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  Introduction to the study : young people's attitudes to abortion for abnormality

"There can be a conflict between disabled people and the right to choose. Disabled people would like to see themselves as normal people who can overcome their disabilities. Saying that it's ok to have an abortion for disability becomes an unfair act."

"I think it's the woman's choice about abortion. If she's not happy you can't expect the child to be happy when it grows up."

"I think abortion is getting abused. It would be far more sensible if they put more money into contraception before pregnancy and adoption after it."

"I think that women should only have an abortion if there is a serious risk to them or the child, not just if it's something like Down's syndrome."

"Abortion liberates women. No contraception is 100 per cent effective, so it's inevitable that it will fail sometimes."

"That's what worries me about abortion for fetal abnormality. You don't know how far it will go. Should you be allowed to have an abortion if it hasn't got a hand say?"

"I feel that any interference with a woman's life whether it be work, studies or relationships are all valid reasons for a woman to have an abortion"

"Right now I have no problem with having an abortion for any disability that we can detect before birth. However, I am concerned that as technology develops and we can detect smaller abnormalities such as congenital blindness that things may go too far."

"If a woman really doesn't want a child it's not fair on either her or the baby to make her have it."

"Many kids with Down's syndrome are great and they can have a perfectly good life. It's not like the child is in pain all the time. If the child was in pain I think the woman should have an abortion though."

" I think it's a problem if people say I don't want to have a Downs Syndrome child, purely on the basis of its disability. It would be like saying I want to have a blonde child or I want my child to be six feet tall."

"I don't know why people think we should have the right to choose, it's the consumer idea that you can get exactly what want. Why should people be allowed to do that?"

"I think its really scary that people want to change that children will look when they are born. It'd be horrible if everyone was the same".

"I'm not happy with the idea of a law that could stop women. It would be impossible to enforce. Who would you punish? The doctor, the woman? It's a difficult area and not one I am convinced we should go down."

"The population should be as diverse as possible because you can learn a lot from disabled people. Disabled people make the most of what they have. They are probably more loving and understanding than people who are caught up in a rat race. They don't take things for granted."

The idea for this piece of research came about following the publication of a 1997 MORI poll sponsored by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Birth Control Trust. This poll found that 64 per cent of respondents said they believe that abortion should be made legally available for all who want it. The poll found that support for the availability of legal abortion for all who want it has increased significantly since 1980, when a similar survey found that a little over 50 per cent of the population gave the same response to a similar question.

In contrast, the opposite trend was found when people said what they thought about abortion for abnormality. In 1980, 84 per cent said they approved of abortion in cases of mental disability and 81 per cent in relation to physical disability. The 1997 poll found these figures had dropped to 67 and 66 per cent respectively.

This shift in opinion is of particular interest when placed in historical perspective. It has been noted in studies of the history of abortion law reform, that a key factor which led to the legalisation of abortion through the 1967 Abortion Act was the thalidomide tragedy. The birth of babies with severe limb deformities, resulting from the prescription of the drug thalidomide to their mothers, acted to increase substantially public support for legal abortion. That fetal abnormality was seen at that time as a 'good reason' for abortion is reflected in the 1967 Act. The Act specifies 'substantial risk of serious handicap' as a ground for legal abortion. Significantly, the time limit which applies to abortion on other grounds, after which abortion is no longer legal, does not apply when abnormality is detected in the fetus.

It would seem however that since the 1960s, a significant shift in attitude has taken place. Fetal abnormality then was seen as a 'good' reason for abortion which perhaps deserved more support than other reasons a woman might have for ending pregnancy. Today in contrast it appears to be a reason which people find it much harder to support than in the past. The aim of this research was to try to find more about why abortion for abnormality is now seen in this way.

In particular, our concern was with the attitudes of young people to this issue. This focus arises from the results of the MORI poll mentioned previously. The tendency for respondents to this poll to say they disapproved of abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality was most marked among the youngest section of respondents: the 15-24 age group age. In this age group, 36 per cent said they disapproved, and 50 per cent said they approved of abortion where there would be mental handicap, and 40 per cent and 47 per cent respectively approved and disapproved where there would be physical handicap. It was striking in the MORI poll results, that approval of abortion for abnormality increased systematically with age, with the highest approval rating among those aged 65+ (75 per cent approve, 11 per cent disapprove for mental handicap and 69 per cent approve and 15 per cent disapprove for physical handicap. For full statistics, see appendix 2).

We therefore began our research with a working assumption that the opinions of the 15-24 age group had most clearly been influenced by different factors to those which had influenced older generations. By carrying out research into the attitudes of young people, we hoped to gain insights into the reasons why abortion for abnormality is less approved of by this younger age group. A particular issue we chose to highlight in our research was the question of attitudes to abortion for Down's syndrome. We justify this on the basis that there has been extensive discussion in the medical and popular press, and within the pro-choice community about whether abortion on the grounds of Down's syndrome is legitimate. Therefore we wanted to see whether this concern specifically was reflected in the opinions of young people.

As a pro-choice organisation, our aim in doing so was not motivated by purely academic interest. The difficulties young people have in accepting abortion for abnormality is an important issue for those of us concerned with upholding the ability of a woman to end a pregnancy for whatever reason she sees fit. Given that the age group we chose to survey constitutes the opinion formers of tomorrow, it is crucial for pro-choice opinion to understand their views, if we are to engage with those views, and ensure that support for a woman's right to abortion holds strong in the future.

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