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
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?
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
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.