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Opinion, Comment & Reviews
Abortion law

Why abortion law matters
By Ellie Lee
October 23, 2002

It is 35 years this week since Parliament passed the 1967 Abortion Act. The context in which discussion of that Act takes place today is very different to the past. Through the 1970s and 1980s the law was the subject of regular and often heated Parliamentary debate and outside Parliament campaigners both for and against abortion ensured the issue remained visible. Today, in contrast, politicians are now very reluctant to revisit the issue. All parties deem it an issue best left outside politics (for more discussion of this point, see Abortion: Whose Right? Hodder & Stoughton 2002). And perhaps because of this lack of interest in the political sphere it seems unlikely that this anniversary will see campaigners take to the street. The anti-abortion lobby may organize its predictable "Chains for Life" events, but in practice they have moved on to focus on other issues. They likely believe "designer babies" and cloning are issues where they might get more support than abortion. Debate on abortion is notable for its absence.

It is understandable why Parliamentary debate about the abortion issue appears best avoided. The issue polarises opinion and is considered a potential vote loser as a result. Yet there are good reasons to want debate to take place both inside and outside Parliament.

The terms on which abortion is legal in Britain mean that it is medical opinion rather than moral principle that matters most. Abortion is legal up to 24 weeks where two doctors agree it is necessary in order to preserve the physical and mental health of the woman concerned, and theoretically at any point in pregnancy where there is risk to the woman's life, or of substantial risk of severe abnormality in the fetus. Those who support the provision of abortion argue that this kind of law creates practical problems for women. While the medical profession is more supportive of abortion than in past, there are still doctors who make life difficult for abortion seeking women. NHS funding is now often available -- in 75 per cent of cases on average -- but some women have to pay. And it is certainly the case that later in pregnancy women experience considerable difficulties. There are few doctors who are prepared to perform abortion after 15 or 16 weeks, and in many areas few who will terminate post-12 week pregnancies. It is therefore unsurprising that a Marie Stopes survey to coincide with the Abortion Act anniversary found one in three women believe the legal cut-off point is just 12 weeks not 24. Their experience matches the reality of the law in practice, and must mean those women who for many reasons -- relationship breakdown, change of circumstance and simply not realizing they were pregnant -- need "late" abortions are ill-served presently (visit www.mariestopes.org.uk/uk/press/press-uk-221002.php for more on this survey).

But there are broader reasons for considering this kind of law problematic. The fact the law does not take into account the idea that the pregnant individual is best placed to decide on the course of her private life -- namely whether to have a child or not -- means the law does not take seriously the issue of autonomy. The notion that individuals should be deemed morally competent to make private decisions of this nature can be viewed as an important one for a mature and democratic society to embrace. If British society did so it would not mean, of course, that women would cease to consult their doctors about their decisions. But there would be recognition of their moral competence to make choices about their lives and futures. Even those who disagree with this principle might concede that the issue needs to be seriously debated -- if only to win the argument that it should be rejected. Yet this debate has just never happened in British politics.

Unfortunately, through the 1970s and 1980s the argument for reproductive autonomy was studiously avoided by erstwhile Parliamentary supporters of women's choice. Instead women were deemed "deserving" of abortion because abortion is "a decision women agonise about", "a difficult and traumatic decision" and "not a legitimate form of contraception…a desperate measure for desperate situations" (see the 1990 debate about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill). In sum, abortion was justified in terms that writer Janet Hadley has called the "awfulization" of abortion. While this strategy succeeded in defeating opponents of abortion in Parliament it did so at significant cost. The debate was never had about principles that might underpin laws that draw lines about what are private decisions, and those in which others should "have a say". While politicians have always been able to vote on abortion bills "according to their individual conscience" this means that unfortunately women have not been able to decide whether to have an abortion in the light of such respect for their personal views.

The consequence of the issue of public and private never being properly resolved in regard to abortion has also problematically spilled over into current debates about other issues. The confusing and endless debates about "designer babies" and developments in reproductive technology generally indicate this clearly. Pragmatism in the abortion debate has bred incoherence in the debates about these issues too. The day we become prepared to think in a principled and coherent, rather than a pragmatic and piecemeal, way about the role of the State and its regulatory bodies in drawing lines about the public and the private cannot come too soon.


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