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Abortion and disability

In drawing conclusions from our study, on the basis of the research we have carried out, we would like to draw attention to issues where we can be fairly certain about what young people think, and areas where we think more research needs to be done.

1. We can say with some certainty that the vast majority of students believe that abortion should be legal, and dislike the idea of the law dictating a course of action for the pregnant woman (see responses to survey question 1(b) (2) (4) and (5)). A dislike of the idea of the law prohibiting abortion altogether is perhaps demonstrated in the fact that even a significant minority of those students who call themselves 'pro-life' do not think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances (see responses to survey question 1(b), (2) and (3)). This 'liberal' attitude towards the law among young people can be put down to the fact that they are very non-judgmental in their outlook. Young people dislike making judgements about others, and do not like the idea of saying categorically that one course of action is right, and another is wrong. As a result they react against the idea of the law or the government being able to compel pregnant women to act in a particular way, on the basis of a judgement about what should be the end result of pregnancy.

On this basis, we would argue that pro-choice ideas will meet with most resonance with young people, when the case is made against the law prohibiting abortion and support is asked for on the grounds that it is unacceptable to compel a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, through use of legal measures.

2. At the same time, we can also be fairly certain that there is only limited positive support for the idea of the right to choose. While prohibitions on abortion are disliked, the idea that women being able to have abortion is a 'good thing' is not a common outlook among young people. Few young people identify positively with the 'right to choose', and a significant number, including some 'pro-choice' students, believe there should be some limits placed on the right to choose (see responses to survey question (3) and responses to interview question (1)). Where students think there should be a limit on the right to choose, they suggest the need for more education, or counselling to bring this about, rather than legal measures (see responses to interview question (1)). We would suggest that the lack of positive support for the right to choose arises from a broader reaction against individualism and individual choice. The idea of putting your interests first, above those of others, is perceived negatively, in comparison to the values of selflessness and concern for others, which have positive connotations for young people. In this context, the woman having an abortion because she does not want a child is identified as 'selfish'.

On this basis, we would argue that the case for the choice to have an abortion needs to be restated, unapologetically, as a positive good. Increasing the ability for women to exercise choice about the circumstances of pregnancy is a goal society should have, because the more women can choose, the more they can be in control of their lives. Unlike the response suggested in (1) above, which will find agreement with young people, we would expect an unapologetic defence of individual choice in abortion to meet with some resistance. It can be pointed out that the grounds on which both points are made is consistent, and rests on a desire to encourage individual freedom, which includes freedom from the law regulating decision making in abortion.

3. We can also say with some certainty that abortion for abnormality is something young people do not feel comfortable with, although they do not think it should be illegal (see responses to survey question (4) and interview questions (2) (3) and (4)). Abortion for abnormality is thought to be understandable in some cases, although most young people think it wrong to have an abortion purely because the child would be disabled. Many students believed that the decision whether to abort an abnormal fetus should be based around the welfare of the child, and the quality of life a child will have (see responses to survey question (6) and interview questions (2) (3) and (4). Abortion where the parents simply did not want a disabled child was often labelled 'selfish' (see responses to interview questions (2) (3) and (4)). This perception of abortion for abnormality is linked the concern young people have about 'too much choice' raised in point 2. However, it is also shaped decisively by young people's perceptions of disability in general, and their attitudes towards science, technology and the future (see responses to survey questions (6) and (7) and interview questions (2) (3) and (4)), perceptions and attitudes which those from a pro-choice outlook need to understand better.

We now summarise our analysis of these attitudes to disability that young people have, drawn from our research. Further research which is more precise needs to take place to assess which of the following points are the most influential and decisive. On this basis, pro-choice campaigners could formulate a response based on an accurate understanding of the reasoning behind young people's discomfort with abortion for abnormality.

- Young people express a dislike of 'consumerism' and 'too much choice'. They think that people can wrongly expect to be able to have anything they want, including a 'perfect child'.

- Young people think that disability has positive as well as negative aspects and that society should value the special talents and caring nature of many disabled people, particularly Down's syndrome children are thought to have.

- Young people perceive disability to be an attribute or form of identity, akin to gender or skin colour, rather than as a disease or illness.

- The issue of disability is conceptualised by young people as an equality or rights issue, rather than as a health issue. This means there is concern that abortion for abnormality could be, or at least could encourage, discrimination against disabled people.

- Young people express fears about the so-called 'slippery slope' where they suggest abortion for abnormality could lead to sex selection, or abortion on the grounds of hair and eye colour.

- Young people have fears about the implications of science and technology in genetics. They are concerned about the potential consequences of genetic manipulation, on the grounds that it is 'against nature' and may spin out of control.

A suggestion for further research

Research could be carried out to take our findings further, based on sensitivity to the points raised above. It would aim to find out which attitudes to disability most influence the young, and the relationship between these attitudes to disability, and attitudes to abortion for abnormality. To be effective, such research would be guided by the following:

1) It would need to have as its starting point an assessment of young people's attitudes towards disability, rather than abortion.

In our research, attitudes towards abortion in general, and specifically about abortion law dominated, and the identification of young people with the terms pro-choice and pro-life was the overriding framework for the research. Their views on abortion for abnormality were assessed in this light. In contrast, more detail about attitudes to abortion for abnormality could be obtained by assessing at the outset students attitudes to disability (rather than abortion).

Such research would measure the importance attached to:
providing more resources for the disabled;
encouraging the idea that disabled people enhance society as a whole;
encouraging the idea that Down's syndrome people enhance society as a whole;
disability perceived as a medical issue;
disability perceived as a social issue;
having the ability to detect abnormality pre-birth (on a range of conditions);
having the ability to detect characteristics (such as eye and hair colour) pre-birth;
the development of a greater number of ante-natal screening programmes for abnormality;
the development of greater knowledge about human genetics;
education programmes in schools about disability.

2) It would then measure the response to the variables listed above against possible attitudes to abortion.

This would allow the research to assess the degree of balance or conflict between attitudes to disability and attitudes to abortion for abnormality. The relative importance of each of the above factors could be assessed by correlating each in relation to the degree of liberalism about abortion. As a result, the attitudes to disability which most counter or most encourage a liberal approach to abortion could be measured.

Attitudes to abortion which the above variables could be measured against are:
identification as pro-choice or pro-life;
the desirability of legal abortion for abnormality:
support for the legality of abortion for abnormality (for a range of conditions);
positive support for abortion for abnormality
the desirability of legal abortion for abnormality as the law currently suggests (with no time limit):
support for a list of abnormalities for which abortion is legal;

3) Our final suggestion would be to carry out further group interview based research, but through this research, to assess whether young people's opinions change, according the information they receive.

In our research, we found the 'focus group' approach very useful in allowing young people to formulate and develop their opinions. Through their discussions with each other in a group, their views became expressed more clearly. We would suggest that this format is useful where complex issues that may not be already clearly thought through by the research subjects are being investigated. In future research, we would repeat the group interviews, but use this exercise to assess how opinion changes. This could be done by group interviewing (for example) before and after young people are given information about the effect of certain conditions on the lives of those who have these conditions; before an after they see a film about women who opted for abortion for abnormality; before and after they were given information from those who oppose abortion for abnormality. This could allow an assessment to be made about which information has the greatest effect on opinion.

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