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Women's experiences

Women versus babies
The following article, by Ann Furedi, was published in The Guardian newspaper (Tuesday 22 February 2000)

Throughout the 1970s, the arguments for a woman's right to choose seemed relatively straightforward. 'Free abortion on demand' was a central tenet of the women's liberation movement. It was understood that women needed to control their fertility if they were to participate in society on equal terms with men and, since contraception sometimes failed, legal abortion was essential if women were to enjoy their sexuality.

To argue against 'the right to choose' was to argue that women should fulfil their traditional domestic destiny as wives and mothers at a time when sexual freedom and women's economic independence were celebrated.

But today, abortion is no longer a left versus right, radical versus reactionary, feminist versus anti-feminist issue. Today, there are fewer 'fundamentalists' on either side. Just a tiny - if vocal - minority believe that abortion is always wrong. Even most of those who campaign for tighter legal restrictions concede that there are circumstances when abortion may be legitimate.

On the other side of the debate, there are fewer voices prepared to argue a robust defence of a woman's absolute right to choose abortion. Some believe abortion on grounds of abnormality is uncomfortably close to eugenics; sometimes a line is drawn at a particular gestational limit.

The issues surrounding late abortions are particularly contentious. Techniques in foetal medicine have made it easier to sustain the lives of severely premature babies. Infants can now be saved at gestations when foetuses can be legally aborted.

Increasingly, obstetricians talk of having two patients - the woman and the foetus. Discussions about the rights of the child (and, indeed, the rights of animals) have encouraged debates about what rights, if any, should be conferred on the foetus, while the abortion debates in the 1970s were about the social status of women.

In the past, law and religion defined our understanding because science had little to say, as science writer Greg Easterbrook argues in a recent US New Republic article. He claims the case for liberal provision of early abortion is strengthened by evidence that the natural termination of potential life is far more common than previously assumed - but scientific discoveries about the brain activity of the more developed foetus stand as an argument against late abortion.

Easterbrook believes this is a message the pro-choice movement does not want to hear lest they be compelled to trade off liberal earlier abortion for restrictions on those in later pregnancy.

Those of us who provide abortion services cannot afford to insulate ourselves from contemporary debates. For example, it is not uncommon for women seeking to end a pregnancy to be concerned about whether a procedure causes pain to the foetus. Our clinicians would be failing their profession if they were not aware of developments in neo-natal medicine.

Because of the need for open debate, British Pregnancy Advisory Service hosted a meeting in London yesterday of almost 100 clinicians, academics, policy makers and campaigners, including those hostile to abortion, to consider the "new ethics" of abortion.

Each year we provide nearly 55,000 abortions - most are in early pregnancy, but some are late. We see no need for apology or moral defensiveness. Rather we believe there is a strong case for trying to wrest the moral imperative away from those who assume they have the monopoly on ethical concerns.

Within the confines of the law we strive to allow women to exercise 'procreative autonomy', that is to assert their own control over if and when they have children. We believe that a civilised society accepts that women are creatures with a moral conscience, capable of making responsible decisions for themselves. This is as true for women who seek late abortions as it is for women in early pregnancy. Women do not request abortion because they are ignorant about foetal development but because, for some reason, they find their pregnancy intolerable.

Science may be making new discoveries about foetal development, but it has little to tell us about the real lives of women. The issue is not so much whether or when the embryo/foetus is deserving of respect per se, but how much respect and value we accord to a life (that does not even know it is alive) relative to the respect and value we have for the life of the woman who carries it.

Some argue that civilised society can be judged by its attitude to the 'unborn child'. We believe it can also be judged by its attitude to women.

Ann Furedi is director of communications, British Pregnancy Advisory Service

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