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  Abortion and the election
Update and comment
24/05/01

The Pro-Life Alliance today lost its legal action at the High Court against broadcasting companies that are refusing to screen its party political broadcast.

In 1997, the Alliance fielded 55 candidates, and this year 29 in England and three in Scotland have been announced so far. Its broadcast was banned in 1997, and lawyers for broadcasting companies argued this time that again the video would offend against good taste and decency, and should not be broadcast. David Pannick QC, for the BBC, said the PLA could 'say what it likes about the evils, as it perceives them, of our abortion laws….It is only being prevented from broadcasting unpleasant images into people's homes'.

The PLA defended its case for being able show images of aborted fetuses. David Anderson QC, for the PLA, said the Alliance wanted to place abortion on the political agenda. To do this it was necessary 'to let people know what is involved in this commonly performed operation that is, of course, lawful and the majority of cases paid for out of public funds'.

The court, however, found against the PLA.

James Meikle, Partywatch: ProLife Alliance, The Guardian 24/05/01
Joshua Rozenberg, ProLife Alliance fights TV ban on abortion images, The Telegraph 24/05/01
Nick Mead, Anti-abortion party goes to court over election broadcast, PA News 23/05/01



Comment: Give them enough rope

By Ann Furedi, director of communications, BPAS

Anti-abortion activists seem to have made a calculated decision that the best way to gain publicity is by going to court. Stephen Hone, the chap who recently appealed to the courts, first to prevent his girlfriend having an abortion and then to secure rights to the fetal tissue, was supported by 'pro-life' campaigners. In April 2001 the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children appealed to the High Court, to order a judicial review, arguing that emergency after-sex contraception causes abortion, and therefore contravenes the Offences Against the Persons Act and should be subject to the restrictions of the abortion law. Now we have seen the ProLife Alliance's unsuccessful appeal to the High Court to overturn a ruling by the BBC that will prevent them showing their party political broadcast.

There is a good reason for the resort to court. Anti-abortion activists are so few in number, and so marginal to any meaningful social policy discussion, that a contrived stunt is about the only way they can make their voices heard. Without this little fracas with the BBC, the ProLife Alliance's election campaign would probably have passed unnoticed, even by those who live in a constituency where a ProLife Alliance candidate is destined to lose his deposit.

Abortion is simply not an issue in this election. Even many anti-abortion campaigners think the notion of running a candidate on a 'pro-life ticket' is a waste of time. Following the recent trashing of the relatively engaging and articulate research director of Life in the Preston byelection, Life supporters published letters begging that the same mistake should not be made again. They know they are on the margins, and votes expose that.

So in many ways it is a shame that the BBC has chosen to wade in and provide the ProLife Alliance with an opportunity that amplifies its squeaks of outrage about a legal medical procedure that most people regard as acceptable. It is also a shame that, by banning a party political broadcast, the BBC also forces some of us who consider the ProLife Alliance to be vile scum to defend their right to put their case in the way they choose.

I understand that the BBC's objection to the ProLife Alliance election broadcast, which was due to be screened in Wales, was that some images did not comply with its code on taste and decency. No prizes for guessing what these images are. At the last general election the same organisation had the same debate over a broadcast that showed graphic images of fetuses aborted at late gestations. I saw the uncut version and I have seen many others like it produced by similar organisations. They are horrible and disturbing, but they should not be banned.

As a potential voter I believe candidates should be able to put their case to me in the way they want to put it. Let me be the arbiter of what is tasteful and decent, and let me reward the candidate with my vote or contempt accordingly. The fact that ProLife Alliance want to flaunt harrowing images tells us as much about their contempt for women as their actual arguments.

The medium is part of the message, and individuals standing for election should have the right to put their message across. As voters we should have the right to witness it as they want it to be seen,- not a sanitised version that the BBC finds acceptable.

In any case, the measure of taste and decency is dangerously subjective. What offends me about the broadcast is not the images, but that it wrongly claims that they represent 'the truth' about abortion.

The truth of the matter is this. The 180,000 women who have abortions in Britain each year know that abortion involves killing a fetus. Most are not indifferent to this. Many think that abortion is wrong - or at least less good than having a baby. They take their decision because they feel that, in their particular case, to continue with the pregnancy - to have a child - would be a greater wrong. Women wrestle with their consciences and make their decisions, and usually doctors are able to end the crisis pregnancy in its early weeks - long before it is the recognisable human being that features in anti-abortion propaganda.

The women who request abortion at later gestations, whose aborted fetuses look like those paraded in anti-choice videos, are often the saddest and most desperate cases. These women do not need sanctimonious campaigners to tell them their fetus looked like a baby with arms and legs - they would have felt its kicks, and yet still they considered abortion the best option. The real truth of abortion lies in the reality of women's lives - the things that lead them to make the decision that a pregnancy is best ended.

ProLife Alliance believe that the images of abortion will convince people to oppose its legality. They believe that those who practice abortion conspire to cover up 'the truth'. They are wrong.

As somebody who has been involved for years in defending legal abortion by trying to promote a rational public understanding of the issues involved, I am happy to allow my opponents to expose themselves for what they are - dishonest, manipulative, irrational, ignorant fanatics who patronise women by insisting that they request abortion because they do not realise it involves the destruction of a fetus.

The images that the anti-abortion lobby would like to thrust in front of us tell us little about abortion but a lot about the people who make them. I would prefer to allow the people of Wales to deliver their verdict. Let ProLife Alliance show their video and be damned.



The following comment on abortion and politics, by Ellie Lee appears, with a range of alternative proposals for debate in the election, on the website www.spiked-online.com

Political leaders committed to 'women's issues' should:

1) Make abortion part of political discussion
In the run up to the last election UK prime minister Tony Blair said that he would 'do everything in [his] power to keep abortion out of politics'. Four years on, there are still significant changes that need to be made to existing law and policy. In order to make these changes, the provision of abortion, like other services women need if their lives are to be improved, should be discussed as part of politics. It is anomalous that at a time when 'women's issues' are supposed to be central to politics, abortion is still exempted from political debate.

2) Tell the truth about abortion
While contraception is now openly promoted as morally and socially acceptable, abortion is not. It is often portrayed as 'responsible' to avoid unwanted pregnancy through contraception, but problematic to seek an abortion where contraception fails or couples fail to use it.

Politicians should make it clear that, for women faced with unwanted pregnancy, abortion is not a problem, but a solution to a problem they face in their lives - and that it is as responsible to end that pregnancy as it is to continue it. They should also promote the truth about why unplanned pregnancy happens. Contraceptive failure and even non-use is not a sign of irresponsibility, fecklessness or foolishness.

Money spent on public education about the causes of unwanted pregnancy, which aims to contextualise and explain truthfully why women have abortions, would be money well spent.

3) Repeal the outdated abortion legislation
An abortion can still only be legally performed if two doctors agree that the woman has reasons for needing an abortion that meet one of the four criteria specified in the 1967 Abortion Act. This turns doctors into gatekeepers, responsible for ensuring the woman's reason for abortion is a 'good' reason. This system benefits neither doctors nor women.

This act was passed at a time when recreational sex was still taboo, when university education and career aspirations for women were the exception rather than the rule, and when women were still expected to sacrifice all for motherhood. Those who reformed the law in the UK parliament viewed the kind of woman who would need an abortion as a 'distracted multi-child mother, often the wife of a drunken husband' (1): a worn-down victim, who could not cope with bearing another child.

The context today is very different. Around one quarter of all British women will have an abortion. It represents a backup to failed contraception, necessary if women (and men) are to be able to enjoy recreational sex, and if women are to pursue careers and plan their families. Most people accept the need for abortion. For the majority of the general public, for the medical profession and for those involved in abortion care, it is a fact of life.

4) Regulate abortion as a standard medical procedure
The principle of patient self-determination now has central importance in British medical law. A great deal of importance is placed upon the right of an individual to make decisions about their treatment (2). Even where the decision made might appear irrational or morally objectionable to others, as along as the patient understands what they are doing, their wishes come first. This approach should also apply to abortion.

In practice this would mean that as long as the doctor was confident that the woman concerned had consented to the abortion taking place (as the law demands of any medical procedure), then the abortion can go ahead. This should apply regardless of the gestation of the pregnancy.

From the point of view of women's abortion needs, abortion must be provided as early as possible and as late as necessary.

5) Bring abortion policy in line with practice
Just as the legal framework on abortion suffers from being out of touch, so do policy guidelines. For example, guidelines issued in 1977 by the then Department of Health and Social Security advocate that a woman be counselled before her abortion about her decision 'to ensure that [she] has had the full opportunity to make a reasoned assessment of her own wishes and circumstances'. Underlying this policy is the notion that women will find the decision to have an abortion sufficiently upsetting and difficult that they need special help from a counsellor.

Yet research indicates that many women find the assumption that they need counselling in order to make a 'reasoned assessment' of their wishes patronising or confusing. This approach is not taken if women decide to continue pregnancies to term, so why is it where they decide to end them? (3)

When abortion is more socially accepted than in the past, and where women largely find support and somebody to talk to about their decision from within their personal circle of family and friends, the policy imperative that women should be counselled is unnecessary and unhelpful. There does not need to a be specific policy that dictates what is psychologically best for women when they go through the process of choosing abortion.

Politicians should make it clear that most women who have abortion are adult enough to find ways for themselves of managing their feelings, and that service providers can be trusted to provide extra support for those women who make it clear they want it.

(1) Sheldon, Sally. 1997. Beyond Control, Medical Power and Abortion Law. London: Pluto Press.

(2) Jackson, Emily. 2000. 'Abortion, Autonomy and Prenatal Diagnosis'. In Social and Legal Studies Vol. 9 (4) 467-94.

(3) Hadley, Janet. 1997. Abortion, Between Freedom and Necessity. London: Virago.

 
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