Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Europe > Resist the medievalists in Britain

Resist the medievalists in Britain

Women’s right to abortion is a private matter

Sunday 11 May 2008

MPs must hold firm in the face of a mendacious, emotive and unscientific campaign to cut the time limit from 24 to 20 weeks

Forty years ago abortion became legal, one of the good legacies of 1968. But the significance of that era of radical reform remains a battleground between liberal and conservative values. Were the 60s the road to freedom or to moral perdition?

On Monday, when the human fertilisation and embryology bill gets its second reading in the Commons, the debate will feel like 1968 all over again. The purpose of the bill is to save lives and give people freedom over their fertility - strongly opposed by the religious and the right. There will be a free vote on allowing stem cell researchers to use the outer shell of animal eggs to grow human DNA, letting single women or lesbian couples have IVF without a father, and allowing parents of a sick child to select an embryo as a match to provide a “saviour sibling” to donate life-saving cells. All these proposals will be hotly contested - medievalism versus progress all over again.

But fiercest fought will be the anti-abortion amendments, proposed by the Catholics and supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury and David Cameron. The Daily Mail this week launched its campaign to cut the time limit from 24 to 20 weeks. The amendment sponsors are against all abortion but, knowing that 76% of people support it, they seek to slice away the existing legislation by persuading MPs that foetuses are viable at under 24 weeks.

So the Mail prints pictures of thumb-sucking foetuses with stories of four miracle babies that survived extreme premature births. Never mind that the whole notion of viability has no rational connection to any limit on the date for abortions: from the moment of conception every zygote is potentially viable. But “pro-lifers” reckon if they can win the argument in principle that a “viable” foetus can never be aborted, then some day, when the science permits, they will win an outright ban.

But that day is not yet. There is no new medical evidence that more premature babies survive below the 24-week threshold set in 1990. The BMA, RCN and other royal colleges support the present 24-week limit, saying: “There has been no significant improvement in the survival of pre-term infants below 24 weeks gestation in the last 18 years.”

Today, research in the British Medical Journal by Professor David Field, president elect of the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, examines 12 years of statistics from the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, and finds there is no change in survival at 23 weeks. No babies born at 22 weeks survived to leave hospital alive. At 23 weeks, less than 10% left hospital, and Professor Field says other research suggests between 80% and 90% of those would be severely impaired. Professor Allan Templeton warns that setting abortion below 24 weeks will lead to neo-natal units’ few cots being filled with under 24-week babies with virtually no chance of survival, harming the chances of those born later.

Cunningly, the anti-abortion amendments are likely to offer a range of cut-off dates. By offering an amendment for a cut-off at 12 weeks and others at later dates, they aim to make a 20- or 22-week cut-off look like a liberal compromise.

The danger is that MPs unfamiliar with the issue will drift with a general public distaste for late abortions. They will read the Mail’s emotive and mendacious coverage, devoid of the true statistics. They may read Catholic nurses’ tales of horror from the operating theatres of abortion clinics: late abortions are certainly not a pleasant sight. There will be tales of women psychologically scarred by abortions they have later regretted. Pictures of foetuses walking in the womb will suggest 24 weeks is far too late for an abortion.

Only 1.45% of abortions happen after 20 weeks. Here are the stories that will never reach the readers of the Mail, Telegraph, Sun or Express. Ann Furedi, director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which carries out many NHS abortions, pulls these all-too typical cases from recent files that explain why some women had abortions at the very last possible legal moment. There is the 14-year-old who arrived at a clinic when she was 23 weeks and five days pregnant: her periods had become irregular but she had not realised she was pregnant until a school nurse referred her just in time. (Some women are caught out by having periods all through pregnancy, a trick nature plays.) There was the 27-year-old who arrived at just over 22 weeks’ gestation. She already had a 10-month-old, a five-year-old and a six-year-old, all of them in foster care. She said the next baby would go straight into care, because she was a drug user. In a chaotic daze, she had left the abortion to the last minute. Then there was the woman who arrived at 22 weeks and four days, who had been drinking heavily and taking large doses of cocaine, unaware she was pregnant. The one rational choice these addicted women were fit to make was to know they were not fit to be mothers.

So any MPs who think it would do no harm to cut the legal limit by a week or two, should ask if those women would make good mothers. Many would soon be the same mothers vilified as useless scroungers and no-hopers in the very same newspapers that sentimentalise thumb-sucking foetuses. When these unwanted foetuses grow up into hoodie delinquents, the same newspapers are first to demand severe punishments, warning that the world’s going to hell in a handcart. The Mail should look at the figures in Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics suggesting that crime fell when the number of unwanted babies reaching their teens fell after abortion in the US was made legal.

Counsellors at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service are distressed not by late abortions, but by the women they turn away for arriving too late. The other day a methadone addict arrived 25 weeks pregnant: one side-effect of methadone and heroin is to stop periods, so she never knew she was pregnant. Before 1990 she could have had an abortion: what’s the point of turning her away? The Mail leader writes of “moral indignation that so many woman treat abortion as a casual form of birth control”. Have they ever talked to women waiting for abortions at a clinic? The irony is that a recent survey shows that more than 40% of women who did not decide until after three months said it was because they found the decision difficult, yet the anti-abortionists want to give them less time to choose. Often women decide late when they are abandoned by partners who suddenly panic as the pregnancy progresses.

Conservative MPs are more likely to support anti-abortion motions, but, low in the polls, some Labour MPs may be taking fright. They have been sent lurid DVDs of abortions: last time they were sent plastic foetuses. Bombarded with letters from their local churches, some may reckon that voting to cut a few weeks off the time-limit won’t matter much. But it does. The pro-choice lobby has no pulpits to marshal its troops but this week it started to fight back, led by the Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris. It’s time to put in counter-amendments demanding women’s right to abortion as a private matter, without the need for consent from doctors or anyone else.

Source: The Guardian on May 09 2008 on p35 of the Comment & debate section.