abortion - in law and practice
By Ann Furedi and Ellie Lee
March 01, 2001
Outright opposition to all
abortion is today a minority view. Most condemnation of,
or debate about abortion, now focuses not on the issue of
abortion per se but on specific types of abortion,
or on the reasons women give for wanting an abortion that
are regarded as particularly problematic.
Here we examine why opposition
to all abortion has become an outlook held by few people.
We then discuss examples
where abortion remains controversial, and put forward arguments
in support of a woman's right to choose in even these instances.
Finally we consider, and
refute, the case made mainly by opponents of abortion, that
abortion constitutes a risk to women's health.
On the place of abortion
in British society today....
For many women, abortion currently acts as an essential
back-up to contraception, necessary to enable them to regulate
their fertility and plan their families. Since individuals
are expected to plan their families, abortion is now considered
by most sections of society as a 'fact of life'. In early
pregnancy at least, abortion is viewed by most as preferable
to unwanted childbirth.
In this context, it is inappropriate for abortion to be
considered as a problem - rather it is a solution to a problem.
The most contentious areas
of discussion are:
Abortion at later gestations
Abortion on grounds of fetal
There are also concerns
raised about the health risks of abortion
On 'late' abortion....
While most people have no difficulty accepting the legality
of abortion at early stages of pregnancy, fewer are so sure
about their position as pregnancy progresses – especially
when the fetus is perceived to be ‘viable’. In the UK Parliament,
the most frequent kind of measure proposed to reform abortion
law has been to reduce the legal time limit.
It is incorrect to assume that the need for late abortion
could be removed by expanding access to early abortion.
Most abortions in the second trimester take place for reasons
that could not have been anticipated earlier in the pregnancy.
In practice the law plays little role in preventing late
abortions. There are few requests for abortion in the later
stages of pregnancy because women do not request them and
doctors are not prepared to perform them.
On abortion for fetal abnormality....
In 1967, when abortion was made legal in the UK, fetal abnormality
was construed a 'good' reason for abortion. Today the opposite
seems the case. This kind of abortion is now considered
at best ethically difficult, at worst a manifestation of
Abortion for abnormality does not encourage discrimination
against disabled people. It is possible to make a judgement
or express an attitude towards a particular condition, without
in any way imputing an attitude towards the value of people
who suffer from that condition.
A woman who opts for this kind of abortion is not making
a social or political statement about the abnormality, or
about born people with that disability. She is making a
statement about herself; what she feels she can cope with
and what she wants.
On the 'health risks' of
The recent Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
guideline, The Care of Women Requesting Induced Abortion
(1), provides evidence based on systematic literature
reviews that abortion cannot be considered a serious risk
to women's physical or mental health.
Claims by opponents of abortion that abortion leads to breast
cancer, future infertility, or mental ill-health can be
understood as a political strategy, not an objective evaluation
of the likely effects of abortion for a woman's health.
For basic facts and statistics
on abortion, refer to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service
Further comment about the
issues discussed in this paper can be found on the following
(research papers and comment)
(facts/statistics and comment)
(policy and research papers)
1. Abortion is a fact
These days, abortion has
an accepted place in fertility regulation. It is a method
of family planning, in the sense that women use abortion
to control whether or when they have children.
Women may not intend to
rely on abortion as a means of family planning, but in reality
that is often the way it works out. Women today expect
to have control over their fertility and are expected
to control their fertility. The need for ‘family planning’
is almost universally accepted even among the most conservative
But the evidence shows that
women cannot manage their fertility by means of contraception
alone. Contraception fails, and couples sometimes fail to
use it effectively (2). A recent survey of more than 2,000
women requesting abortion at clinics run by BPAS, Britain's
largest specialist abortion provider, found that almost
60 per cent claimed to have been using contraception at
the time they became pregnant, and nearly 20 per cent said
they were on the pill. Other studies have shown similar
The number of women who
claim they experienced a split or slipped condom, or missed
just a couple of pills, is undoubtedly inflated. Unprotected
sex is stigmatised and some women requesting abortion may
falsely claim to have used contraception, believing that
they will be treated more sympathetically if the pregnancy
is ‘not their fault’. But even so, it is clear that contraceptives
let couples down.
All methods of contraception
have a recognised failure rate (4). Whether the pregnancy
occurred because the condom split or because the couple
failed to get it out of the packet is not very important.
The simple truth is that the tens of thousands of women
who seek abortion each year are not ignorant of contraception
– most have tried to use it and, indeed, may have used it
and become pregnant regardless.
Women’s need for abortion
is implicitly understood by policy makers and legislators.
This is why abortion is provided at NHS hospitals throughout
the country. Most societies hold that women should expect,
and be expected, to make a broader contribution to society
than bearing and caring for the next generation. Motherhood
is still regarded as ‘natural’ at some time in a woman’s
life, but most people assume that motherhood will be an
interval sandwiched on both sides by an income-generating
‘job’ if not a ‘career’. Girls from appropriate (middle
class) backgrounds are expected to progress to a university
Society currently places
a high premium on ‘planned parenthood’. The belief
prevails that children should be wanted, that parents should
be able to support them, and be willing to make sacrifices
for them. Growing social concern about ‘unfit’ or ‘problem’
parents does not easily co-exist with a disposition to force
people to bear children they do not want and by their own
admission cannot care for. This ethos creates a framework
whereby abortion can in some circumstances be perceived
as a ‘responsible choice’ even by social conservatives who
would disapprove of abortion in principle.
Surveys of public opinion
suggest widespread tolerance of legal abortion. A national
opinion poll carried out three years ago by the UK’s main
polling agency MORI found that 64 per cent of those asked
agreed that: abortion should be legally available to all
who want it. 25 per cent disagreed. The remainder neither
agreed nor disagreed or said they did not know. The proportion
of those who agreed had increased by 10 per cent since 1980
(5). Birth Control Trust, for whom the poll was commissioned,
suggested that this demonstrated a growing acceptance of
legal abortion and a widespread belief that belief that
the law should not be used to prevent women ending pregnancies.
Women today are at particular
risk of unplanned pregnancy. Sex is an accepted part of
an adult relationship for which we do not expect to suffer
unwanted consequences. Pregnancy is seen by an increasing
number of women as an unwanted consequence that they are
not prepared to adapt to. The fact that more women are delaying
starting a family until they are in their thirties, that
many are deciding to opt out of parenthood altogether, suggests
increased numbers of sexually active women who do not want
a child. Is it any wonder then that the number of abortions
A relatively high abortion
rate is not necessarily a sign of the failure of sex education
and family planning programmes. It may be a symptom of a
society where women wish to combine a sex life with ambition.
Of course it is preferable for unwanted pregnancies to be
prevented rather than ended. Abortion is safe, but contraception
is safer and more convenient. Nevertheless, today abortion
is an essential method of family planning and should be
accepted it as such.