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Abortion law

Why Legal Abortion Matters
By Maxine Lattimer and Jenny Davey


What follows is the text of a statement for Pro-Choice Forum written by Maxine Lattimer and Jenny Davey to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act.

Abortion was made legal in Britain with the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act. The Act says that subject to the agreement of two doctors abortion is legal up to the 24 weeks if: the continuance of the pregnancy would damage the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or the continuance of the pregnancy would injure the physical or mental health of her existing family. Abortion is allowed after 24 weeks gestation if the pregnancy represents a risk to the woman's life, or grave, permanent injury to her health, or if there is substantial risk of serious fetal abnormality.

A MORI poll from August 1996, sponsored by Birth Control Trust and British Pregnancy Advisory Service showed that two thirds of respondents supported a woman's right to choose. This figure has increased in recent years despite anti-abortion campaigns to convince the public that abortion is immoral, and damaging to women's physical and mental health. So if this is the case, why is it that over 30 years on from the Abortion Act there is still a need to campaign for women's abortion rights?

Contraceptive failure is a fact of life for sexually active women. No one method of contraception is 100 per cent safe - available contraceptive methods can fail to prevent pregnancy and can be mis-used. A study carried out in 1991 found that over 60 per cent of women who were pregnant had become so unintentionally whilst using or attempting to use a method of contraception. Young people tend to use condoms to protect against STD's and HIV, but statistically this leaves young women at greater risk of becoming pregnant. Abortion is necessary as a back-up to contraception to allow women to control their fertility. Only when abortion is available on request will women truly be able to do so. Only then will women be able to decide when and in what circumstances motherhood is the right choice for them.

The need for abortion should be seen as a fact of life, not a moral dilemma. Even when abortion is illegal, it doesn't stop the practice. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but nevertheless each year around 2 000 women from Northern Ireland and 4 000 from the Irish Republic have abortions in British clinics. Prior to the 1967 Abortion Act in this country many women still attempted to end their pregnancies, but often by hazardous means which risked injury. Anti-abortion campaigners have accepted that if abortion was made illegal again there would still be some illegal abortions. But, they claim, women would think more carefully about their responsibilities and would be more inclined to opt for adoption or motherhood. But for a woman who has decided that she doesn't want to become a mother adoption is not an alternative. Unless you think its is acceptable to compel a woman to continue with a pregnancy, endure being publicly pregnant and undergo labour and childbirth, adoption cannot be posed as any viable alternative.

What's wrong with current abortion law?

Two doctors?

Many people believe that the 1967 Act has in practice provided women with abortion on request. Recently, voices calling for a more restrictive law have become louder. But whilst the Act does allow some room for interpretation and flexibility on the part of doctors, it still requires that a woman seeks the approval of two doctors before she can gain access to an abortion. Rather than women being seen as capable adults who can make responsible decisions about their lives, decision making in abortion is taken out of their hands and placed into those of the medical authorities. Even then it is not enough for a woman to simply state that wants an abortion. Under the Act, two doctors have to agree that continuing the pregnancy will be damaging to the woman's mental health if she is to be able to have an abortion. This means a woman has to show she is unstable or mentally incapable of being a mother to 'prove' she needs this procedure. The idea that 180 000 women in Britain each year have abortions because they are all mentally disturbed by pregnancy is bizarre and patronising. In fact most women who seek abortion just don't want to be pregnant at that point in time. Women are perfectly capable of making rational decisions and should not have to pretend to be unstable or inadequate to get an abortion.

Time limits?

At present the law allows abortion up to 24 weeks gestation except in the case of serious threat to the mother's health or life, or substantial risk of serious abnormality in the fetus. If fact only a very tiny number of women opt for termination after 24 weeks - only 95 women in 1994 - and almost all were pregnancies where the fetus was abnormal. The idea that woman might choose to undergo a late abortion without this kind of reason is ridiculous. No woman would willingly undergo this procedure.

Yet in the minds of those who support a time limit, the idea that women might do exactly that continues. Legal time limits mark an unnecessary restriction, implying that without this imposition women would make irresponsible choices at a late stage in pregnancy. Time limits presume that without reigning in the free choice of individuals, women will make flippant decisions. Any progressive change in the law would challenge this idea, and recognise that women do not need to be regulated from on high in their decisions about when and in what circumstances they can terminate a pregnancy. Making the decision about abortion is not an abstract moral question that should be fixed and controlled by time limits. Rather it is practical question which women need the freedom to decide about independently.

What do women need?

Pro-Choice Forum believes that abortion should be treated like any other medical procedure - accessible without legal regulation. Abortion should be available on request, without women's decisions being 'vetted' by medical authorities. We believe that the choice to have an abortion should be left to the individual woman. There needs to be better provision of abortion services so women can access services freely. Abortion needs to be de-stigmatised and seen as a practical decision that women make rather than a moral dilemma. The decision to have an abortion can be a positive one that allows a woman to regain control over her life when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. We need to change public opinion to see that without real freedom to end unwanted pregnancy, women can never be truly in control of their lives.

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