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
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
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
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"
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
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
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