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Abortion services

Marie Stopes International lets women down
By Ellie Lee
April 03, 2005

It seems that abortion provider Marie Stopes International has bowed to media pressure and caved in on upholding the case for women's access to abortion. According to the following article in the Sunday Times (see below), the MSI Chief Executive Tim Black is now arguing that abortion should only be legal up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

All of the reasons he gives for this change of policy were shown to be unfounded at a meeting held at the House of Commons in January 2005 addressed by leading medical and scientific experts. (The discussion at the meeting can be listened to here: http://www.prochoiceforum.org.uk/la_meeting.php A Briefing to which those who spoke at the meeting contributed can be accessed here: http://www.prochoiceforum.org.uk/publications.php)

1. There are no 'medical developments' that justify a reduced upper time limit to 20 weeks. Fetal viability has not been significantly reduced since 1990. The inability of the fetal lungs to expand, and to permit oxygen transfer, prevents survival before 22-23 weeks and cannot be overcome with the technology currently available. Statistics from the EPIcure, this show that infants born in Great Britain and Ireland have survival rates of 0% at 21 weeks, and about 1% at 22 weeks, 11% at 23 weeks and 26% at 24 weeks. It is not only women seeking abortion who suffer when the truth about fetal viability is misrepresented. So do those who give birth prematurely, since they are given inflated expectations of likely outcomes.

2. There is no scientific evidence to show that the fetus can experience emotion (for example pain or happiness). One of Britain's leading experts on the subject of pain Professor Maria Fitzgerald has stated that 'true pain experience [develops] postnatally along with memory, anxiety and other cognitive brain functions', and opinion she strongly re-articulated at the meeting referred to above.

3. It is wrong to argue that a reduction in the upper time limit to 20 weeks, accompanied by 'abortion on request' to 12 weeks is a 'reasonable compromise'. Women can already get early abortion more easily than ever under the existing law and there is no reason why service modifications could not make this easier still. On the other hand, women who have abortions later on in pregnancy do so mostly because they do not seek abortion earlier. The fact is that a change in the law will penalise these women and force them to bear children they do not want to have.

The proposal for a reduction to 20 weeks has been presented entirely dishonestly by MSI. The truth is that there are no medical or ethical reasons for making late abortion illegal but the effect of the legal change proposed by Black will be that each year about 2, 500 British women are denied the right to control their fertility. There may be other reasons for MSI not wanting to provide a late abortion service than those Tim Black has stated so far. But it is shameful that an organisation that purports to be at the forefront of defending reproductive choice and providing good medical services has presented its change of policy in the way it has.

Abortion clinics back cut to a 20-week limit
Sarah-Kate Templeton

BRITAIN'S largest provider of abortions outside the National Health Service has changed its policy to back a lowering of the legal limit at which pregnancies may be terminated for non- medical reasons.

Marie Stopes International, which carries out 60,000 abortions a year at its nine clinics in Britain, says the 24-week limit ought to lowered to 20 weeks because of evidence that the foetus is "potentially viable" before 24 weeks.

This shift in policy leaves opponents to a reduction in the time limit, who include Tony Blair and many Labour MPs, increasingly isolated.

In altering its stance Marie Stopes has followed Lord Steel, the former Liberal Democrat leader and architect of Britain's abortion law in 1967, who now believes the limit should be reduced. Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, has made abortion an election issue by calling for a reduction from 24 to 20 weeks.

Marie Stopes says it will now back such a change as part of a compromise deal if the reform also included making abortion more easily available for non-medical reasons in the earliest stages of pregnancy up to 12 weeks.

Dr Tim Black, chief executive of Marie Stopes International, said: "Public opinion is in favour of abortion but falls off quite quickly when we get to 20 weeks because there is a perception that the foetus is potentially viable. We do feel that in light of medical developments the upper limit should come down."

Opinion began to shift last year towards a change in the law when three-dimensional ultrasound images were published that showed a baby making a walking-like movement in the womb 12 weeks into pregnancy, thumb-sucking and yawning at 14 weeks and opening its eyes at 18 weeks. In addition medical advances mean premature babies born at 23 weeks - or, on a few occasions, 22 weeks - can now survive.

As part of any reform, however, Marie Stopes would also want women to be eligible for abortions up to 12 weeks without having to gain permission from doctors - two must now give their written consent for the procedure. It says women seeking a termination between 13 and 20 weeks should have the signature of one doctor.

Black added: "If we brought the limit down to 20 weeks but made abortion more readily available up to 12 weeks, we believe that would be a reasonable compromise."

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