunch proponents of choice found themselves having to defend Cunningham this past week, or at least having to defend her right to abort. The Guardian’s Martin Robbins argued that the outrage over Cunningham boiled down to “basic snobbery” and that “her actions are no different from those of thousands of women who exercise their reproductive rights in order to make informed choices about their future careers and families.” He continued:
The moment you introduce the language of “deserving,” you invite others to judge just how deserving you are; and a right very quickly becomes a privilege…If we fail to defend Cunningham, then we accept that only those women who are “deserving” enough should be allowed to have an abortion. And if we accept that, then it’s only a matter of time before others are deemed undeserving as well.
“What would the reaction be if she were a little more refined, a little less Northern, a little less fake-tanned?” asked Paris Lees in Vice. And, “of all the reasons a woman might choose to have an abortion, ‘So I can maybe get on a reality show’ has got to rank among the least compelling,” Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote in Salon.
But, that’s the uncomfortable reality of reproductive choice. It’s a lot like free speech–if you truly believe in it, you wind up having to defend the rights of people who don’t have the most responsible relationship with it to have it as well.
These are all good points, and kudos to them for being consistent. If a fetus is nothing more than a clump of cells, if a woman has a right to abortion, what does it matter if she’s aborting in order to finish law school or vying for a spot on Big Brother?
It shouldn’t matter. But I suspect that the outrage over Cunningham’s comments stems from the lurking feeling among even the nominally pro-choice think that the motives behind abortion do matter, because a fetus is more than just a clump of cells.
But Robbins is right: Accepting “that only those women who are ‘deserving’ enough should be allowed to have an abortion” is a slippery slope to declaring that other women are undeserving. And then, instead of a right, you have doctors or the government practicing a kind of moral calculus, declaring that one woman’s reason for wanting to get an abortion is good enough and another woman’s isn’t.
Of course, in the Cunningham case, this is all now a moot point. She’s decided to carry her pregnancy to term–and not because of all the Internet “trolls,” she’s sure to point out, but because she felt her child kick.
But that pro-choice Brits questioned her reasoning for wanting an abortion may lead to some other questioning, as well: about whether they “truly believe” in the right to abortion after all, whether abortion itself is morally acceptable, and whether society should be in this business of deciding which lives are brought into the world and which are terminated to begin with.
The coverage of the Josie Cunningham controversy has been a complete circus–a spectacle that left one wishing she’d just stop talking to the press. If it leads to national soul searching about the nature of abortion and reproductive rights, however, it will be a spectacle well worth it.