Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

A woman’s right to choose

By Farah Reza
(first published in the New Humanist, September 2004 edition)

As a number of backbenchers prepare to table Private Member’s Bills on abortion in the coming term, activists demanding more stringent controls are now targeting women Labour MPs with hate mail. But far from pressing for a tighter law, argues Farah Reza, we should be campaigning for abortion on demand.

This summer has witnessed a spate of media heart-wringing over the issue of abortion. It began with Reverend Joanne Jepson’s case against a woman having an abortion at 24 weeks due to foetal abnormality. Then everyone got hysterical over a Channel 4 documentary showing an abortion on British television for the first time. And in August the Evening Standard raised the temperature again with photographs of what it claimed were 12-week old foetuses “walking in the womb”.

These, boasted the Standard, prompted a total of 47 MPs from across the political spectrum to sign Early Day Motions welcoming the ‘amazing’ images and calling for a review.

The ‘scoop’ followed a number of emotive articles in the press, led by the Daily Mail — sensitive tear-jerkers such as Stephen Glover’s ‘Who can see pictures of tiny foetuses yawning and jumping and be CERTAIN abortion is not wrong?’ An editorial in the Sunday Times ridiculed the idea that dire circumstances lead to late abortions, claiming ‘your boyfriend leaving you’ is a trivial reason to request one.

Another article from the Daily Mail pulls together three women’s ‘harrowing experiences’ of abortion. Two of the narratives incorporate praise for the anti-choice ‘counselling’ organisations CARE and CRISIS. A third woman mentions that she decided to “join the pro-life charity LIFE a year ago as a way of getting something positive out of the experience”. No details of neutral counselling services were provided, nor was any pro-choice view represented.

The recent furore over late abortions has been spurred on by everyone except those best qualified to comment: any one of the thousands of women who have had an abortion without feeling traumatised, evil, or in denial.

Religious figures, politicians and doctors, however, have all had a say in the debate. The Prime Minister and David Steel — the architect of the 1967 Abortion Act — have both voiced some concern over abortions performed at 22 weeks and beyond. They claim the legal limit of 24 weeks may need to be reviewed in the light of the fact that a tiny minority of foetuses born before 24 weeks have survived outside the womb.

Little attention has been given to the fact that, of this tiny minority, most suffer severe long-term disability. It appears that that the debate has been hijacked, this time by both anti-choice and some pro-choice individuals, who seem more concerned about the ‘viability’ of the foetus than the rights of the adult women carrying them. Old pro-choice slogans that place these women’s rights at the centre of the debate have sometimes been swept aside by a new type of pro-choicer, such as Johann Hari of the Independent, who is for abortion on request in the earlier stages of pregnancy but against the “small number of unethical killings” in late abortions.

There is very little media coverage of the reasons why women request late abortions. Nor of the fact that fewer than two per cent of abortions are at 20 weeks and beyond, and that these involve some of the most vulnerable of all the women accessing abortions.

It is already difficult to get a late abortion on the NHS. Few doctors are willing to perform them, even though it is legal in cases where the woman’s life or health is at risk, or if there is a substantial chance that the child would be born with severe disabilities. The result is that the charity BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) is left to perform 78 per cent of post 20-week abortions.

Ann Furedi, the Chief Executive of BPAS, says that women usually request late abortions because their circumstances have changed in drastic ways, such as the discovery of foetal abnormality, the break-up of a relationship, or cases of late detection of pregnancy. BPAS staff have to turn away approximately 100 women every year.

Education for Choice is the only pro-choice organisation that visits schools to talk to young people about sexual health and unintended pregnancy. It encourages open debate to counteract the general taboo surrounding sex, especially when linked with women and teenagers.

Anne Quesney and Claire Dunnage from the new organisation Abortion Rights agree that “women tend to feel ashamed when talking about abortion”. They argue that this is a stigma the law encourages. “Women have to persuade two doctors that they need an abortion. They aren’t trusted to make the decision themselves, they have to fulfil certain criteria.”

Quesney and Dunnage felt that these attitudes could be significantly challenged if the law were changed to allow abortion on request up to 14 weeks. In the Netherlands they allow abortion on request, provide good sex education and see high use of contraception. The result is fewer abortions.

While pro-choice campaigners concentrate on the rights of women, the anti-abortion lobby stresses the rights of the foetus. And that is what is skewing the current debate. The latest scaremongering over Professor Stuart Campbell’s graphic images of ‘walking’ foetuses actually adds nothing new to the abortion debate. Women know that a foetus is a living thing growing inside the womb, a potential person that could radically change the course of their future — this is why abortions are requested in the first place. To argue about foetal ‘viability’ in a way that restricts the right to choose involves a number of consequences that have not been adequately explored. Advances in medical science may eventually mean that the foetus can be supported by artificial means at very early stages. Does this mean we simply do away with the right to choose?

Allowing the foetus to take centre stage in the debate obscures the fact that this kind of thinking, if instituted in law, would involve forcing women to have children they do not want. They would simply become vessels for a foetus. The viability argument implies that the foetus has rights, and that these can supersede those of the woman carrying it. Currently, the foetus has no rights under European law — the European Court of Human Rights has thrown out cases based on the ‘personhood’ of the foetus. If rights are awarded to foetuses, at whatever stage, one needs only to turn to the USA to look at the consequences. George W Bush banned partial birth abortions in November 2003, and in April 2004 signed the Unborn Victims of Crime Act, a federal law that gives legal status to foetuses injured by crimes against pregnant women.

Currently, women in the US can be prosecuted due to the infringement of ‘foetal rights’. They can have their babies taken away at birth after a positive test for drugs or alcohol. Many states now impose restrictions on the provision of abortion services, and if Bush is re-elected in November we may see an overturning of the Roe v Wade ruling that made abortion legal in the US. What started as an attack on late abortions has become a general attack on abortion across the board.

The arrival of more subtle, selective arguments against abortion have allowed anti-abortionists to chip away at the edges of current debates, but the arguments are based on the same old premises: women have fewer rights than unborn foetuses, and they cannot be trusted to make a decision that affects them most.

In the next 24 hours, the equivalent of a planeload of women will die from unsafe abortions. We cannot afford to slide backwards on the issue of late abortions, or be blind to the real consequences of what we argue. To do so would be to quash the voices that should matter most.

www.newhumanist.org.uk