By Ann Furedi
February 23, 2001
Tory health spokesman Liam
Fox caused a storm in January 2001 by saying he wanted to
see abortion banned. He backed off in an instant, admitted
it was unrealistic, and instead declared a commitment to
reducing the time limit governing at what stage of pregnancy
a woman can have an abortion.
For those of us committed to women's reproductive choice,
this concession is in some ways more worrying. The chance
of a ban on abortion in the foreseeable future is non-existent.
But restrictions on late abortions may well come.
A tiny proportion of people oppose abortion in all circumstances.
Early abortion is accepted as a reasonable way to manage
an unplanned pregnancy, especially when people consider
the alternative - forcing a woman to have a child she doesn't
want. But people feel much less comfortable about late abortion.
A fetus at 20 weeks is no more 'alive' than a fetus at eight
weeks,- but most people find it harder to accept the ending
of a life that so closely resembles a newborn baby. The
UK Independent newspaper recently reported that many MPs
and medical experts are pressing for a reduction in the
time limit to as low as 18 weeks, 'because advances in medical
science make it possible for younger fetuses to survive'
In practice, however, it is not the law that keeps the number
of late abortions low. Less than two percent of abortions
are performed at, or after, 20 weeks. Women do not often
request late abortions and fewer doctors are prepared to
perform them. In the UK National Health Service, it is rare
for hospitals to provide abortions after 14 weeks, unless
there is evidence of fetal abnormality.
Even those with a relatively liberal attitude to abortion
often question the acceptability of post-20-week procedures.
In 2000, influential columnist and science writer Greg Easterbrook
unsettled both pro- and anti-choice lobbies in the USA with
an article in The New Republic, which argued that scientific
advances make the case for liberalising early abortion and
restricting late abortion.
Easterbrook argues that the case for liberal provision of
early abortion is strengthened by evidence that the natural
termination of potential life by spontaneous miscarriage
is far more common than was previously assumed. But he also
claims that discoveries about the brain activity of the
more developed fetus stand as an argument against late abortion,
and should lead to a reduction in the time limit.
This is not an argument that we should accept. We need a
robust defence of women's access to late abortion in law
and in practice - not some kind of trade-off.
Women do not request late abortions because they are ignorant
of fetal development. Science may now be able to tell us
more than ever before about the fetus, and there is clearly
much more to learn. But it is often irrelevant to abortion
Scientists may need hi-tech developments in fetal monitoring
to convince them that the fetus is 'a complex responsive
organism that reacts to its intrauterine environment'. The
experience of fetal movement has been telling women that
for as long as they have been experiencing pregnancy. Nor,
in these modern times, are women ignorant of the fact that
a developed fetus looks like a small baby.
The few women who request late abortions do so because their
specific circumstances lead them to believe that it is better
if their pregnancy does not result in a child. Changed knowledge
about the fetus does nothing to change these circumstances.
If you talk to nurses, doctors, counsellors - anybody involved
in abortion care - they will tell you that there is always
a story behind a woman's request for a late abortion. I
asked a number of staff at the British Pregnancy Advisory
Service about women they had recently seen, and was told
about the woman who presented at 22 weeks because she had
been 'saving up' for an abortion. She eventually realised
she was not going to get the cash unless she borrowed it
from her sister.
Then there was the woman who came too late to be helped
(she was 25 weeks pregnant). Her pregnancy had been wanted
until her husband left her; and she had put off the decision
to have an abortion, week after week, in the hope that he
was coming back.
A surprising number of women do not realise they are pregnant.
If you are on the pill you do not expect to be pregnant,
and you will probably still have a period-like bleed in
your pill-free week. Teenagers put off telling mum and hope
the problem will just 'go away'. And many women simply find
it too hard to make up their minds whether or not to have
The decision to end a pregnancy once you are visibly pregnant
and can feel the fetus moving is difficult enough, without
politicians trying to make political capital out of these
women's circumstances. For a pregnant woman a late abortion
is not just an abstract moral issue, but a decision that
will be with her for the rest of her life.
A politician walks away from a vote, but a woman cannot
walk away from a problem pregnancy.
(1) Independent 5 February 2001
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