It started with the Cosmopolitan interviews - all three party leaders expressed personal unease over the abortion issue, but Michael Howard went one step further by stating that the time limit on abortions should be cut from 24 to 20 weeks, and that the current law allows what is 'tantamount to abortion on demand'.
The current debate over abortion may not become an election issue, as almost 80 percent of the British public are pro-choice. Britain is largely more secular than the US, where abortion was an election issue last year and some doctors and nurses work in abortion clinics fearing for the lives. But that does not mean that we do not need to be vigilant about defending what is already one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The anti-choice lobby, like the pro-hunt lobby, are disproportionately advantaged in terms of wealth, privilege and political influence. We cannot afford to let them play politics with women's lives.
One in three women has an abortion in her lifetime, but British women face serious obstacles and delays in accessing abortions. A quarter of women having abortions in England and Wales have to pay for them, and there are no public funds available to help poorer women in these circumstances. The Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, where women have to pay and travel to have abortions abroad. It has always been working class women who have suffered the most from restrictions on abortion.
More needs to be said in the current debate about the need to improve access and NHS service provision, which would make a real difference to many women's lives. The focus instead has been on late abortions, when only 0.6 percent of abortions take place between 22 and 24 weeks. Those who do have late abortions are among the most vulnerable in society, and need to be defended. Ann Furedi, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) charity, says that women usually request them because their circumstances have changed in drastic ways by factors such as the discovery of foetal abnormality, the break-up of a relationship, or a very late detection of pregnancy.
It is already very difficult to get a late abortion - few doctors are willing to perform them even though they are only legal when a woman's right or health is at risk, or if there is a substantial chance that the child would be born with severe disabilities. BPAS has to perform 78 percent of post 20 week abortions.
As for the 'advances in science' argument - two thirds of the tiny minority of babies that survive outside the womb at 23 weeks suffer severe disability. We all know that a foetus is a potential life, and is developing functions that allows them to move and operate as human beings in the future. But this doesn't mean that women should be forced to give birth to children they do not want, demeaning their rights to the extent to which they become considered mere vessels for a potential child by law. The human rights implications of this, and the social and psychological implications, are huge.
The public debate has been hijacked by arguments that seem more concerned about foetuses than the rights of the adult women carrying them. The key argument and one of the central demands of the women's movement is that it is the woman's right to choose. The women at the centre of the debate, the ones who make the choice, are those most able to judge their own circumstances. Also, the right to abortion is part of the wider argument about the rights of women to control all aspects of their lives.
The key is also to improve sex education and the provision of contraception - countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland have low abortion rates while also having more liberal abortion laws than Britain because they have made these issues a priority. We need to be arguing for better services, and a law that really does allow women the right to abortion on request - which, contrary to what Michael Howard thinks, is not what we have now.
Thanks to New Humanist magazine and Abortion Rights.