By Cathy Nugent
On 26 October the Abortion Rights Campaign held a meeting in London to mark the 38th anniversary of the passing of the 1967 legislation granting British women some access to abortion. Limited though the legislation was, it did mean that women no longer had to risk death or damaged health from illegal “back street” abortions.
If all the predictions are correct, and if the general anti-abortion mood continues to nurture it, another legislative assault on the time limits is imminent. Over 100 people attended the ARC meeting, including many young women (and some men). This could be the start of a renewed campaign to defend the existing time limits.
The current legislation came in under the umbrella of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. It said that women can get an abortion up to 24 weeks. It also defined a few very tightly defined exceptions to that limit (e.g. an abortion can be performed if a woman’s life is in danger).
But the whole body of abortion legislation and the way it is implemented limits women’s rights in many ways. We cannot get an abortion on request (but must get the permission of two doctors), and we cannot often get later abortions on the NHS. Women in Northern Ireland have no abortion rights. We have to come back to defend existing abortion rights time and again, instead of winning an extension of rights to obtain easier access to abortion — on request, on the NHS and in the whole of the UK.
The hopeful side of the picture is that abortion is now a well-established right in the UK. Hundreds of thousands of women have had a legal abortion in the last 38 years. A big majority of people in the UK support a woman’s right to choose (76% overall and 88% of women). There is every reason to think that the revolting taboos surrounding abortion — that it is a shameful act of a selfish individual — can be broken down.
But the dangers are real and are insidious. The most likely first attack will come in the form of a chipping away at the time limit, pushing it down from the current 24 weeks to 22, 21 or 20 weeks.
The most effective or dangerous attack may come from medical practitioners. Some of them will be working in conjunction with anti-abortionists. Most will not generally be anti-abortion. They may act in conjunction with MPs.
This summer the BMA debated time limits. The majority (77%) voted to retain the 24 week limit. Those who wanted a lower limit argued that survival rates for pre-term babies were increasing. Others argued, rightly, that lowering the abortion time limit to be in line with the “absolute best” survival possibility for pre-term babies would unjustly penalise the few thousand women each year who need a late abortion – women who don’t realise they’re pregnant, or can’t know until late on that their foetus has severe abnormalities and women in a number of other invidious positions. Just under 3,000 women go on to have an abortion at that late stage. To deny them a choice on the grounds of marginal survival possibilities, or indeed for any other reason, is wrong.
The fact that a big majority of the BMA voted to retain the 24 week limit does not guarantee that MPs will fall into line with their view. They may decide to take a “cautious approach”, i.e. one that they find politically expedient, and chip away the time limit.
The situation will not be helped if pro-choice campaigners chose to “trade off” later time limits for more liberal legislation on early abortions. Prior to the election David Steel said he would be willing to concede a small reduction in the time limit in exchange for legislation introducing abortion on request up to 12-14 weeks. That too would penalise women who need a late abortion.
High profile feminist Naomi Woolf has argued for a less “cavalier” approach to abortion. There is something of a fashion of softened up middle class women, who once unambiguously supported abortion rights but have now had babies, suddenly thinking that there is something a “bit horrid” about abortion. Women should think twice about having an abortion they say. Perhaps they are so used to “having it all” they can’t imagine life for women who have less choices than themselves.
The drive to restrict abortion rights has been backed up by TV programmes, using increased generally-available information about foetal behaviour. But information about what a 12 old week undeveloped foetus gets up to in the womb (not much) is completely irrelevant to a woman considering what to do with an unwanted pregnancy.
There has also been an anti-abortion campaign in sections of the media, emphasising, for instance, unsubstantiated and actually well-refuted so-called scientific claims eg about how abortions lead to depression. It has been left to pro-choice campaigners to point out the realities that the Daily Mail et al don’t choose to acknowledge. Abortion may not lead to actual happiness, but it often leads to a feeling of great relief and the end of worry and anxiety. And that tends to take away from feeling depressed.
The hard-line anti-abortionists and religious nutters will be happy to join in with anyone hand-wringing over 24 weeks.
There are a number of reactionary Tory MPs chomping at the bit to introduce Early Day Motions and Private Members Bills to reduce the time limit, perhaps to lower than 20 weeks. In our depoliticised world where abortion rights are never discussed, let alone campaigned for, they think they can have success. They look to the US where there has been many recent attempts to limit women’s rights to abortion — particularly in the second trimester of pregnancy.
For these people any chipping away at the existing time limits is a step in the right direction. They will be happy to sit back and watch softened up pro-choice campaigners and opportunistic MPs do part of the job for them. We should not let them.
Time to get the placards out and get our unions and student unions to start backing the pro-choice campaign.
• Abortion Rights Campaign: