By Lynn Ferguson
The recent announcement by Tim Black, Chief Executive of Marie Stopes Clinics, that the organisation supports a reduction in the time limit for abortion to 20 weeks, is yet another example of the crisis of confidence besetting the pro-choice movement.
If the largest provider of abortion services in the UK cannot bring itself to speak up in defence of existing abortion rights, then it seems the battle might be lost before it has even begun.
Over the last year or so there has been a drip feeding to the press of exceptional abortion “horror stories” seemingly calculated to whip up a moral panic.
We have been presented with a vision of a dystopian world where noble doctors struggle to save much wanted premature babies, while in adjacent operating theatres foetuses of the same gestation are cavalierly terminated.
We are confronted with the notion of parents , desirous of perfect progeny, ending pregnancies on the basis of minor and correctable abnormalities.
And all the while, we are told, unscrupulous clinics flout the existing time limit by assisting women to obtain abortions overseas.
Meanwhile new 3D ultrasound scanning technology presents us with images of foetuses in the womb, well under 24 weeks gestation, apparently exhibiting the adorable characteristics of newborns.
No wonder that public opinion, queasy as a matter of course on the issue, succumbs even further to the “yuk factor”.
In the face of this we have heard barely a word in defence of our current hard-won rights. The standard position seems to be “if we keep quiet this will all go away”.
But the signs are that it won’t. It is only a matter of time before a private members’ bill proposes a reduction in the time limit.
Without marshalling our arguments and dispelling the many emotive half-truths around the issue we will be ill prepared for the onslaught.
A good place to start is by dispelling some of the myths surrounding abortion.
Until 2002 I worked as a counsellor and centre manager for the British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS), a large, not-for-profit abortion service.
During my time at BPAS I counselled thousands of women who were considering termination. Each woman had her own personal reasons for finding it difficult to contemplate having a child at that time in her life.
I saw women of all ages, from barely pubescent to menopausal. Women living in appalling poverty to women apparently materially comfortably off. Women with love and support from partner, family or friends, to women utterly isolated and alone. But all these women had one thing in common, the desire to make the best decision for themselves, those around them, and any potential child.
Given the chance, all would turn the clock back and not be pregnant. In the absence of that option it was about choosing the least bad outcome.
The counsellors took considerable time and care to enable these women to explore their options and their feelings about impending motherhood.
Women unsure about what to do were given as much time and support as possible. We were particularly careful to ensure that no woman was pressurised by partner or parents into termination against her will — much to the dismay, sometimes, of said partners and parents. We saw our role as supporting any woman in her decision, whatever it was.
So I don’t recognise the caricature of cavalier abortionists, blithely advising women that their pregnancy is just “a bunch of cells”, and assisting them up onto some kind of abortion conveyor belt.
We saw more than the usual proportion of women later in their pregnancies.
It is rare for the NHS to offer later terminations (except in cases of foetal abnormality), so women ended up with us, either paying for their own treatment, or, if they were fortunate, funded by their health authorities.
Some of those women would certainly have been assisted by easier access to abortion earlier in pregnancy — for example, the woman informed by her GP when she presented at six weeks of pregnancy that, since she was married and childless, she did not meet any of the legal requirements and was ineligible for abortion, and who only discovered the truth when reading a magazine article at 21 weeks.
But what of the women told they could not be pregnant because they were menopausal? Or the women whose partners’ physical and emotional abuse escalated during pregnancy? The young women unable to believe they were pregnant or just too scared to admit it — to themselves, let alone to others? Or the Irish women desperately trying to save enough money to travel to England for treatment, and having to find a good excuse to tell to friends and family to explain their absence, as well as find childcare for their existing children?
I would be interested to watch some of those whose moral scruples cannot tolerate later abortion tell these women to their faces that they must continue a pregnancy they have decided is untenable.
For sure we need easier access to early abortion. But for this to be traded off against a reduction in the time limit for abortions does a disservice to those women most in need.
We must not let the debate be dominated by the sentimental clichés of the anti-choice brigade. Now is the time for us to stand up and tell the truth about abortion.